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2011 Dodge Caravan minivan car review

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Dodge and Plymouth (the division now known as Chrysler) set North America on its ear with their seminal 1984 minivans. Their sales dominated the North American minivan scene until the 2008, when they dropped the short wheelbase versions, made the styling "blockier," sacrificed seat comfort for swivels, and tuned Dodge and Chrysler models the same way.

For 2011, the Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country show a different mind-set. The suspensions were retuned, regaining some of the nimble, light feel of years past, and giving the minivans better-than-SUV responsiveness. The new, standard Pentastar V6 and six-speed automatic also give the minivans something they've rarely had - best in class horsepower.

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The Chrysler Town & Country has a truly elegant interior, but you pay for it; it costs more than the most costly Dodge (though it's priced well against similarly equipped Hondas and Toyotas).

Dodge minivan powertrain: surprisingly sporty

When we tested the V6 Grand Cherokee, which has the same basic engine (tuned differently), we thought the engine was refined, but we noted delays in acceleration (not nearly as bad as those in some competitors).

Oh, what a difference the transmission makes. The five-speed Mercedes automatic in the Grand Cherokee is downright slow compared with the six-speed Chrysler automatic in the Dodge Caravan. Drive gently, the way most people do all the time, and the engine will rarely ever rev past 2,000 rpm, except perhaps when merging onto a highway or getting up to speed on a rural road; shifts are barely perceptible. Push your foot down further, especially with the "Eco" button off, and the transmission will quickly downshift, putting you into the 3,500-and-higher power band of the Pentastar Six. That gives the Caravan a far sportier feel than the Grand Cherokee; so does the less-luxury-oriented suspension tuning, which transmits more of the road feel.

Make no mistake, the Grand Cherokee is responsive; but the Caravan, with nine less horsepower, is more responsive. Part of that is due to having less "luxury feel;" the smoother the power, the more cushioned the suspension, the less responsive the vehicle usually feels. Part of it, no doubt, has to do with differences in the transmission. The five speed Mercedes automatic in the Grand Cherokee, which Chrysler appears to have marked for phase-out over the next two years, is relatively slow to shift, and has one less gear; the six-speed in the Chrysler, with variable line pressure, is both faster to shift and takes advantage of a low first gear.

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By default, the transmission is in a "sport" mode; a convenient "Eco" button switches to gas-mileage mode, with a stronger impact on mileage than usual for this type of feature. (Don't be surprised if, when gas prices rise, econ becomes standard program and the sport mode becomes the option.) Once you press the button, the car remembers where you set it on future trips.

The engine itself has good torque at low rpm, allowing the transmission to stay in higher gears most of the time, and providing a "kick" when needed, even before the always-rapid downshift. Again, one can drive around town all day long and rarely pass 2,000 rpm; there's lots of extra power, and on the straights, you can maintain good highway speeds at surprisingly low rpm.

Hit the gas at any speed, including highway speed, and the engine will quickly rev up, even if locked in gear; and, starting with 3,500 rpm, you can feel those 283 horsepower. It's like having a sufficiently sized engine, with a turbocharger for extra kick. What's more, when roused, it sounds like a sports car.

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The tires were not up to the standards of the powertrain; avoiding squeals on quick launches was difficult, as the front tires tried to grab for traction, fighting the absurdly low first gear.

The ride is firm, handling potholes and rough roads with little fuss or noise, but without the luxury-car feel of past Chrysler minivans; there's a close-to-the-road feel. Poor road surfaces are well damped, and bumps are felt, not heard. Wind noise is somewhat high at 65 mph, but is not noticeable at lower speeds; it is not excessive.

Dodge Caravan: inside the minivan

There was nothing cheap about it our Crew: there were no sharp edges, textures were pleasing, and nearly every surface was "soft touch." The seats were, if anything, more comfortable than those of the award-sweeping 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee we were just in, and are years ahead of the 2008 minivans - not to mention our own 2006 Chrysler Town & Country. The up/down lumbar support was a good addition, as well.

