Fix + Fast
Chrysler sold more minivans in North America than everyone else combined for many years, and even after that leadership failed, they still had the largest market share — in 2004, it was 38%. The Dodge Caravan was still the best-selling minivan in America, despite copies by Chevrolet, Ford, Honda, Toyota, and Nissan. Then, in 2005, Chrysler (and Dodge) again leapfrogged the competition, by altering their existing 2001-04 minivans to have dual power doors, a power tailgate, new safety features, more power, better economy, and the biggest selling point, seats that folded flat into the floor (on long-wheelbase vans).
The Grand Caravan easily matched the feature list of any competing minivan, lacking only a full-length sunroof, while its convenience and design topped those of competitors. Even without the fancy gadgets and features, the Caravan was still a good buy, with good cornerning and feel, and a convenient size and height.
There’s more to a Grand Caravan than fancy seats and overhead racks. The V6 engines racked up a history of reliability. None of the engines were too slow, overall, with the 3.3 V6 standard on long wheelbase vans and the 150-horse, 2.4 four standard on short-wheelbase versions. The four lowered the price, but did little for fuel economy.
For our test drive, Dodge provided us with the big 3.8 liter V6, which is essentially a long-stroke 3.3. The result is slightly lower mileage, but more low-end torque and higher horsepower. It provided good acceleration in just about every range, aided by the automatic’s quick but gentle downshifting. The 3.8 is quiet at idle and under hard acceleration alike, with an unusual level of refinement aided by the smooth, responsive transmission. (We later purchased a 2006 Chrysler, oddly not as well equipped as the 2005 Dodge loaner, but it too had the 3.8 engine.)
Our van started with under 500 miles, before the engine had fully broken in, and we kept it for about 700 miles. Highway mileage climbed from 23 mpg (it’s roughly the size of a Chevy Suburban) to around 25 mpg, and power seemed to be climbing too. (EPA estimates are 18 city, 25 highway.) Our 2006 seemed to top out at 25 mpg on the highway, generally, with 24 mpg being about right for “fast highway speeds” in more traffic than our Virginia trip. City mileage ranged around 16-19 mpg depending on weather and the length of trips, on the low side of the EPA estimates.
After a gentle break-in, we took the van up Skyline Drive in Virginia, and it always had enough power to make the ride enjoyable. Passing uphill with a heavy load (two adults, two children, and baggage for a week) was easy and quick, thanks to the 3.8’s torque and the transmission’s quick and smooth downshifting. We never seemed to be straining. This continued in our personal minivan; though we somemtimes wished for better acceleration, torque was not an issue.
When you consider that the original, much smaller, four-cylinder minis didn’t get this kind of mileage or acceleration, and that even mid-sized SUVs without the same space find it hard to match, the mileage is more impressive. It sells for far less than comparable SUVs, is more convenient, and provides a more enjoyable driving experience as well.
Cornering is as good as in many cars, and better than most SUVs. The massive minivan can speed through sharp turns without losing its composure, yet the driver has a commanding view of the road — though the Chrysler version, with its software suspension, can feel top-heavy and get serious body roll in emergency swerves.
The tires sometimes emitted a sharp squeal, but we never felt any loss of traction. The ride on our Grand Caravan was moderately stiff, since it had the sport suspension, and Dodges are already tuned more tightly, but it was still not uncomfortable. Road feel and steering responsiveness were both at car levels. Dodge did a fine job of making a minivan feel a little sporty.
Visibility is good in all directions. Large mirrors, which can be folded in, provide good access to the rear view, while a massive windshield takes care of the forward motion. Covering that immense span of glass are large, unequal-size wipers, using Chrysler’s center-out motion to clear as much area as they can. There is some reflection of the under-windshield area, which could be darker, but it doesn’t generally present a problem.
In the back, corner pillars are bulkier, but don’t present much of a blind spot. The sun visors slide out on their mounts to cover the center of the windshield; they can also be folded back away from the driver for just a little unobtrusive shielding.
Our test model was a Grand Caravan SXT with just about every option, all integrated so they seemed to be designed in from the start rather than added on. The power doors, for example, are controlled from the key, from clearly labelled buttons in the overhead console, and from buttons by the doors themselves. The power liftgate beeps a warning before opening or closing, and all the doors are designed to stop immediately on detecting a blockage to prevent injury (I've tested this by standing under the liftgate and having it close.)
Standard Caravans can be purchased with all wheel drive, while Grand Caravans can have “stow and go” seating — you can’t get both. Stow and Go, Chrysler’s phrase for foldaway seats, is convenient for two reasons: when the seats are out of the floor you get substantial underfloor storage space, covered by a strong folding metal cover; and when they are in the floor, you get a flat surface for cargo.
