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by David Zatz in September 2015
The Dodge Caravan is one of few Mopars whose names have survived from 1984. They were re-engineered in 2008, though keeping most of the 1990s design choices; then renovated in 2011; and have had some minor updates since then.
So, in 2015, how is the Dodge Caravan?
The Pentastar V6 provides plenty of power and torque; and the six-speed automatic is well tuned for the engine. The computer controlled wide-ratio automatic provides quick launches, decent highway mileage, and, thanks to fast kickdowns, responsiveness on the highway and street alike. The transmission is generally very smooth, though we had a rare rough shift.
Downshifts came extremely rapidly and, at times, with almost no provocation. The powertrain was what you’d expect from a minivan from the company that brought you the Hellcat and SRT 392. Suddenly tap the accelerator on the highway, even just a bit, and the engine would rev either straight up to 4,000 rpm, well into the power band, or up a step and then past 4,000. It was quite the seven-passenger rocket.
Putting that power to the ground from a standing start, or even a rolling start, was not as easy, since the tires squealed with little provocation. The same held for hard turns; the van felt stable but there were a lot of sound effects. That said, sudden lane changes that would have the 2001-2007 minivans wobbling from side to side, but the 2015 felt stable and safe.
The minivan had no sharp edges or rock-hard surfaces, and the middle and rear seats were as well decorated as the fronts. The dashboard was clear and arranged well, with sportier gauges than the Chrysler; the main difference, other than gauge styling, was a subtle plastic cover to cover the area used by the trip computer is in higher trim levels. Underneath that cover plate was a small, simple trip computer, with gas mileage, distance to empty, the odometer, outside temperature, or the trip odometer, one at a time.
You can see the similarities between the Dodge and Chrysler versions below — they both use the same stereo. (The Chrysler is a 2014 and has a different climate control setup.)
The gauges are bright and sporty. The green “headlights or parking lights are on” indicator is a pointless distraction. By default, all PRNDL lights are white, with the active one highlighted in green (this is hard to say below, but it’s more obvious in person). The position all the way on the right is for manumatic mode; then the gear appears in the display.
The shifter is on the dashboard now, but it’s easy to get used to. The Dodge and Chrysler both have an easy to use manual override, but the transmission is almost always in the right gear anyway.
The dual upper/lower glove compartments provide extra storage (and an extra USB slot for charging). There’s more storage in the dual front map pockets, under-stack roped-off space, middle cupholders, and dual covered consoles. One of these has a pair of power outlets, the other has a coin holder. All the storage areas have rattle-damping measures.
One can climb from the front row all the way back our the rear hatch, if one can get over the front center console (which can be removed). The console has a rear slide-out portion with cupholders for center row passengers, and enough space for a big DSLR camera.
The overhead console has the door controls. The power door lockout lets owners open and close the doors manually or from the fob; they open and close smoothly, easily, and quickly when not under power.
The climate control is easy to use, despite being a three-way system. You can set the front driver, front passenger, and rear temperatures separately, and choose the vent system, with a separate control for turning on the a/c compressor and recirculation — with knobs for temperature control, not awkward buttons. The air conditioner was not especially strong, though turning on the rear air conditioner too helped.
Overhead, our test car had the optional nine-inch video screens for the back two rows, with a variety of inputs by side of the middle row. With the two standard sets of wireless headphones, kids in middle and in back can watch different shows — through wireless headphones, and with remotes that snapped into holders in the roof.
The overhead system included snazzy white LED lighting, with an equally snazzy blue-green neon outline that could be dimmed. The downside was the lower rearward visibility when the video screens were used. Huge windows provide a fine view of the outside as long as the video screens are up, and the massive windshield and low beltline give good access to the front and sides.
Dodge Caravan has better acceleration than you’d think a minivan would need (though no longer best in class), with decent economy (again no longer best in class). The next Chrysler minivan will probably switch to a nine-speed automatic, an improved V6, and a hybrid-electric variant, but that’s not due for a while, and it may be more expensive.