The dashboard was set up with chrome rings around the shifter, gauges, and climate control area; marbled plastic inserts; silver accents on the steering wheel; and a two-tone interior scheme, with black seats, door panel inserts, and dashboard and light ceiling, pillars, door panels, lower dashboard, and console. The overall appearance is far more attractive than the "penny pinched" look of the prior model. It helps that all the tolerances are very tight, with tiny gaps where there were any gaps, and consistently good workmanship.

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The gauge cluster is the new Chrysler corporate standard, with Swiss-watch-inspired gauges-within-gauges; little round gas and temperature gauges sit within the larger speedometer and tachometer circles, with the EVIC (trip computer) display in between. On the Chrysler, the gauges are designed to look as elegant as possible; on the Dodge, they have a sportier look, with bolder numbers and graphics, stubby needles, and, at night, red surrounding rings around white backlighting.

The dashboard shifter was copied from Japanese competitors; while less easy to use than the old fashioned column shifter in past minis, it does allow for the addition of the manual override, Electronic Range Select, which allows you to choose lower gears or higher ones (IE starting out in 2nd). (Member "dakotaquadsport" wrote that setting it to 1 keeps you in first, 2 gives you first and second and lets you start out in second, 3 keeps in you first through third, etc; the system can be used for higher engine braking. This replaces Auto Stick.)

The dual upper/lower glove compartments provide lots of storage, as do the map pockets, overhead sunglass holder, under-stack CD-or-whatever holder, middle cupholders, or dual covered consoles. The latter open easily with a little downward press, and use convenient accordion covers instead of the old lift-up doors; and all the storage areas have rattle-damping measures, usually removable rubber inserts. It's a major advantage over the prior generation - more attractive, easier to get to, and less noisy.

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The climate control is simple enough and easy to use, for a three-way system; you can set the front driver and passenger temperatures separately (thermostatic control was standard on our test car), and choose the vent system, with a separate control for turning on the a/c compressor, which is automatically activated on defrost regardless. Another button lets you lock in rear temperature and fan settings. All buttons are large enough for control with gloves, logically placed, well labeled, and backlit at night, to minimize distraction. The fan is very loud on its top setting but is more reasonable at other settings; unfortunately, there's no "automatic-medium" setting, and pushing the Auto button puts the rear climate control onto auto, along with the front.

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Overhead, our test car had a long rack of drop-down consoles, which also held the optional rear-seat video and standard second-row climate controls; there were no less than three drop-down storage units, all padded. The console system included snazzy white LED lighting, with an equally snazzy green neon outline that could be dimmed or shut off entirely from a rheostat up front.

Stereo and video

Our test car had the old hard-drive stereo, which accepts USB thumb drives holding MP3 files, but not our current-generation 120 GB iPod Classic. Adding music from CDs, DVDs, and thumb drives (as long as they were MP3, not AAC) was very easy; the satellite radio system was well integrated into the stereo, as was the optional video player. The sound seemed good enough but not excellent, and not nearly up to the 2011 Grand Cherokee we recently tested. In fairness, getting excellent sound from a cavernous minivan interior must be quite a challenge. Still, based on this car, we can't really recommend the $800 Infinity speakers plus subwoofer option that was on our test car.

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The 30 gigabyte hard drive holds a lot of music; and you could sit and watch movies on the screen, as long as you were in Park. The lack of a station-changing knob was awkward with the satellite radio, which has over a hundred channels; it takes a while to go through with your finger on a button. Changing bass, treble, or midrange took a press to the physical Audio button, then the virtual Equalizer button, then multiple presses on a virtual equalizer (though you could "click and drag" directly on the image of the equalizer knobs).

