Dodge Grand Caravan — Going with the Flo

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The Chrysler Corp. has been nailed to the wall in recent times, lambasted for inferior products, very few truly fuel-efficient cars, and very little new and cutting-edge vehicles in the pipeline. Much of the criticism is, frankly, well deserved.

But this does not mean that Chrysler is currently devoid of worthwhile vehicles.

Example number one is the relatively new full-sized Dodge Ram pickup. It’s a job darn well done. And to put a big exclamation point on the Ram, the Ram heavy duty was picked as Motor Trend’s “2010 Truck of the Year.”

Likewise, a portion of the iconic Jeep lineup continues to appeal to serious off-roaders, as it should. The Jeep Wrangler is still one of the most efficient go-anywhere vehicles in the world. And still in the forefront of the competition are the Chrysler and Dodge minivans as well.

Chrysler invented the minivan more than a quarter century ago, and it remains an efficient, well-thought-out people mover. The problem with the Chrysler minivans — as with all others — is the shrinking minivan segment, which in 2010 is just a fraction of what it was in the heydays of the late ’80s and early-to-mid ’90s before sport utilities and crossovers gained a foothold.

But even through the worst automotive recession in decades and even with Chrysler market share falling off a cliff, the Chrysler Town and Country and Dodge Grand Caravan siblings sold more than 175,000 units in 2009.

Very impressive when you consider that the Honda Odyssey — the gold standard if you believe such highly regarded sources as Consumer Reports — sold just under 100,000 units and the aging Toyota Sienna — completely redone for 2011 — sold about 82,000 copies.

Future problems may be looming for the Chrysler minivan twins, however, problems that have nothing to do with the evaporating segment. Customer impressions gathered by automotive web giant reveal that som

e owners of current-generation Chrysler minivans are not happy with sloppy fit and finish, squeaks and rattles, and overall lack of quality. A few report hardware problems with things like the sliding doors and tailgate.

But other reviews we read showed many customers generally satisfied.

It’s up to the customer to do the research, but from our point of view after a week behind the wheel of a base 2010 SE and another week spent driving the upscale SXT Grand Caravan, we still believe the Chrysler minivans do what they were designed to do — carry as many as eight people and cargo in an efficient manner in comfortable surroundings and with a long list of available innovative features and amenities. Needless to say the SXT does it better and the SE does it for a more economical price.

And very important for families with children — the biggest customer — is the Grand Caravan’s top five-star front and side government crash test ratings.

The Caravan (note: we use the term Caravan and Grand Caravan interchangeably – all Caravans are Grand Caravans) — and its not quite identical twin, the Chrysler Town and Country — is in its third year of the fifth generation. Chrysler has held the lid on prices and allows cash-strapped families to enjoy the advantages of a minivan at a relatively affordable price.

For instance, our base SE test Caravan came with no options and a bottom line of $23,995 including destination charge. Figuring there are discounts and rebates available at your local Dodge stores, a family can pile into a minivan without exploding the budget. For comparison, the base Honda Odyssey is $27,515 and the base 2010 Toyota Sienna is $25,340.

There is actually a bottom trim level called C/V, but it’s a stripper intended for commercial use only. The top trim is the SXT and it does have a couple of big advantages we will discuss later, but it also carries a $27,550 base price.

What you get in the SE is a spacious hauler with 82.6 cubic feet of storage behind the second row and a maximum cargo capacity of 144 cubic feet. When in passenger mode, the Caravan has two captain’s chairs in the second row — at least in our test vehicle — and three-passenger seating in the rear.

Standard features on all Caravans include three-zone climate control, full power accessories, stow-in-the-floor second-row and third row seats, cruise control, a four-speaker stereo with CD/MP3 player, and tilt steering wheel.

In addition to the noteworthy crash test ratings, all Caravans come with four-wheel antilock brakes, stability control, and side-curtain airbags.

There are numerous appealing goodies available for the SE that might break a struggling family’s budget but would be enticing to us including upgraded media center (as Dodge calls it), which includes navigation, a backup camera, upgraded audio, Bluetooth, satellite radio, and a 30 gig hard drive for $2,200; a “popular equipment group” package that includes power sliding doors, a power liftgate, remote start, and adjustable pedals for $1,495; and rear entertainment — what family with young kids can pass this one up — for $2,120. Just those add-ons run up the price another $5,815.

