The Dodge Grand Caravan is still fresh from a complete redesign for 2008, and for 2009 the Grand Caravan gets more safety features.
The Grand Caravan is all about transporting people comfortably and safely, while keeping them entertained. Its designers focused on interior creature comforts, and they succeeded. As part of that focus, Dodge has made its Stow 'n Go seating standard. Stow 'n Go has bins behind the first row that can be used to fold the second-row seats into the floor. When the seats are up, the bins can accommodate toys, games and other cargo.
You can get Swivel 'n Go seating with second-row chairs that swivel to the rear and a table that pops up between those buckets and the third-row bench. You can get a video system with one or two rear screens, wireless headphones, and remote control. You can plug in your laptop. You can press buttons on the ceiling and watch in awe, or amusement, as the side doors and liftgate flip open and closed. You can download you music to a hard-drive radio. Or you can fold down all the seats, and haul a stack of plywood or a load of hay.
The Grand Caravan's suspension delivers a nice, smooth ride, though it can sometimes wallow. It's more about comfort and safety than carlike precision. Electronic stability control is standard, and the Grand Caravan has performed well in government crash tests. The handling is a bit cumbersome, not surprising given the Grand Caravan's size. It doesn't go around corners as well as the Honda Odyssey and Nissan Quest do. It leans in hard turns, so drivers will have to be careful not to upset whatever activities are going on in back.
Three V6 engines are available, including a 4.0-liter 250-horsepower V6 added for 2008. We found the base 3.3-liter engine can struggle with freeway on-ramps. The 3.8-liter engine is acceptable, though we prefer the 4.0-liter V6 introduced for 2008. The top engines from Toyota, Nissan and Honda offer more power and response.
But a minivan isn't about speed and handling. The Grand Caravan's unique cargo and entertainment features give it a competitive advantage in the minivan class. Families will like it, especially because those entertainment features will make for peaceful family trips.
A minivan is not a stone that lends itself to sculpture. A description of the overall shape of this newest generation of the Dodge Grand Caravan wouldn't sound too much different from a description of the 1982 model. People don't buy minivans so others will look and say, “That's the new minivan. Some styling!”
The Dodge Grand Caravan is boxy, but it's attractive in an SUV kind of way. The hood is less fairly flat, and it bears character lines. The grille is very upright, making the Dodge crosshair grille look like that of a Dodge truck, especially in chrome. Just the thing to encourage that pokey driver in front of you to get out of the way.
Sixteen-inch wheels are standard. They're boring looking, but the optional five-spoke 17s look better.
Dodge now offers only the long-wheelbase Grand Caravan. The short wheelbase Caravan was dropped with the 2008 redesign. All of them are now Grand.
The Grand Caravan is the second largest minivan on the market, smaller than only the Nissan Quest. These comparisons are relatively unimportant, however, because the other minivans are within an inch or two of the Grand Caravan in both wheelbase and overall length. The Grand Caravan is a big vehicle, with a 202.5-inch overall length and a 121.2-inch wheelbase.
The Dodge Grand Caravan leads the minivan field when it comes to interior convenience, capability and versatility. Chrysler has been working to give its minivans a competitive advantage in these areas for a long time, and they haven't been afraid to be creative.
The interior materials are lackluster, however. Hollow hard plastic dominates the dash and door panels. Everything fits together well, but it doesn't make for a luxurious look and feel. Yet options quickly add to the price.
Our Grand Caravan SE came with stain-resistant fabric for the seats, designed for the soccer-mom lifestyle. We quite liked the look and feel. The black vinyl trim and satin aluminum-look plastic didn't look rich, but nor was it ugly. These fabrics can be easy to clean, however, dog hair still has a way of sticking into them, so those who haul canines are probably better off with leather.
The Grand Caravan is designed well for hauling youngsters with some thoughtful features. Among them is the convex “conversation mirror,” which might also be called the “looking at your kids while you're yelling at them without having to turn around mirror. We like this feature.
We had six 10-year-old soccer players test the Grand Caravan's video player during a 90-minute drive to the game, and they liked it. The DVD was a snap to play, which is important because some of them, even those in much more expensive vehicles, are not easy to use. Plug in the DVD, press Play, and you have a miracle: It works. The screen drops down from the ceiling and the viewing begins. It comes with wireless headphones. It has jacks to plug in video game systems. It's available with Sirius Backseat TV, which comes with three kid-friendly channels: Disney Channel, Cartoon Network, and Nickelodeon. When the DVD screen is deployed, the driver loses some visibility in the rearview mirror so more attention needs to be paid to the side mirrors.