Our test van, with captain’s chairs in the first two rows and a bench seat in the back, could hold three, four, five, or seven passengers, depending on how you folded the seats, since the middle row folded separately, and the rear row split 2/3 of the across, with each side being able to fold independently. It was easy to fold the seats down: lower the headrest, then pull on up to three clearly labelled straps in succession (one at a time), then push the seat into the compartment. It can indeed be done in a matter of seconds, with a single hand, though it takes a couple of tries to get used to it.
The center seats in our vehicle could be moved a fairly large distance fore and aft, providing either massive legroom or extra cargo space. With only four passengers, the Grand Caravan has a simply enormous cargo area; even fully loaded, there’s plenty of room for stuff, with the visible spaces augmented by the carpeted, smooth underfloor seat storage bays. Thus, you get extra room even with all the seats in place.
There are many storage areas for smaller objects. Aside from large map pockets on both front doors, you get a change tray in the foldout front cupholders, a removable center console with a deep storage area and a shallow removable bin, and a slot in front for sunglasses, highway passes, and the like.
The center console includes a molded-in tissue holder for those portable plastic packs, and a power outlet; there’s also a clever folding cellphone / DVD remote control holder, which can be folded into the console or left sticking out of it for easy access. Containers in the overhead rack, good for sunglasses, highway passes, and the like, can be moved around or taken out. The system requires a quick look at the owner’s manual, but in brief, the moveable parts of the overhead rack are held on by two clips. You take each clip, pull out, and twist to remove the pods, and do the reverse to put them back in. Our test vehicle had three removable bins, as well as two stationary items: the DVD system and the rear climate control.
Then there are cupholders; back seats have foldout cupholders than are good for holding relatively light containers, but can let go of heavy ones (such as full soda bottles). The front seats have the king of all cupholders in a pullout drawer; the arms cinch up tight around a container, holding it tightly in place. They can be released simply by sliding the cupholders back in. Between the cups is a little change drawer. The rearmost seats have a molded-in cupholder which is hard for kids to reach.
The DVD system has been improved over prior versions. First, the system automatically activates if a DVD is already loaded. It is easy to set up the system so that DVD audio goes through headphones (press the headphones button), freeing the speakers for AM/FM or CDs, playing through the front speakers only. The headsets shut off after a while to preserve battery life, and have an LED that stays on when they’re on to avoid confusion. The nav system is intelligently, though; if you take out its DVD, it still remembers where you want to go when the DVD goes back in.
We took our Grand Caravan on a long ride across five states. The conveniences were very handy, with the DVD navigation system getting is around without flaw, always taking us on the best routes; the DVD system kept the kids busy when needed on the long ride. Normally roof-mounted screens impede rear vision, but in this case, the roof was high enough to avoid that problem. The audio quality kept the adults entertained, and the low levels of wind noise helped. For long stretches on straight highway, we took out the navigation DVD and played audio.
As with all navigation systems, Chrysler provides a range of options. We liked their typing system better than most; when entering a name or address, we moved a dial to switch from letter to letter, and the cursor stayed where we left it each time so we could move easily to the next letter. At any point, you can switch to a list of streets, towns, or numbers. Entering information this way was quick and easy. It remembers recent routes. We used the system more often than we really needed to because it was so quick.
The map feature is impeded by the small screen size, but is still useful, with a range of magnification levels and easy selection of compass (North always up, or the current direction always up) and other options. Making the driver press ENTER each time the engine is started to get to the maps is annoying, but now standard on every system we’ve used.
Early navigation systems tried to pack too much into the screen and computer area, so that it was nearly impossible to drive while changing the radio station. Chrysler has a standard volume knob, tune and seek buttons, audio and map mode buttons, and preset buttons, along with a physical knob for map and special audio functions. The only exceptions to that general rule are the lack of bass/treble and balance/fade knobs; for those, you need to press TONE, then use the select knob and enter button; and having to use the select and enter system to set presets.
The AM/FM setup lets you search for particular types of stations. Radio reception is unusually good, and sound quality is excellent, in just about any spot in the van - without, as far as we can tell, digital sound processors.
Most of all, we appreciated the basic minivan design. The cargo area, with both rear seats folded down, provided an immense amount of room, swallowing up six large suitcases with ease and leaving room for coolers and other cargo, all in one layer without stacking. Fragile items could be placed in the wells for the middle row. The height is just right for easy entry and exit, not to mention easy loading of cargo. The minivan’s low floor means it’s easy to put things in, including people; toddlers can walk right in. The sliding doors are convenient, providing wide openings in the tightest of parking spots, and allowing for easy exit.
There’s a reason why Chrysler’s basic minivan design from 1984 has survived all attempts at modification, until all automakers copy the Caravan, sometimes adding their own little feature (a long sunroof on the Nissan, lowering rear windows on the Toyota, etc). When Chrysler redesigns its vans, it generally incorporates its competitors’ additions. That was the major thrust behind this Grand Caravan: adding better fold-flat seats than the competitors, along with an improved DVD system, and the overhead rack.
