Dodge Grand Caravan and the similar but more luxurious Chrysler Town & Country are the most popular minivans, accounting for nearly half the U.S. market.
For 2015, a new Grand Caravan SE Plus model features 17-inch Satin Carbon aluminum wheels, heated mirrors, silver accent stitching and piano black interior accents. Also introduced for 2015, Grand Caravan SXT Plus includes power sliding doors, a power liftgate, chrome roof rack, foglamps, automatic headlamps, and black leatherette seats. Both are actually option groups. The Blacktop Package, introduced for 2014, remains available. Today’s Grand Caravan is a fifth-generation product launched as a 2008 model. It was revised for 2011, but little has changed since.
Grand Caravan rides smoothly and does not wallow and float. It is a large vehicle, however, and it can be a beast to handle in tight quarters. Grand Caravan, Toyota Sienna, Nissan Quest, and Honda Odyssey are all roughly the same size: extra large.
Power is provided by Chrysler’s 3.6-liter V6 mated to a mediocre 6-speed automatic transmission, resulting in a combination that delivers barely adequate response.
The interior is attractive, with soft-touch door tops, boldly contemporary gauges, and some nice bits of trim, but hard plastic dominates the dashboard as is typical for the class. The seats are comfortable. Entertainment features include hard-drive radios, SiriusXM satellite radio, video entertainment, a wireless cell phone link, and a mobile internet hot spot.
Super Stow ‘n Go second-row seats fold into the floor, offering useful cargo space with those seats up or down. Third-row seats fold into the well behind them. With all seats down, Grand Caravan can accept a 4×8 sheet of plywood.
Though dated, Dodge Grand Caravan looks crisp and tidy but not boxy. Up front is a curvy, almost car-like fascia with mesh inserts above and below the main bumper. Filling the upper grille are the trademark Dodge crosshairs, finished in matte black with a chrome outline; except on the R/T, where the chrome parts are replaced with body color.
Rear-end styling is more clever than conspicuous. On each side, the rear roof pillar unites with the taillight cluster to form a single surface, which then bulges out just slightly to become the rear bumper and step plate before retreating back up to the roof via the taillight on the opposite side of the van. Recessed into this gentle U-shape is a subtly convex liftgate, integrating a body-color roof spoiler.
Seventeen-inch tires on steel wheels are standard on lower-level models, but we think the available 17-inch aluminum alloy wheels look better.
Still, a minivan shape does not lend itself to artistic sculpture. A description of the overall shape of this current generation of the Dodge Grand Caravan wouldn’t sound too much different from a description of the 1984 model, with some gentle curves added. There is a big box behind, where all the people and cargo fit, and a smaller box in front, for the engine. That very efficient outline defines every minivan on the road.
All the leading minivans, including Toyota Sienna, Honda Odyssey, Nissan Quest and Chrysler Town & Country, measure within an inch or two of the Grand Caravan in overall dimensions. They’re all big, and with a 202.8-inch overall length and a 121.2-inch wheelbase, the Chrysler vans are the biggest of the bunch.
These so-called minivans are quite large. However, they share their basic architecture with cars, using unit-body structures and front-wheel drive platforms, with the engine mounted transversely. Conversely, bigger-yet full-size vans, such as the Chevrolet Express, are built on truck platforms, with body-on-frame structures, rear-wheel-drive platforms and giant, longitudinally mounted V8 engines. Minivans are lighter, more fuel-efficient and offer more responsive handling than the full-size vans.
Grand Caravan boasts a rich and inviting interior, characterized by strong, decisive lines and shapes and thankfully free of visual gimmicks.
The dashboard is hard plastic, but that’s the norm for this class. The look and feel is that of a flowing, one-piece design. Door tops are padded, adding a touch of comfort, and both the standard-level cloth upholstery and the R/T-grade leather have a look of quality.
Instrumentation consists of black dials offset by blue-tinted graphics and chrome trim. Big divisions let you read each 5-mph increment on the speedometer. The shift lever sticks out just to the left of the center stack, an efficient location.
The handsome, three-spoke steering wheel incorporates trip computer, phone, audio, cruise control, and, when ordered, navigation controls. It telescopes as well as tilts, even with the basic American Value Package, allowing more drivers to find an ideal seating position. The optional heated steering wheel is nice on cold winter mornings.
The sloped A-pillars allow good visibility, but the long hood means the driver sits back a bit from the front bumper, so it’s a little hard to gauge the distance when parking.
Center consoles come in three grades (or four, if you count the open storage bin in the AVP). SE has a removable console with four cup holders. Optional on SXT is a Premium console, also removable, which slides fore and aft for use by either the front or rear passengers. Standard issue on SXT and R/T is a Super Console with capabilities between basic and Premium.
Grand Caravan is designed well for hauling youngsters, with some thoughtful features. Among them is the convex conversation mirror, which is handy for talking to those in the rear seats without having to turn around. We like this clever little feature, which has been around for some time.
The DVD entertainment system is 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 it works; the screen drops down from the ceiling and the viewing begins. Video can be shown on the front touch-screen when the transmission is in Park. It comes with wireless headphones for rear seat passengers and has jacks to plug in video game systems. 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.
Late in the 2013 model year, the Grand Caravan introduced an industry-first Blu-Ray DVD video system on upper models. Blu-Ray discs offer four times the definition of conventional DVDs. The dual-screen system designed for the Grand Caravan features a High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) input for video game systems, a 115-volt power outlet, and two USB ports so customers can charge their cell phones, laptops, tablet PCs or MP3 players. The Blu-Ray player can play both standard DVDs and Blu-Ray discs.