Driven gently, the six-speed automatic was smooth and unobtrusive, with nearly imperceptible shifts. The engine rarely revved past 2,000 rpm this way, except when getting up to speed, and even on the highway, you could travel 70 mph and the engine would be barely ticking over.
Aggressive driving brought quick downshifts, but the engine had good enough torque at low rpm for the transmission to stay in higher gears most of the time, and to avoid the “rubber band effect” — acceleration began when you first pressed the gas pedal, not waiting for the downshift.
When roused, the Caravan sounded more like a sports car than a minivan. Wind noise is somewhat high at 65 mph, but not noticeable at lower speeds.
The tires are not up to the needs of the powertrain, and squeals are inevitable on quick launches or hard turns, though that might been done on purpose, to avoid driver overconfidence. The low first gear could have helped launches more if they had better tires.
The minivan handled potholes and rough roads well, absording nasty roads and such, without obscuring road feel; you know when you're on concrete roads, but bumps are definitely smoothed out, and are felt, not heard.
We went to a racing track in West Virginia for a Dodge event, and the track instructors demonstrated the track using similar 2014 Dodge Caravans. In the rain. I was amazed at what they could do with the vans, just as much as I’d been amazed by the acceleration in a straight line. These are vans with “zoomies,” and quite a bit of performance potential.
After driving many Chrysler cars with 8.4-inch touch-screens, it is odd to go back to the old generation, with CD players hidden behind the tilt-screen and a DVD player below for the overhead video. Our test car’s RHB stereo does nearly as much as the newer units, though it’s harder to reach some functions, and the button configuration is odd. There’s a built in hard drive which can slowly record music from your CDs. You can also hook up a music filled USB thumb drive and transfer data from it, though that takes a while too.
It is harder to choose music using a tiny single knob and on-screen buttons, on the old interface; Chrysler’s top-rated newer systems have big physical knobs for browsing, and in any case can fit more information onto the screen (and, if you select by artist, more modern systems arrange music in album order, while the van still does it in alphabetical order).
The hard-drive stereo plays USB thumb drives with MP3 and AAC files (including iTunes Store songs, except the old copy-protected ones), using the glove-compartment port; the on-unit port is for importing music only. The remote USB port shows Mac resource files as unplayable, while the copy-to-hard-drive function just ignores them. (There are many ways to delete the resource files.)
The satellite radio system was well integrated (though the number of stations, combined with the lack of a tuning knob, makes it awkward, unless you select a few as favorites), as was the video player. The satellite sound was far from the quality of the USB or CD player.
Changing bass, treble, or midrange took a press to the physical Audio button, then the virtual Equalizer button, then presses on a virtual equalizer (you can drag the equalizer knobs). There is no way to use a knob for this.
Switching modes required pressing both hard and soft buttons, or using the wheel-mounted mode button. For radio, it shows a list of presets, four per screen, with the names of the stations.
Nearly the entire UConnect system was available on our van, including navigation and Travel Link.
The entire system can sporadically be controlled by voice, after pressing a button on the steering wheel. Navigation worked well, but there was no duplicate display on the gauge cluster, and the button to reach it on the stereo was tiny; the button to get back to the main navigation menu from the map was small and poorly placed.
Our car came with a backup camera, with a clear color picture, center guide line, color distance indicator, and a good view at night.
Even the Dodge Caravan SXT comes with dual power sliding doors and hatches; we turned on the rear door lock so we could operate them manually, which is easy (if the lock is off, you can only do it using the motor). The doors can be opened from the key fob or from the front-overhead buttons, as well as (if you don't turn the lock on) from buttons in the middle row and by simply pulling the handle once (if you don’t turn the lock on).
The rear hatch can always be operated manually, which is often easier and faster than using the power option, though not if your hands are full of groceries or luggage. A plain pull-handle is hidden above the license plate. Getting in and out was easy, as was getting to the rearmost seat.
The front seats are rather firm. Both front seats and both middle seats had attached, soft flip-up armrests that worked perfectly. The rear row is comfortable and there is plenty of legroom as well. The optional leather-and-suede setup worked well to hold people in place.
