2002 Dodge Grand Caravan AWD
Fifteen years ago, Chrysler came up with the first minivan. Based on the Reliant, it was available only with a four-cylinder engine with under 100 hp; those who wanted more speed could get a manual transmission. Times have definitely changed; now, Chrysler is just about the only holdout with a four cylinder engine (150 hp!), and everyone has a V6, automatic, and every convenience imaginable, from cupholders to TV.
Driving a 2000 Town & Country made us wonder why anyone would buy an expensive Ford Expedition. Machismo? Stubbornness? The Town & Country is cheaper, seems larger inside, has a nicer ride, and gets nearly ten more miles for every gallon of gas (in our experience). Did we mention the all wheel drive versions, for those who claim to want an SUV for bad weather? All wheel drive, unlike four wheel drive, does not destroy your turning radius...and it is on all the time. Quality has been rising steadily, and the transmissions are ready for prime time - if you do not put in the wrong fluid! (No Dexron.)
Though the Town & Country has a lofty position as the most expensive and lavish minivan, we drove the "decontented" version, the LX, which is just about identical to the Plymouth Grand Voyager and Dodge Grand Caravan - and will be sold alongside the 2000 Chrysler Grand Voyager. This only supports our idea that Chrysler executives are not paying attention; fortunately, the engineers are.
We tested the base Town & Country LX, which sells for roughly $24,000 - not a high price by minivan standards. It had the base 3.3 liter engine and very few options. Thanks to the well-programmed computer controlling the transmission, the 3.3's 150 hp were enough for our needs. The durable, reliable 3.3 was also quite peppy thanks to appropriate downshifting. With the cruise control on, the transmission quietly downshifted going up hills, so that the engine was not strained and no speed was lost, and going down hills, so that we did not find ourselves unexpectedly pursued by the men in blue.
The engine warmed up quickly and idled smoothly; except under hard acceleration, it was very quiet. In brief, the quiet engine, smooth ride, and gentle, intelligent transmission all helped to hide the very capable acceleration of the long-lasting, well-tested 3.3. A 180 hp version of this engine (with 3.8 liters) is available; the main difference is the loss of roughly one or two miles per gallon (EPA estimate), and the gain of 30 horsepower.
Gas mileage was between cars and SUVs, at 14 city and 20 highway (in our experience; EPA estimates are considerably higher; our review vehicles was not broken in). Handling was surprisingly good, though there was some squealing around hard turns, especially under acceleration. Though it seems silly after investing over $20,000 in a vehicle, we'd advise replacing the tires with better ones from Tire Rack. For under $300, high-performance all-season/all-weather tires are an excellent investment that pays off with the first accident they avoid. (Speaking of which, during our testing, we were hit by an 18-wheeler - a full-size tractor-trailer truck rolled down a hill and hit the Town & Country right in the grille. The passengers were unhurt, the airbags politely stayed in their place, and the only damage to the minivan was some rubbed-off paint from the truck and a few small stress fractures on the front fascia. It's not exactly a scientific crash test, but it was reassuring). Braking was good, as well. Overall, we felt confident around the curvies, and never came close to feeling any loss of control; but better tires would be nice.
Thanks to years of listening to other people, the engineers designed a very sensible interior. Controls are clearly marked and in sensible places. Since all Chrysler minivans in the US are automatics, a column shifter was used, with a convenient foot-operated emergency brake. Window demisters are sensibly placed, so fogged windows should not be a problem. The child seat is much improved over earlier models, very easy to use and able to deal with winter coats; and the net between the front seats is clever and handy. Unfortunately, the coin holder from the Concorde was not used, but the current one is handy and quiet. Did we mention the world's very best cup holders?
The windshield wipers and sun visors are effective, and visibility is good in all directions, though the darkened glass can be a problem at dusk. The mirrors are large and useful.
For the rear passengers, there are separate heat controls and optional rear air conditioning. The rear seats fold down, which is very helpful for loading large objects without removing the seats completely. This is handy, though taking out the seats is easy; the seats have wheels, and a red indicator shows when they are correctly installed. Rear power outlets may come in handy, as is the excellent interior lighting.
The doors are well designed, with sliding doors on both sides that open and close easily and conveniently latch open, so there's no danger of being accidentally whacked by a closing door. The hatch seemed to require a real slam to close completely, though. We appreciated the markings which told us where the door closed, so we could load the vehicle "just right."
There was very little road noise, but the wind noise became excessive over standard highway speeds. This is a very strange shortcoming, which we hope will be addressed very soon, when the all-new 2001 minivans are developed.
We were surprised that the current generation of Chrysler minivans, first introduced in 1996, have held up so well against their competitors. On January 10, 2000, Chrysler gave us a first look at the 2001 models. However, it usually takes some time to work the bugs out, and we recommend waiting until they have been in circulation for at least six months. The continuous improvement program which has kept the 1996 minivans fresh and competitive also means that every month brings substantial improvements in design and construction, when vehicles are first put into production.
Overall, though in its last year, the Town & Country remains the best designed minivan. It is no surprise that, despite Consumer Reports' dislike of Chrysler in general and the 1989-93 transmission fiasco, the Caravan, Voyager, and Town & Country are still the largest sellers. The Ford Windstar is a little safer, but otherwise falls short in nearly every respect, including (we believe) in reliability; the Toyota Sienna is more reliable (the Honda does not seem to be), but that comes at a price. We think that the Town & Country remains a bargain, in both its decontented LX and premium LXi forms, and that the bargain will get even better when the 2001 models appear and the 2000 models are discounted.
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