2003 Dodge Caravan eC / Chrysler Voyager eC car reviews

Car review: Caravan eC / Voyager eC, by John D. Harmon

Now that I've racked up some time behind the wheel of the van, it's time for its first evaluation. Considering how tough it is to not love your first brand new vehicle, I will try to be as objective as I can. Yes, I intend to nitpick a little.

The eC models of the Caravan and Voyager were what we used to call "strippers," bare-bones transportation. For a sticker price of $17,290, you got a peppy 2.4 liter engine, air conditioning, sliding doors on both sides, and a decent-sounding AM/FM cassette stereo with 4 speakers. Mine was heavily discounted ($14,750 out the door) because it was a leftover model - judging by the build date of 10/2001, it may have sat for as long as a year before I got it December 31, 2002. Although the eC models were not continued into 2003, you can get pretty much the same thing as the Voyager Family Value Package. For some reason, the 2003 equivalent has an MSRP of $20,895 - maybe it has a somewhat nicer interior, but I'll be darned if I can understand how they can charge $3600 more this year for basically the same van. I expect the Voyager to be killed off when the next generation of minivans arrive.

The first thing I noticed was that the engine is somewhat loud - it seems louder than even the 2.5 in my old Caravan, which had over 200,000 miles. When you accelerate, you can hear it over the radio unless it's cranked up. Don't get me wrong, it's not an unpleasant sound, but most reviewers would downgrade it for this. However, I think they'd be impressed with how this smallish engine can move a fairly heavy minivan. With 150 hp, this thing moves out almost as well as my old 3.3 Dynasty did, and returns an average of 25 mpg. I've even unintentionally squealed the tires in it!

Fit and finish on the outside is excellent, but I've gotta say, the interior has a few minor flaws (again, I'm trying to write this like a magazine reviewer). The kick panel underneath each front door is made of cheap, soft plastic and seems loose. The speaker grilles in the back are made of this same material, and not only do they have too much "give," but one of them vibrates on some bass notes (just noticed that tonight). Also, the very top of the carpeting up front can be pushed back at least 2 inches. I don't know if that's normal, but it shouldn't be. Yeah, this is the economy version, but still...

The instrument panel is virtually a clone of the Dodge Intrepid, with white face gauges and a large, slightly tilted 120-mph speedometer (it goes the normal 270 degrees, but "0" is at the 9:00 position). In keeping with the economy theme, the only gauges are for temp and fuel. The digital odometer comes on when you open any door, which I believe is pretty much the standard now. The radio stays on until you open any door, which is also becoming a universal feature. I intend to upgrade the stereo in the near future, and another Allpar poster has assured me that an aftermarket stereo will also work this way.

Entry and exit is, believe it or not, a little tough for me. I'm 6'1" and 270 lbs. (yeah, I know), and the doors are cut too low. I have to stick my head inside first, then climb in. Once inside, there's a ton of headroom. Although I have no power seats, couldn't they make the seats adjustable up & down somehow, or better yet, cut the doors higher into the roof? Also, the window cranks are rather low and a little too far to the rear. Sure, not too many people buy vans equipped this way, but how about a little love for those who do?

Unlike many reviewers, I don't give a tinker's damn about the quantity of cupholders, but suffice to say that the ones that pull out from the dash are adjustable and capable of holding just about anything short of a 2-liter bottle. I also like the two power points, one switched with the key and the other to the battery. The rear seat has handy hangers in the back for plastic grocery bags, and if you've ever come home from the supermarket to find half your stuff scattered in the back, you'll appreciate this feature.

On the road, this van feels substantial, and I mean that in a good way. The steering wheel has a nice, thick, soft rim, and even budget buyers get to look at the pretty winged Chrysler logo in front of them. You sit up nice and high with a lot of glass around you (I'm not looking forward to having to clean the inside of the windshield!). The power steering gives just the right amount of assist (unlike my old-school Fifth Avenue, which is way overassisted), and the steering is very responsive. I was amazed at the maneuverability of this van compared to the '93 Caravan it replaced. One of the roads I frequently use runs between the Dodge Truck plant (Warren, MI) and a GM Hydramatic plant (if you're in my area, it's 9 Mile Road at Mound), and trains often stop (and back up!) at the railroad crossing, blocking traffic for several minutes. This happened tonight, and I made a U-turn from the left lane of a typical five-lane road without coming anywhere near the curb, which would not have happened in either the old Caravan or the Fifth. It has performed admirably on the two snowy days we've had here since January 1 - I've made an 80-mile round trip on a slippery freeway without my knuckles turning white. Also, the only noises I hear inside are the engine and the stereo. No rattles, no whistles - this baby's tight.

Overall, the van gets an A-. Sure, there are a few minor flaws, but it does everything I need it to do, and gives you all the good things about a minivan at the price of a Neon. It's a shame the eC model is no longer available, but even at just a hair under $21K, the 2003 equivalent is a good value, and I'll just bet you could find a good discount on one. If you're in the market for an SUV, forget about the so-called stigma associated with minivans and give one of these a try. You just might find it's all you need.