Folding the middle row takes a single lever, though first you have to move the front seat forward to make room and lift the cover of the storage area, which you can do without removing the carpet. When the lever goes up, the headrest springs down, the seat folds, and it pivots into the floor.
The rear seats were easy to stow; the slower electric system on the Chrysler boasts a “tailgating system.”
Above the van, the roofrack crossbars were folded into the side supports, increasing the aerodynamic efficiency of the Caravan (ours did not have a roofrack due to the Blacktop package).
There were map pockets all over, cupholders (mostly with bubble-type securing devices), a huge area under the center stack and protected by elastic mesh, and dual glove compartments. A huge, removable center console included cupholders, power, and storage. The middle seats had mesh pockets on the back of the front seats; rear seats had the molded-in cupholders from 1984.
The interior is cavernous, and folding down various combinations of seats allows for a great deal of storage capacity. With the seats up, one can use the compartments they would go into if they were stowed. The Stow ’n’ Go system is one of the key selling points of the Dodge and Chrysler minivans, and for good reason.
Controls were sensible (more so than last year, with the changes to the climate controls), and generally had backlighting. Power door controls were everywhere. Our car had an odd ignition switch without a traditional key, but it turned the traditional way. The parking brake is a traditional push-to-release pedal, making it easy to fully activate.
The rearmost windows, which open just an inch or so, are now paired so both open at once. The headlight control is simple and easy to use, with separate rheostats for dome lights and those blue LED effects. The standard headlights were good despite the blackened lenses.
The stereo’s drawbacks — not its sound, which is good — gets annoying after a while. It does everything it should, just not well. Getting songs to play in artist order doesn’t seem possible but you can do it in album order. Mostly, the system suffers from having a single tiny knob when it could use two or three.
The stereo hard drive records music slowly, even from USB drives. It understand that Mac invisible files should not be imported, yet still get confused by them when you play directly from a USB drive. (Given the time taken to recognize large drives, even for the tenth time, I suggest you get multiple, smaller drives.)
One used to sink into car seats a bit, holding people in place and provided some cushioning. Caravan seats look great, but you can get a Fiat 500 or Dodge Dart with more comfortable seats. (Dodge still provides fine flip-up center armrests in front and middle seats, which, unlike some other brands, always seem to be level.)
The good outweighs the bad. Minivans remain an excellent choice for those who need a large vehicle. They have better storage and seating options than most crossovers, handle well in snow and on dry ground, and have huge and easy to use doors. Dodge lets you operate the side doors and rear hatch manually, and has that invaluable Stow ’n’ Go seating — either move the seats out of the way, or store stuff in the seat-wells.
The base price of the Dodge Caravan SXT is just $28,390, including destination (the cheapest Dodge Caravan is $22,290). The SXT is well equipped, including the center cnosole, three power rear doors (hatchback and sliding), side curtain airbags in all rows, side airbags for the front seats, and three zone air conditioning.
The Dodge Caravan carries a three year or 36,000 mile basic warranty with towing, and a 5/100 powertrain warranty. They are made in Ontario, and use engines and transmissions built in the United States; 75% of the content is from the US and Canada. The gas mileage rating is 17 city, 25 highway — 20 overall — or five gallons per hundred miles, and the engine is E85 capable. The bright LED brake lights come on instantly and are fairly snazzy in their circular pattern.
Chrysler’s new quality systems and standards are promising, and their minivans have generally achieved average or better quality ratings.
The overall crash-safety score is 4 stars — five stars for side crashes, four for frontal and rollover.
Our test car had some options that caused the price to skyrocket to $33,685 (still not bad for the class). These were:
The main downside of the van is the seat comfort, from my personal perspective, followed by the gas mileage, though that is similar to its main competitor. Your body is likely different from mine, and you may disagree about the seats. Being in the rear seats may cause a bit of sea-sickness unless others are back there with you.
The Town & Country has another year or so in this form. It still competes effectively, as shown by its sales figures, despite long-standing challenges from Honda and Toyota, and carries an attractive price. But if you can wait until the 2017 minivans, you may prefer the old one or the new one, but the current Caravan will apparently continue alongside the new Town & Country for at least a year, so it’s still a going proposition.
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