Driver's Seat: The first minivan, improved, makes its return

The 2011 Dodge Caravan comes with a 283-horsepower 3.6-liter V6 that averages about 22 miles per gallon.
The 2011 Dodge Caravan comes with a 283-horsepower 3.6-liter V6 that averages about 22 miles per gallon.
Posted: April 27, 2011

2011 Dodge Caravan Crew: It's the minivan that started it all, improved for 2011. But now that the United States has saved Chrysler, will Fiat save it again?

Price: $28,995. $34,150 after options were added, including $425 for a power liftgate; and $810 for Bluetooth, heated steering wheel, and heated front seats. (More prices further down.)

Marketer's pitch: Makes you want to have kids. Almost.

Conventional wisdom: Put on the shorts, black socks, and sandals, Dad.

Reality: Lots of features, attractively packaged, but there's a nagging quality issue.

Den on wheels: The Crew has all the thoughtful touches to keep a family and its stuff mobile, head and shoulders above the other vans I've tested. See the Honda Odyssey review and the Toyota Sienna review.

A long drawer underneath the console could hold a fairly large CD collection - or lots of toys.

And not just the den, but the garage and the basement: The Stow and Go seats offered to Crew buyers make a completely flat floor for hauling stuff, and the compartments where the middle-row seats stow offer great closet space for luggage or kids' stuff.

But you can get into a Dodge Grand Caravan Express for $23,995. Between that and the Crew is the MainStreet (the oddest array of model levels I've yet to see).

Stow and . . . stow and . . . OK, now go: The downside of the hideaway middle seats is getting everything out of their way to hide them. The power front seat must be moved all the way forward (which takes an awful long time, even from my 5'10" position).

 Let there be light: The spotlights in the cabin are attractive and well-placed. A flashlight in the cargo compartment (part of a $595 package that also keeps tushies in the backseat warm and small faces shaded from bright sun) really showed attention to detail. Still, knowing the Sturgis clan's track record with TV remotes, I'd order a spare flashlight when I bought the van. But I'd probably never find it.

Room with a view: The Grand Caravan keeps its classic minivan styling, with tall windows. It may not have the pretty lines of the Odyssey or Sienna, but it's a lot easier to see the lanes next to you.

Splash! Minivans live and die on their cupholders. The Grand Caravan holds plenty of large drinks, but they all lack any grip tabs. So either bring your Big Gulps or your sippy cups; everything else is fraught with peril.

Don't dawdle with the disc: Press the "Open" button and the cool navigation screen slides down at an angle and out of the way of the disc slot. Part of a neato $1,300 option package, right?

Except Sturgis Kid 4.0 and I were slow deciding on the next CD, and the screen started to close mid-load. Almost broke Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in two.

Also, press "Open" and the radio immediately goes off, so you can't queue up the next round of tunes while catching Traffic on the 2s. This is part of a $695 option for the media center and navigation system.

Feel the bass: Options included $800 for amplified speakers with subwoofers. While it was better sound than the standard Chrysler stereo, it still lacked power at low volume.

Friends and stuff: The cloth seats were soft but not really firm. The lovely Mrs. Passenger Seat and all versions of Sturgis Kid liked them. I fear the thin, foldaway seats may not survive the long haul.

The Grand Caravan stops at seven seats, though, while the Sienna and Odyssey both go up to eight.

Performance: Here's the real reason people buy a minivan: impressing their friends with straight-acceleration. But seriously, folks, the 283-horsepower 3.6-liter V6 is up to the task. Plenty of power, but no necks were snapped in the making of this review.

Still, I sensed engine hesitation and shift indecision from the six-speed automatic on low grades in the 30 to 40 m.p.h. range. Which leads me to . . .

Reliability: Chrysler, Jeep, and Dodge have all come in near the bottom of a recent Consumer Reports survey, and also on J.D. Power's rankings.

But I'm a "Till death do us part" car owner. All the features might make this a fine choice for someone who likes to replace vehicles when the warranty is up.

Where it's built: Windsor, Ontario. Imported from across the Detroit River from Detroit, maybe.

Mileage: I averaged about 22 miles per gallon in a mix of driving (no long trips this time, kiddies). That was about even with the Odyssey and the Sienna.

In the end: The Sienna was more of a driver's unit, while the Odyssey bathed everyone in luxury. The Grand Caravan has a lot of great family features and the visibility factor is a real consideration for harried parents.

Coming in May: The Nissan Quest and the Mazda5.


Contact Scott Sturgis at 215-854-2558 or ssturgis@phillynews.com.

For another look at the automotive world, visit Sturgis' blog, A Different Spin, at www.philly.com/differentspin

 

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