Dodge Grand Caravan — Headed in the right direction

 By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Since arriving as the first minivans back in the mid-80s, the Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country have never relinquished the sales title despite considerable competition that has grown stronger in recent years.

The current generation Chrysler vans — going into the 2011 model year — were appealing in enough ways to continue outselling such vaunted competitors as the Toyota Sienna and the Honda Odyssey. But two deficiencies have stood out in recent years when compared to the Japanese entries.

The Chrysler engines — there were three V-6 choices for 2010 — were outclassed by the sweet-sounding, fuel efficient and relatively powerful Japanese powerplants. And the Chrysler/Dodge interiors were just not competitive with the Japanese.

Chrysler has addressed both issues for 2011. The results are rather stunning, and it isn’t any too soon as Honda, Toyota and Nissan have put all-new and considerably upgraded products on the market.

Replacing the three engines is the new, award-winning Pentastar V-6 making 283 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. It has transformed the Town & Country and the Grand Caravan — the subject of this review — into the most powerful minivans on the planet. Mated to a six-speed automatic, the V-6 is relatively fuel efficient at 25 mpg highway and 17 mpg in the city. The new V-6 is standard in all trim levels.

Unlike the lower-priced Caravans of the past in which buyers had to sacrifice performance with a choice of weak V-6 engines, they now get the big V-6 which we found to be enthusiastic in all driving situations despite being tasked to haul around 4,500 pounds. You could still argue that the Odyssey, Sienna and Quest hold an advantage in some areas including overall refinement, but in the key area of driving dynamics the Caravan holds its own quite nicely.

When called upon, the six-speed transmission offers smooth shifts through the gears and can propel the Caravan from rest to 60 mph in 7.4 seconds, which is about on a par with the Odyssey and Sienna. Transmission kick-down on those pesky instantaneous passing maneuvers from 40 mph up to 60, is done without delay.

For those who have been saddled with underpowered people movers over the years, the Caravan is indeed a welcome addition to the family. The Caravan also provided good on-center feel and lacked drama in everyday driving situations, which we figure is a good thing.

Chrysler has also worked miracles in transforming the interiors on many of its 2011 vehicles, and the Grand Caravan has been considerably improved by a new design and an upgrade in the material quality.

And what we like is that for a family struggling to enter the minivan market, the well-equipped base vehicle (the Grand Caravan comes in a base C/V model that is primarily sold for commercial use so we have considered the next model up as the base family hauler) can be purchased for $24,830 with the top engine/transmission combination. This price undercuts the least expensive Toyota V-6-powered van by $2,125, beats the base Odyssey by $3,750 and comes in at $3,730 under the base Quest.

Granted, the aforementioned competition has a bit more standard equipment at the higher prices, but for those families with kids that need to practice frugality, the Grand Caravan may be just the ticket, and a winning ticket, at that.

What you get in addition to the Pentastar engine for under 25 grand includes power sliding doors, a roof rack, tri-zone climate control, power driver’s seat, power-adjustable pedals, a touchscreen display and an upgraded audio system with satellite radio.

Safety is a key ingredient, especially when carrying precious cargo, and the Grand Caravan should meet the family’s needs with driver knee airbags, full-length side curtain airbags, antilock disc brakes, and stability and traction control. It’s good to know, too, that the brakes will pull the more-than-two-ton vehicle down from 60 mph in a tidy 130 feet according to independent testing results.

The driving position is raised creating good sight lines in all directions. Reaching the just-right driving position is easily attainable with a standard power seat, adjustable pedals and a tilt/telescoping steering wheel.

Fit and finish is excellent and the materials are noteworthy. The cloth seats in our Crew trim line test vehicle were attractive and felt good to the touch. The dash is fashioned in soft-touch material and features a sporty, tunneled gauge cluster. The audio controls were imbedded in the navigation screen in our test vehicle, but were easy to access after a bit of fiddling. Once familiar with the system, the audio is easy to operate without much distraction for the driver. Climate controls can be accessed without going through the screen.

We found the second row chairs acceptable, but not best in class. They are tilted back slightly to allow for a comfortable seating position for passengers with longer legs. Entering the third row is uneventful even for us of advancing age though a wide aisle between the second-row seats.

To get maximum cargo benefit, all Caravans come with the Stow ‘n Go second-row seats that don’t have to be physically removed, but simply fold flat into the floor.

Available in four trim levels — Express, Mainstreet, Crew and R/T — topping out at $31,525, our Crew test van which sells for $29,625, came in at $34,890 with options and destination charges.
Available options include a power liftgate, rain-sensing wipers, running board, trailer tow package, blind spot monitoring system, rearview camera, navigation with real-time traffic, rear entertainment, heated second-row seats and a upgraded nine-speaker audio system.

In the end the 2011 Grand Caravan left us with a solid impression that the company was headed in the right direction, for value, performance and competence.

Base price: $24,830; as driven, $34,890
Engine: 3.6-liter V-6
Horsepower: 283 @ 6,400 rpm
Torque: 260 foot-pounds @ 4,400 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Seating: 2/2/3
Wheelbase: 121.2 inches
Length: 202.8 inches
Curb weight: 4,510 pounds
Turning circle: 39.1 feet
Cargo capacity: 132.8 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 20 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 25 mpg highway, 17 mpg city
0-60: 7.4 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Nissan Quest, Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna

The Good:
• Refined interior
• Pentastar V-6 becomes standard
• Second-row seats can be stowed into floor
• Well-equipped base vehicle undercuts competition by thousands

The Bad
• Not as quiet as competition

The Ugly
• Still not as refined as the best in class