Switching modes required pressing both hard and soft buttons (or using the wheel-mounted mode button): press once on Radio or Media, and you get touch-screen choices of AM/FM/Satellite, or Disk/DVD/AUX/VESA. For radio, it shows a list of presets, four per screen, with the names of the stations. The hard drive/disc has hard drive, disc, auxiliary (the little jack on front of the screen), VES (video DVD), and USB control, so that you can use your built in controls to navigate the contents of your high-quality music device. You can't put iPod files onto the hard drive, but you can copy from thumb drives, and it also records from DVDs - fairly quickly.

The overhead video screen had a high quality picture, and the supplied headphones let kids could listen to their movies (or TV shows) without bothering the driver. Perhaps more important, the screen, which pulled down from the roof, didn't interfere much with the rear-view mirror, as some other video systems do, and was out of the way of kids' feet.

Gizmos and gadgets and mobile Internet

Optional safety features - all standard on the Chrysler version - include blind spot monitoring, rain-sensitive wipers, mobile Internet, and rear cross path systems. Our Crew actually came with a standard backup camera, once an expensive extra; it provides a fairly clear color picture of where you're going, with a guide line and red-yellow-green distance indicator.

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One of the original design goals for the minivan was to have sliding doors on each side, for the ultimate in convenience (one door was used in the first generation for various reasons, but two had been planned). Customers shown both designs clearly opted for the sliders, and Honda's first minivan failed in the market largely because it used conventional doors. Times change, and today many see sliding doors as an admission that they have a family, which they apparently consider to be bad, because they run to anything without a sliding door. But nothing else can give the huge opening and convenience of the sliders (which require only a few inches to open in a parking lot), so minivans still have them. In back, since there's no place for a door to slide into, a top-hinged hatch is used; big-SUV-style dual opening doors and accordions were never adopted by any minivan maker, for whatever reasons.

Over a decade ago, minivans gained power sliding doors; powered hatches followed. Neither is essential, and opening and closing minivan doors is by no means hard, though it's not as easy to do from the inside as it is from the outside. But they are a convenience, especially if you can open and close the doors manually when needed. Fortunately, Chrysler and Volkswagen both allow this; the rear hatch can always be operated manually, while the sliding doors can be muscled closed if the rear door/window lock is on, or if the person pulls twice on the door handle. The latter is pretty tricky, so after a brief time we shut off the rear controls, which has a second advantage of avoiding kids playing with the doors. (The doors can still be opened from the key fob or from the front-overhead buttons; these are clearly marked and conveniently located).

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One feature that died under Daimler and was not resurrected was very popular indeed: the windshield wiper defroster, a set of electric strips under the wiper blade for winter use. On cars with massive wiper blades, this was very handy, and it worked far more quickly and effectively than letting the engine warm up and then using the defrost vents.

One option of the minivans (which was not on our test car, but carries forward from prior years when we tested it) was mobile Internet. Chrysler's system is pricey to start with, at nearly $500, but the monthly fees are low, at around $30 per month, albeit without cell phone capability; so over two or three years, the cost is about the same as a "regular" mobile hot spot, at least from Verizon and at current prices, and understanding that you can't take it with you if you leave the car. The Chrysler AutoNet system can support multiple users at once, though not with a great deal of speed, and is designed for quick handoffs between access points.

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The AutoNet system uses three radios, two EVDO systems and one 1xRTT; it includes Ethernet and USB ports, so you can plug directly into the system, and a wireless router. It was easy to connect to the network, which provided a strong signal within the van and (we're told) for around 100 yards outside the van, as well; one of AutoNet's providers is Verizon, which may have the most widespread system. When within reach of a fast signal, count on something between modem and DSL; slower signals are roughly modem speed.

The last time we looked, security is the easily-cracked WEP protocol, but if you mainly use it while driving, that's probably no problem unless there's a cracker in the car next to yours. The system shuts off when your car does, so you don't have to worry about people taking advantage of your car hot-spot while it sits in your driveway.