The optional overhead console is nice, with two rows of buttons and a large, easy to read display flanked by dual lights, each activated (as all of the many dome lights are) either centrally, from the light switch, or by a simple press. The first row of buttons is for the power doors - an override that prevents passengers from activating them (handy for kids), and then separate buttons for each side door and the power rear hatch. The second row has a combination menu and reset button (more on this later), three positions for a built-in garage door opener, and a combination compass/thermometer and step button. The the step button goes through various information displays: gas mileage, distance to empty, miles until the next service, etc. The menu button sets how the doors lock and unlock, whether they do it automatically, if the headlights go on after you've shut off the engine, etc. It’s handy to be able to impose your will on the car, instead of having a statistician and engineer make your choices for you.
The optional pedal adjustment (fore and aft, for taller and shorter drivers) switch is near the ignition key, and the stereo on some models has extra controls on the back of the steering wheel. The wheel-mounted cruise is easy to use and includes a cancel button. The column shifter is convenient for an automatic, gliding neatly and easily into Drive (you can also choose a low range or third gear, but apparently not first), and freeing up space in the center for the console.
The optional backup alarm is better than the ones we’ve seen on some past vehicles, with a combination of LEDs and beeps to warn when objects are coming closer to the four bumper-mounted sensors. There are a sizable number of amber LEDs to help on the approach, with red LEDs and beeps to warn of very close objects.
In many vehicles, particularly SUVs, rear passengers have very little leg room. In the Grand Caravan, there is an amazing amount of space between each of the three rows, and the center row can be moved forward and backward. While there is a map pocket behind the front passenger seat, though, there’s nothing behind the driver’s seat.
Another unusual, and generally unsung, feature is being able to show the stored computer codes without a reader. This can save the owner a great deal of time, effort, and money, even if they don’t do their own maintenance and repairs, by pinpointing specific issues (e.g., a contaminated oxygen sensor). While the system isn’t infallible, its accuracy has improved over the years, and it can be very good to know that what your mechanic assumed was a bad transmission is really a $2 solenoid.
Even the underhood area seemed convenient, with room to work around the engine, and clearly labelled fluid repositories.
The SXT model is fully loaded, but Chrysler still managed to add about $7,000 of options to our test vehicle. First, here’s what the SXT comes with:
Our test minivan also had the leather group, which also has heated front seats, power passenger seat, Infinity speakers, power rear hatch, thermostatic control for all three zones, air filtration, the vehicle information center, and the removable front center console - for a breathtaking $2,930.
More manageable was a $985 premium group, with the power adjustable pedals, rear parking assist, security system, overhead bins, and touring (firm) suspension. The navigation system added another $1,430, including a six-disc in-dash changer; UConnect, a hands-free cellphone system, added $360; and the DVD rear seat video system was $990, including two sets of wireless headphones and the remove control. These all took a well-equipped, $26,315 minivan and pushed it up to $33,690, including the destination charge. That’s still about $3,000 less than a 2004 model would cost — with fewer rebates. If you can live with fewer amenities, the base Grand Caravan, still with the Stow ’n’ Go seats, runs $22,000 with destination.
Though Chrysler was nominally a premium brand, by 2006, it also covered Plymouth turf, and the Touring made that clear. Still, it had traction control, four wheel antilock disc brakes, driver knee airbag but no side airbags, floor mats, basic trip computer, locking underseat storage drawer, front and rear cargo nets, second row bucket seats, tinted glass, rear defroster and wiper/washer, heated folding mirrors, three-zone manual temperature control, variable intermittent wipers, power locks and windows, power seat for the driver only, power liftgate and sliding doors, tire pressure warning light, roof rack, cruise, mediocre six-speaker CD stereo with steering-wheel mounted controls, tilt-wheel (manual), compact spare (stored underneath and prone to rust-up), 215/65R16 tires, and front and rear power outlets. Seats were cloth. Missing so far was stability control.
Our particular minivan had two customer preferred packages, 2DK and 29K, as well as the 3.8 liter engine. This added side curtain airbags for all rows, nicer door trim panels, Stow ’n’ Go, rear air conditioner and heater, hood insulation, a subtle overhead cupholder light, universal garage door opener, and five more gallons of gas. With the 3.8 engine and 2008-2015 fuel economy standards, it was re-rated at 16 mpg city, 23 highway, a bit pessimistic.
The Dodge Grand Caravan is an excellent vehicle in just about every respect. The more time we spent with it, the more we liked it — partly because we were still breaking it in, but mostly because it’s both amazingly convenient and easy to drive. When not loaded with a family, it can be fun to drive as well, particularly set up as ours was with the sport suspension. Those who prefer a more luxurious ride will probably be happier with the softer-tuned Town & Country — though even with the sport suspension, as we noted before, the Grand Caravan muted bumps nicely. Take a good long look at the Dodge, take it for a spin (remembering that the engine gets stronger and more responsive after it’s broken in), and play with the doors and seats. We think you'll be impressed. Perhaps there’s a reason why minivans are still Chrysler’s kingdom.
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