Don't be surprised, should you become the owner of a 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan, if your kids Scooter and Buffy actually dance in anticipation of their ride to school each morning. Indeed, so accommodating and packed with amusements is this all-new, fifth-generation version of the minivan that started it all a quarter-century ago, your primary morning chore is likely going to be prying the kids out of it.
The new Caravan (and Chrysler Town & Country) arrives none too soon. Chrysler Corporation had the minivan market all to itself in 1984 (one of the advantages to creating a market niche that previously didn't exist), but in the ensuing years its 100-percent share has steadily eroded in the growing shadow of myriad worthy arrivals-Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna, Kia Sedona, Nissan Quest, and more. The now-retiring fourth-gen Chrysler models still account for a segment-leading 38 percent of sales, but that's largely on the basis of sheer inertia. In our last minivan comparison (MT, August, 2006), the aging Caravan (last renewed in 2001) finished a distant last.
Based on our drives in a range of preproduction 2008 units, though, Chrysler looks to have leaped straight back to the front of the minivan pack. Astutely reworking its family favorite, the automaker has retained the good stuff (the innovative. quick-fold Stow 'n Go seats unveiled for 2004), jettisoned the Achilles' heels (dated jellybean design, weak powertrains), and added a ton of desirable new features-all while trimming the bottom line.
The new Grand Caravan scores on styling. This is a vehicle that plays to a vast spectrum of demographics and tastes, so polarizing "designer" swoops and adornments are out. But via its simple, broad-shouldered lines the Dodge radiates a handsome, expensive presence. The roof is six inches wider than before; the nose and glass proportions borrow from Dodge's masculine Charger and Magnum. Some of the changes you can't see-for instance, while frontal area is increased, the drag coefficient is down four percent. Others are conspicuous. Shrivel no more at the thought of driving a minivan: The Grand Caravan actually looks mean looming up in a rearview mirror.
Gone is the standard-wheelbase Caravan model; the new version is "Grand" only.
Wheelbase is stretched nearly two inches, track is widened 2.5 inches up front and 1.5 inches in the rear, and overall length has grown two inches. Standard tires are now 16-inchers (versus 15s), and the suspension is thoroughly revised (struts up front, a rear twist beam with coil springs, and a larger front stabilizer bar for improved control). The new Caravan/Town & Country are also the only minivans to offer self-leveling shocks.
Dodge has smartly axed the previous four-cylinder base engine and now offers a choice of three V-6s: a flex-fuel 3.3-liter (175 hp), a 3.8 (197 hp), and a new, 24-valve 4.0-liter unit serving up 251 horses and 259 pound-feet. The 3.3 mates to a standard four-speed automatic, while the two larger engines connect to the first six-speed auto offered in the category.
Inside, the Grand Caravan is roomier and more feature-filled than ever. In addition to the aforementioned Stow 'n Go seats, newly optional "Swivel 'n Go" second-row chairs flip around 180 degrees-creating club seating with a removable table so everyone can eat their drive-thru burgers or play Scrabble together. Convenient LED reading lamps dot the cabin, and there's an available overhead "halo" light that bathes the interior in soft blue. The Grand Caravan also brims with safety features, including standard all-row side-curtain airbags, standard electronic stability and traction control, tire-pressure monitoring, and optional rear park assist and a newly available backup camera. Due sometime after launch is an optional integrated child-booster seat, a minivan first.Now, the fun stuff. A new, optional dual DVD system can play two different DVDs (on two separate overhead LCD screens) at once. Or one row can watch a DVD while the other row plugs in a gaming console (there's a power outlet built right into the C-pillar). Or perhaps either or both rows would like to watch live television: the Grand Caravan offers three channels of Sirius Backseat TV: Disney, Cartoon Network, and Nickelodeon (sorry, Dad: no ESPN). To ensure that the big folks up front retain their sanity, all the audio can be fed through wireless headphones (video can also be viewed in the dash-mounted LCD when the vehicle is in park).
Other available goodies include a 20-gig hard drive for storing MP3s and photos (viewable on the LCD screens); a 506-watt, 7.1 surround-sound audio system (including a minivan-first subwoofer); Sirius Satellite Radio; voice-activated navigation; heated front and second-row seats; Bluetooth cell-phone connectivity; key-fob-activated remote-starting capability; and-perhaps most welcome-an integrated, drop-down "surveillance" mirror so the driver can monitor the goings-on in the entertainment megaplex behind. (The only missing detail is an onboard popcorn machine.)
The Japanese machines still hold an edge in interior finish-for instance, the dashes in the Honda and the Toyota are large, unbroken expanses of rich-looking material, whereas the Dodge uses harder plastic with an abundance of cut-lines. But in every other way the Dodge felt the equal or superior vehicle. The topline Grand Caravan SXT (pictured here) cruises almost without wind noise, steers with strong feel, deftly balances a compliant ride with good body control, and-thanks to its new engine and six-speed automatic-serves up forward motion like a luxury sedan.
The trump card is price. The outgoing Caravan could be had in more than 11,000 possible configurations. The new one: fewer than 1300. Due in part to that improved manufacturing efficiency, Dodge is able to offer more for less. The new, better-featured Grand Caravan actually stickers below the previous version: $22,470 for the base SE, $27,535 for the highline SXT (the 4.0-liter six and the media systems are additional). With a fully loaded Honda Odyssey Touring nosing $40K, it's a given that even a lavishly contented Grand Caravan will come in for thousands less.Which is to say, stay tuned for a new minivan shootout. The entertainer is here, and the innovator is back.
THE T&C TREATMENT
Think of the new Chrysler Town & Country as the Grand Caravan's uptown sibling. The T&C borrows its elegant front styling from the Chrysler 300 sedan, and its interior offers the warmth of woodgrain trim. The T&C also features a more relaxed ride than the sportier Dodge's. In the hardware department, though, the Dodge and Chrysler are virtual twins. The T&C offers three trim levels: LX ($23,190), Touring ($28,430), and Limited ($36,400, including the 4.0-liter six and six-speed auto, leather seats, and MyGIG).
|2008 Dodge Grand Caravan|
|Base Price||$22,470 - $27,535|
|Vehicle Layout||Front engine, FWD, 7-8-pass, 4-door van|
|Engine||3.3L/175-hp(est)/205-lb-ft(est)OHV 12-valve V-6;3.8L/197-hp(est)/230-lb-ft(est) OHV 12-valve V-6; 4.0L/251-hp(est)/259-lb-ft(est) SOHC 24-valve V-6|
|Curb Weight||4350-4500 lb (mfr)|
|Length x Width x Height||202.5 x 78.7 x 68.9 in|
|0-60 MPH||8.0-10.5 sec (MT est)|
|EPA City/HWY Econ||16-17/23-24 mpg|
|CO2 Emissions||0-99-1.05 lb/mile|
|On Sale In U.S.||Oct-07|