Update #1

Well, the van now has 2600 miles, and it's no different than when I wrote this nearly three weeks ago (OK, it now has different oil and oil filter). It still sounds funny to say "Chrysler Voyager" - if there was ever a vehicle that embodied was Plymouth was all about, it's this one. I still can't believe I got this much vehicle for under $15,000.

Update #2

6000 mile bump! Dang, this thing's racking up miles fast...

Just made my third payment and second oil change. Just discovered you can adjust the height of the shoulder harness, and just discovered the 12v power point in the back. Have gotten used to the funny way I have to enter the van because of the low doors. The dark color (Patriot Blue) is attractive, but stays looking clean for about 45 minutes after it's washed. It looks more expensive than it was - aside from the black door handles, it looks just as nice as its more upscale brethren. Only the eC badge on the back gives it away.

I seldom do this with the van, but even with the four-banger, hard acceleration around a corner will squeal the tires enough to satisfy all but a hardcore musclecar enthusiast. The first time I had enough guts to try it, I couldn't believe it! It gets up to freeway speed just fine, and you can be approaching 90 without realizing it. My sister just moved 130 miles away (to Battle Creek, MI) and I went to visit her last weekend. Made it in under 1:40. I was almost disappointed when the exit came up...

Update #3-5

8300 miles, has yet to go to the dealer or show any reason to take it there. At this rate, the 7/70 warranty will run out at about the 31&Mac218;2 year mark.

8900 mile bump! She'll have 10,000 before too long...

One thing I've noticed that I'm considering going to the dealer for is the shift interlock (i.e. won't go out of Park without the brakes applied). I always wear my seat belt, but if I don't buckle it before I try to get it in gear, the lever won't go out of Park and takes 3-4 tries before I can get it going. Is this normal? Meaning, is the shift interlock somehow tied to the driver's seat belt? Or is it just a coincidence, and I ought to visit the dealer?

I just changed insurance companies from a fly-by-night scam artist to AAA Michigan. The scam artist (Titan/QBE; don't get full coverage insurance from them unless you have no choice) got over $1600 for 6 months for both of my automobiles w/$1000 deductible; AAA got $812/6 mo. w/$500 deductible, coverage otherwise the same. My former insurance company is just fine if all you want is "no-fault," which is required in Michigan before you can get new plates or renew your present ones; their rates are no worse than anywhere else, and if you're a high-risk driver, they don't check your driving record and they don't ask a lot of questions (e.g.: they don't ask "Who are you currently insured with?"). However, if you want comp/collision, they rip you off badly - as you can see, I basically cut my insurance bill in half by going with AAA, plus I get free road service 5x/year. The only reason I stuck with my old insurance company was that I bought the van almost on the spur of the moment, and had all of three hours to shop around. So I stuck with them until the present policy ran out, which will be 12:01 am May 15. No matter what you're driving, it would behoove you to get at least three quotes for insurance. Check this out (all rates are for a 6 month policy for both of my vehicles; full coverage on the Voyager, liability only on the Fifth, $500 deductible for collision/$250 ded. for theft/fire/vandalism unless otherwise noted):

Titan/QBE: $1600+ ($1000 ded.)
Progressive: $1857 (online quote)
GEICO: $1451 (online quote)
State Farm: $961 (online quote)
AAA Michigan: $812

No-brainer, huh? I've been with Progressive before, and thought their rates were reasonable. AAA gave me a quote of $1018/6 mo. (both vehicles) over the phone, which was the lowest of all I tried, but when they ran the Voyager's VIN through their computer, the rate suddenly dropped substantially (almost $400/year!) - I assume they thought it was either a Voyager LX or even a lowline T & C, and since it's an eC, it's even cheaper to insure. In fact, the insurance agent asked me if it was a T & C - apparently, he was unaware of the Voyager's existence, too. AAA really likes Chrysler minivans, and their rates reflect that. Let's see... a roomy, practical vehicle for the price of a Neon but cheaper to insure...tell me again why there's a stigma attached to driving a minivan? My girlfriend, Anita, loves the van, but she's 31 (10 years younger than I!) and has 2 kids (and a '93 Grand Am 4-door, teal in color), so even though it worked for me, don't think of it as a babe magnet!

I see from posts in "News And Rumors" that my prediction is coming true a bit early - there will be no 2004 Voyager, eC or otherwise. Yeah, there will now be a short wheelbase Town & Country, but I'll bet it won't cost $14,000. Sure, you'll be able to get a strippo van at your friendly Dodge dealer, but the last trace of Plymouth will be gone. Just as well - as much as I like this van, the Chrysler nameplate is all wrong for it. Better to let Voyager die than have it drag down Chrysler's image. I'll just be glad I got a great deal on one of the last...

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