The dual-DVD entertainment system is even more impressive. With the two-screen system, third-row passengers can watch one thing and second-row passengers can watch (or play) another. Plus, video can be shown on the front touchscreen (which comes with both UConnect Tunes and UConnect GPS) when the vehicle is in Park, for viewing by the driver and front-seat passenger.
We liked the UConnect systems, as well. Both come with a hard-drive radio with 30 gigabytes of storage space to hold music and picture files. UConnect GPS adds a navigation system with voice activation and real-time traffic provided by Sirius. Songs can be ripped from CDs, and music and pictures can also be downloaded from thumb drives via a standard USB port. The hard drive is a great way to have ready access to your music collection without toting around a bunch of CDs.
The Grand Caravan's second-row bucket seats slide rearward to ease access to the third row, so there's less fighting and yelling about stepped-on feet. Or they flop forward with one lever. Don't get your foot caught on the seatbelt or you might end up face-down on the rear bench. You will want the available LED pinpoint lighting for back there, for your children to read by so they don't fight or bug you while you're driving.
Stow 'n Go works superbly well. For a fairly simple invention, it's a masterpiece. In just a minute or so, and without having to refer to the manual, we dropped the second- and third-row seats flat into the floor. We put them away manually, though a power option is available for the third-row bench. We unloaded the kids, then stopped at the furniture store to pick up a long leather couch. We converted the Grand Caravan from soccer bus to cargo van in 60 seconds, and easily carted the couch home.
The Swivel 'n Go seating option is another great development from Chrysler. It comes with second-row seats that rotate 180 degrees and a stowable table that fits between the second and third rows. The seats are easy to turn (once you figure them out), and the table stows away easy enough. Best of all, if you have kids that can get along (at least for a while), they can play games on road trips.
The overall interior volume in the Grand Caravan isn't class-leading, the competition offers more legroom, but all of these minivans are big inside and the Grand Caravan is comfortable for kids. Both rear rows are big enough for adults.
Up front, the instrumentation is good, black on light gray lettering, with big divisions so you can read each 5 mph. Our option package included a digital information display (it showed an average of 19.1 miles per gallon for one week of city and highway driving), but the button to change the information is in a terrible position, most easily (but treacherously) reached by your left hand through the three-spoke leather steering wheel. Otherwise you have to lean forward, reach around the wiper stalk, and fumble for it, which isn't a whole lot safer. Other information includes distance to empty (about 400 miles on a tank of gas), compass, outside temperature, and estimated time to destination.
A leather-wrapped shift lever sticks out just to the left of the center stack, an efficient location. The automatic transmission offers a manual-shift feature allowing the driver more control. There isn't much need for manual shifting with this relaxed cruiser of a vehicle, but the sturdy, well-placed lever may encourage this in certain situations.
The sloped A-pillars allow good visibility, but the longer hood in the redesigned Grand Caravan means the driver sits back a bit farther from the front bumper, so it's harder to gauge when parking.
The center console is removable, which is good; but when it's fully attached it feels loose. We lost count of all the storage cubbies and cupholders. Dodge has outdone itself in this area. The driver and front-seat passenger can each drink four drinks at once (or store empties). Front-seat occupants will never be lacking for a place to put stuff of all sizes and shapes. We're talking bins under the second-row seats, compartments in the floor, and an umbrella holder.
Fifteen hundred dollars is a lot to spend for the convenience of not having to physically slide your minivan's side doors (there are two of them, by the way), or lift the liftgate, but it might be worth it, maybe especially the liftgate. Minivan owners tend to have full, busy lives, and small conveniences like having the power tailgate raise as you walk up with your arms full can be worth a million bucks. The buttons are located on the headliner between the front seats, and using them imparts a wonderful sense of power. It makes you look cool to your kids, too. Everything is controlled by you. Your assault vehicle awaits your command.
Minivans tend to generate pages of notes on the interior but little driving impressions. The Dodge Grand Caravan is a transporting machine, not a driving one. The main thing is, on the road, it's safe and stable. Electronic stability control is standard, and it activates fairly early, minimizing wheelspin and reducing the chance of a spin.