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As a Crew model, our test car had a standard ParkView system, which routes a moderately wide-angle color image from a small camera above the license plate to the stereo screen. The system can save a child's life (the largest cause of car-based child fatalities is getting backed over - usually in their own driveway); it used to be part of a $2,000 package with the rear seat video and a hard-drive based stereo with satellite radio and DVD player, and now it and the hard drive stereo are included on Crew. The system worked well and was useful not only for detecting obstacles (such as cars, kids, and telephone poles), but also for figuring out where to stop when backing into a space.

Another "accident avoidance" safety feature was the tire pressure alert, which appeared underneath the speedometer. That area can also be used to show distance to empty, average mileage, or temperature and compass heading. On Crew, it doesn't show individual tire pressures.

Minivan seats and interior features; Stow 'n' Go

As with past minivans, it was possible, if not easy, to climb from the front row all the way back to the rear gate; though getting over the front-center console is tricky. Getting in and out was easy, thanks to a nicely engineered floor height; unlike comparable SUVs, the Town & Country minivan required no climbs to get in. Grab handles are still supplied at all the doors just to make sure, but they probably won't be needed; and if you have wheelchair-bound relatives, Chrysler can set you up with an aftermarket wheelchair loader installer.

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The front seats are far more comfortable than the 2008s, and even more than the 2006 Chrysler Town & Country we actually own. Both front seats and both middle seats had attached, soft flip-up armrests, which work better than the Toyota models that have a ratchet mechanism. The middle seats are not quite as good as the fronts, but they are still far better than the middle row on the outgoing models, and comfortable enough for long trips. The rear row is comfortable and there is plenty of legroom as well.

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Folding the middle row is now a one-lever affair; first you have to move the front row seat far forward (a bit slow if you have electric seats) and lift the cover of the storage area, which appears unchanged from the prior two generations. Then lift a single lever and the headrest springs down, the seat folds, and it pivots right into the space; it's considerably easier than in past iterations, and you can't forget to put the headrest down.

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The rear seats were always easy to stow; while an electric rear seat system was available, it took more time than doing it manually.

Storage and such

Above the van, the roofrack was unusual: the crossbars were folded into the side supports, increasing the aerodynamic efficiency of the Caravan and minimizing the cosmetic intrusion of the rack.

There were many other places to put things in this van, as one would expect; small cubbies in the rear, side seat pockets in the middle row along with door mounted cupholders and map pockets behind the front seats, the huge covered storage bins between the front and middle seats, and, up front, well, that's another story entirely.

Both front doors had not one but two levels of map pockets; six cupholders, two of which have bubble-type drink securing devices; a single overhead bin (a multiple overhead bin system is optional); a huge bin underneath the center stack; two glove compartments; and, if you took out two or four of the front cupholders, a center bin. This, cupholders and all, could be removed and placed between the middle-row seats.

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A clever returning feature is the little bin-type area, protected by cargo netting, underneath the center stack; it's now brightly lit at night. Another clever feature, new to us, is the second-row pull-out storage bin, that comes out from the center console between the front seats: it can be pulled out partway to reveal twin cupholders, or all the way to provide a long, deep storage area. It has a quality feel to it, as well, without the "plastic on plastic" rubbing one might expect.

The middle seats had individual cupholders in the doors, and rear seats had the old-style molded-in-sides cupholders carried over, it seems, from 1984.

As in the past, the interior is cavernous, and folding down various combinations of seats allows for a great deal of storage capacity. Traditionally minivan interiors have been surprisingly tough and capable of withstanding a lot of abuse; they also have a lot of cupholders.

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Dodge Grand Caravan Controls

Controls were generally sensible and well labeled, and the proliferation of switches was somewhat better controlled than in the past. The left hand stalk had controls for both front and rear washer/wipers, while the cruise was moved from a ministalk back to the wheel; the system was not as easy to use as the "classic" Chrysler system, but took up less space, and was a decent compromise to allow audio controls on the wheel.

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Door controls were at each door, on the key fob, and in an overhead row of buttons, in logical order; the buttons were larger and more clearly marked than in the past. The touch-screen stereo on our test car was harder to deal with than a conventional unit, especially for audio modifications (which required two touches to the screen, diverting attention from the road); there are audio controls on the wheel, but they don't cover balance/fade or bass/treble.