Two Uconnect systems are available for upper models, and we like both. Each comes with a 6.5-inch touchscreen. The base version has a 30-gigabyte hard-drive that can hold about 6,700 music files. Another version has an integrated Garmin navigation system that works just fine but has cartoonish graphics. It also has a 30-gigabyte hard-drive, but it can hold about 4,250 songs because some of the space is used for Navigation map information.
With either of the systems offered, songs can be ripped from CDs, and music and pictures can 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. For further connectivity, Uconnect Web, a mobile wi-fi router, is offered as a Mopar accessory.
The second-row bucket seats are stationary, but the back folds forward and the seat tips up to allow access to the third row, all with the pull of a lever. Open the bins in the floor and you can then push the seats into them.
This system, called Super Stow ‘n Go, works superbly well. For a fairly simple invention, it’s a masterpiece. To test it, we hauled a couch. 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 unloaded the kids, then went to 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.
Only the base AVP version gets a second-row bench seat that reclines, folds, and is removable for added cargo room. It does not fold into the floor, but still comes with the concealed, under-floor storage bins that are normally part of the Super Stow ‘n Go system. The bins can keep valuables out of sight while the van is parked. Second row Super Stow ‘n Go seats can be added to the AVP as an option.
Standard on all Grand Caravan models is a 60/40 split-folding third-row seat that also folds flat into the floor. This third-row seat will fit three kids or two adults. It’s as useful and comfortable as most competitors’. While the overall interior volume in the Grand Caravan isn’t class-leading, it’s close, yielding a whopping 143.8 cubic feet of space with all the seats folded down. The competition offers more legroom, but all of these minivans are big inside and the Grand Caravan is comfortable for kids.
The step from SE to SXT is about $3,000, but it may be well worth it just for the convenience of not having to physically slide your minivan’s side doors open or closed (there are two of them, by the way), or lift the liftgate. The SXT should offer better resale value, also. Minivan owners tend to have full, busy lives, and small conveniences such as a power tailgate that rises as you walk up with your arms full can be worth a lot. The buttons are located on the headliner between the front seats, and using them imparts a wonderful sense of ease and convenience.
The 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 those efforts show.
Minivans tend to generate pages of notes on the interior, but little on driving impressions. The Dodge Grand Caravan is a transporting machine, not a driving one. That said, beginning with the 2011 model, Dodge made several changes to help rectify that deficiency.
The basic layout hasn’t changed: The rear end is still supported by coil springs and a twist-beam axle steadied by a track bar. In other words, it’s not an independent rear suspension, so it’s not as sophisticated as the setups in some rivals, particularly the sporty Honda Odyssey. (A Trailer Tow Package includes self-leveling rear shock absorbers.)
As a result, the latest Grand Caravans are more controlled than the ones Dodge built just a few years ago. The van still leans a bit in turns, but acceptably so, and it gathers itself quicker to head back in the opposite direction. It no longer feels like you’re at the helm of a ship.
While drivers will feel road imperfections, the ride is still quite supple and a Grand Caravan won’t jostle you or the kids over anything but the worst bumps. Better yet, the float and wallow that was too evident on earlier models is now long gone. So is the copious lean, so passengers’ heads won’t be tossed about with every flick of the steering wheel, stab of the throttle or push on the brakes.
The 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 delivers 283 horsepower. Fuel economy is an EPA-estimated 17/25 mpg City/Highway, or 20 mpg in Combined city and highway driving. With E85 fuel, efficiency falls off to an ethanol-guzzling 12/18 mpg, according to the federal government, which subsidizes and mandates this inefficient fuel.
The 3.6-liter V6 is competitive with the other V6s in the class. It’s smooth and quiet, offering decent punch from a stop and enough in reserve for passing. Add the towing package, and the V6 packs enough grunt to pull 3600 pounds. However, it doesn’t feel as powerful as the 283-horsepower figure would suggest. This same engine feels stronger in the Jeep Grand Cherokee, which is based on rear-wheel drive.
We were disappointed with the 6-speed automatic transmission, which doesn’t seem to communicate well with the engine or react well to the driver’s right foot. That may be because it’s tuned for fuel economy and producing good EPA numbers, rather than responsiveness. We’d prefer a better balance of power and efficiency. There’s also a button to push for an even more fuel-efficient operating mode. Obviously, that only exacerbates the situation.
A couple of safety options are worthy of note. The 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 seatbelt chime. We found it worked well, but like similar systems offered by other manufacturers, it can sometimes give false readings. We’ve never seen one of these systems not detect a car that was there, however. But we think it’s still important to look before you change lanes. The blind-spot system is an additional aid, not a replacement for awareness.
The 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, such as pedestrians, so it’s still important to proceed slowly. It does, however, detect vehicles up to 65 feet 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. So, stationary and very slow-moving vehicles probably won’t register. We like this system. It works well and is a useful aid in crowded parking lots.
The Dodge Grand Caravan offers amazing versatility, with one of the most convenient cabins in its class. The flexible seating, abundance of storage space, and impressive entertainment options can make life easier for busy owners. Add to that ride and handling characteristics that have greatly improved in recent years, and it’s no wonder that the Grand Caravan is America’s favorite minivan.
Sam Moses reported from the Columbia River Gorge, with NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Kirk Bell reporting from Chicago, and John F. Katz from south central Pennsylvania.