Our SE had the smallest of the three engines, the 3.3-liter V6 making 175 horsepower at 5000 rpm and 205 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. For the way we drove it during our week, which we believe is the way most Grand Caravan owners drive, it offered enough acceleration and speed, though it struggled to merge with freeway traffic. The 3.3-liter can be fueled with E85, an ethanol mix.
The 3.3-liter engine comes with a four-speed automatic transmission with overdrive. We found it shifted smoothly and wasn't overworked by our suburban demands. Theoretically, more speeds than four is better, but it depends on the programming; in some cases, more speeds means more snatches or rough spots. In any case, we found the four-speed automatic worked well and did not hunt for gears.
Theoretically, a manual mode allows smoother transitions because the driver can choose when he or she wants to shift. Our four-speed had Dodge's AutoStick manual shift capability, controlled by reaching toward the center stack and notching the shift lever from side to side. But we found little need or occasion to use it, because minivan driving occasions demand less sporty performance. However, with more miles and more demands, we might change our tune. Chrysler invented the manual mode about 10 years ago, and it's good to have. Holding a gear in hilly terrain or sluggish traffic or in tight quarters is sometimes advantageous.
The SXT offers higher performance with its 3.8-liter V6 making 197 horsepower or the aluminum overhead-cam 4.0-liter V6 making a big 250 hp. These engines only get one less mile per gallon than the 3.3-liter, so they should be seriously considered. All of these engines run on 87 octane Regular gas, a nice advantage over engines that demand more-expensive Premium. The 3.8-liter and 4.0-liter engines use a six-speed transaxle, compared to the four-speed in the 3.3-liter.
During our test drives of SXT models with the 3.8-liter and 4.0-liter engines we found that 3.8-liter offers more useable power than the 3.3, but we'd recommend the 4.0. The 4.0-liter engine is close in power to the best engines offered by Honda, Nissan, and Toyota. The six-speed transmission that comes with the larger V6s can sometimes hunt for gears, but it helps both of these larger engines get decent fuel economy.
Suspension-wise, the Grand Caravan has rear coil springs and a twist-beam rear axle with a track bar. (A Trailer Tow Package includes self-leveling shock absorbers.) In other words, it's not an independent rear suspension. Despite being less sophisticated than other minivans, the ride is good. Our SE didn't bounce or strike any notes of discomfort, during three hours with six kids in the back, and more hours driving alone over freeway and city streets. The only demerit is a bit of wallow at speed.
Handling, on the other hand, isn't impressive. The Grand Caravan is large and it handles like a large vehicle. It leans a lot in turns and takes awhile to react to changes of direction. The Honda Odyssey and Nissan Quest are more carlike on the road.
The brakes are plenty big, though a braking test conducted by Car and Driver magazine suggested the Grand Caravan doesn't offer the shortest braking distances.
We've tested Dodge's two new safety systems for 2009. The new Blind Spot Monitoring system uses radar sensors to detect vehicles in the van's blind spots and warns the driver with lights in the side mirrors or a driver-selectable chime that sounds like the seat belt chime. We found it worked well, but like similar systems offered by other manufacturers it can sometimes give false readings. It's still important to look before you change lanes.
The new Rear Cross Path system is activated when the van is in reverse. It uses radar sensors to detect vehicles crossing behind the Grand Caravan and warns the driver with lights in the side mirrors and that same chime. The system won't detect small objects, like pedestrians, so it's still important to proceed slowly. It does, however, detect vehicles up to 20 meters away, and is programmed to recognize the speed of oncoming vehicles and alert the driver only if they are traveling at a speed that could lead to an accident (in other words, stationary and very slow moving vehicles probably won't register). We like this system. It works well and is especially useful in crowded parking lots.
The Dodge Grand Caravan offers unmatched versatility. The 3.3-liter V6 with 175 horsepower is fine, while the optional 3.8-liter and 4.0-liter engines make more power with almost the same fuel mileage. The ride is smooth, but handling is decidedly minivan. It's inside where the Grand Caravan leaps high hurdles. Flexible seating, lots of storage space, good lighting, and impressive entertainment options can upgrade your lifestyle, at least while underway. In terms of versatility, the Stow 'n Go seats that disappear into the floor for carrying cargo are hard to beat.
Sam Moses filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com from the Columbia River Gorge, with correspondent Kirk Bell contributing from Chicago.