The key goes into the dashboard, a nice feature that's becoming more common since Chevrolet revived it a decade ago; headlights have a knob and rheostat in Chrysler's traditional location (if you were wondering, the headlights seem much more powerful than in the past, too). The parking brake is a traditional but awkward push-to-release pedal.

The Grand Caravan didn't need to grow on us, as the prior generation vans did; it was immediately likeable, with its more nimble feel and easy-power drivetrain. There were also useful features that prospective car buyers don't usually experience until after taking the plunge, which go far beyond the incredible multitude of storage spaces, such as the ability to change preferences using the easy trip-computer interface. The multitude of door controls provides a lot of flexibility, while the lockouts keep you safe - as do the door safety mechanisms. The various dome and map lights did a surprisingly good job of lighting up the entire minivan at night; while the LED-plus-neon interior on our car (which might be standard and might be part of the rear seat video package) is mondo cool and lets people have personal lights without much driver distraction. And, of course, there's the ability to carry your whole personal music collection in the dashboard via "the system formerly known as MyGIG."

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We appreciated having the hazard flashers go on whenever the side doors were opened and the key was in the ignition. We also appreciated the dual LED taillights, a major safety upgrade when one considers just how many cars out there are running without one or two of their brake lights (perhaps this is a local phenomenon). Even the Express model has many surprisingly standard features, and the Crew is surprisingly well equipped; it seems that instead of tossing massive rebates on the hood, Chrysler is throwing in lots of gadgets and higher grade materials, with a lower price.

Chrysler still needs to re-examine their choice of tires; with the low first gear of the transmission and torque range of the engine, we sometimes had traction issues when starting out, especially when starting on a curve (as in getting onto an old-fashioned highway from a stop sign, or when turning onto a main street from a wet or dirty street).

Minivan manufacturing and pricing

Our Grand Caravan Crew model checked in (without options) at $29,530, expensive for a car but not for a minivan for similarly sized SUV (the base Express is around $25,000 and has the same powertrain and largely the same interior. If these prices seem high, consider that the 2008 "stripper" LX model started at $27,250, with a little 3.3 engine and four-speed automatic).

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Our 2011 Dodge Grand Caravan Crew, optioned out as it was, cost $32,050, which still compares quite favorably to an SUV of similar size. It's far less than the pointless extravagance that is the Cadillac Escalade, with more to recommend it to anyone who doesn't travel on unplowed streets or tow heavy trailers. But you may want to know how the price shot up so high from the base.

The priciest option was the rear seat video, using a big nine-inch screen, and including wireless headphones and remote control, for $1,300. That's the cost of around three iPads and a decent amount of video. Then there was the power liftgate, at $425, and the aforementioned optional stereo, at $795. Just three options, but pricey options.

In every case, you get a three year or 36,000 mile basic warranty with towing assistance plus a 5/100 powertrain warranty and 24-hour towing. The minivans are all made in Windsor, Ontario, and use engines and transmissions built in the United States; 82% of the content is from the US and Canada. (A second engine plant is opening in Mexico but might be used primarily for trucks.)

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Chrysler's new quality systems and standards are quite promising; while their minivans have generally achieved average or better quality ratings, the current goal is to "much better than average," and numerous measures are being taken to achieve that. Some are old ideas from the pre-Daimler years, such as being able to stop the line when a problem is found, or sending advisors to suppliers, or tracking problems more closely and publicly, or empowering workers, or doing more preventive maintenance; other measures are newer and borrowed from Fiat, which has gone from junk to excellence in recent decades. Either way, customers will find that their minivans are better backed and better made than they have been.

In short - congratulations to Chrysler and Dodge; the 2011 minivans once again leapfrog the competition. One wonders what the 2014s will be like.

We road tested the Volkswagen Routan too...

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