The glaring downside to the SE is the engine/transmission setup. It comes with Chrysler’s ancient 3.3-liter V-6 making 175 horsepower and 205 pound-feet of torque mated to a four-speed automatic. We found the engine adequate in stop-and-go driving and with light loads on the open road in merging and passing. But with a curb weight of 4,321 pounds and a moderate to heavy load of passengers and/or cargo, the engine struggles. On top of that, it is rated at a rather thirsty 17 mpg city and 23 mpg highway.

Move up to the SXT and a 3.8-liter V-6 making 197 horsepower and 230 lb.-ft. torque mated to a six-speed automatic is an improvement. But to get modern-day minivan power, you will have to opt for Quick Order Package 28K for the optional 4.0-liter 251-horsepower V-6 and a six-speed transmission at a cost of $630. That said, our test SXT had an engine discount of $630 on the sticker, so effectively there was no additional cost for the much better 4-liter. In addition to rewarding performance it also offers rewarding gas mileage of 17/25.

Our SXT test vehicle was loaded, and we mean loaded. Aside from the standard power equipment including power sliding doors on both sides there was $2,760 for a “preferred package” that included leather trim power driver and passenger seats and heated seats in the front and second rows along with a sport suspension and that all important power liftgate. For $495 you get Swivel and Go, a third row table and a 9-inch swivel screen. Another $600 get you the trail tow package which we like for the heavy duty engine cooling and radiator system and the heavy duty transmission oil cooler. The Security Group with blind spot warning, rear park assist and automatic headlamps adds another $1,030. The $1,995 Premium Group has entertainment related stuff, a three-zone air conditioning system and the power folding 3rd row seat.

But wait there’s more: that $2,200 super entertainment package described above was on our SXT as well, plus another $2,755 for other stuff and additionally a $495 charge for the Sirius backseat TV service that get you the Disney Channel and two other kid stations to keep the youngsters happy and quite. Total for our SXT was a whopping $39,855 which included the engine discount and a credit delete for something another and destination charges. Wow!

And yet there is still more — our SXT also had a Mopar provided, dealer installed FloTV. A full 20 channels of your favorite small screen shows (with more coming) ready to keep everyone entertained, offering: college and professional sports, breaking news, children’s shows, primetime sitcoms, reality TV and daytime dramas. Of course you need the navigation screen and entertainment system to get FloTV and $629 plus installation charges that also covers the programming for the first year. Fees for succeeding years are currently $119 per. Chrysler is the first automaker in the United States to offer live, mobile TV to consumers.

We had no complaints with the driving dynamics of the Caravan. It gave us the kind of handling and control expected of a people mover. The suspension is relatively soft in the SE and the sport suspension in the SXT offers a firm but compliant feel allowing for a comfortable ride. And the interior is reasonably quiet; except for the grandkids screaming and laughing at the TV, each with their own selection of entertainment. Better than screaming at each other!

Base price: $23,995 (SE); $27,550 (SXT) as driven: SE - $23,995; SXT - $39,855
Engine: 3.3-liter V-6 (SE)/4-liter V-6 (SXT)
Horsepower: 175 @ 5,000 rpm/251 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 205 lb.-ft. @ 4,000 rpm/259 lb.-ft. @ 4,100 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 4-speed automatic/6-speed automatic
Seating: 2/2/3
Wheelbase: 121.2 inches
Length: 202.5 inches
Curb weight: 4,321 pounds/4,514 pounds
Turning circle: 38 feet
Cargo capacity: 144 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 20.5 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 17/24 mpg; 17/25 mpg city/highway
0-60: 10.5 seconds (estimated) / 8.0 seconds (estimated)
Also consider: Chrysler Town & Country, Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna

The Good:
• Family can get into a minivan at bargain-basement price in base format
• Spacious interior
• Perfect crash test scores
• Upscale SXT for those who want the best

The Bad:
• Outdated base engine and transmission on the SE

The Ugly:
• Subpar interior materials
• Cost of extras