2009 Dodge Grand Caravan
2009 Dodge Grand Caravan Expert Review:Autoblog
Chrysler has had a lot of ups and downs over the years, riding the wave of one or two hot products at a time in a fight for survival. Fads at the Pentastar have come and gone, but the Auburn Hills-based automaker has had one mainstay since 1983: the minivan. Sure the VW Microbus came first, but here in the States it was Chrysler that started the minivan craze. From the minute that first Caravan rolled off the assembly line in the Reagan-era, this family-friendly minivan has been Chrysler's most important vehicle. With Ford and GM bowing out of the minivan segment altogether in recent years, the 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan becomes even more important for Chrysler, as it has the ability to scoop up sales from its domestic competition to counteract the segment shrinking as a whole.
Chrysler has fought hard to remain innovative in the minivan segment with firsts like twin sliding doors, seats that fold into the floor, and now Swivel 'N Go, which allows the second-row seats to swivel around 180 degrees to face the third row. One look at the Grand Caravan's long spec sheet shows that Chrysler also threw every technology on hand into this minivan, but we wanted to see if things like satellite TV and twin DVD Screens translated into a better minivan. Hit the jump to read about the 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT's stay in the Autoblog Garage. We've produced a video tour of the Grand Caravan's many features, as well.
Photos Copyright ©2009 Chris Shunk / Weblogs, Inc.
The 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT that arrived in our driveway was a completely loaded Inferno Red Chrystal Pearl Best Buy on four wheels. With the astonishing amount of equipment that is available for the Grand Caravan, the exterior looks are almost inconsequential. It's a minivan, style is a secondary concern.
Chrysler did manage to do away with much of the last model's jelly bean styling, instead opting for a squared-off rear end with an extremely low load floor and a more upright face. The Grand Caravan's sheet metal is also cleaner overall, with all plastic cladding removed. While some feel the last generation Caravan looked better in comparison, we're OK with Chrysler's new function-over-form aesthetic.
Most people cross over to minvan land for practical reasons, and the Grand Caravan returns the favor by making life easy for soccer moms and dads. Our Grand Caravan came equipped with premium entertainment features like Sirius Satellite radio, a navgation system, MyGig entertainment system with 20GB hard drive, two DVD players, two LCD displays, and satellite television.
Thoughtful touches abound within the Grand Caravan, as Chrysler has also made remote start, power sliding doors, a power lift gate, reverse camera and a power fold third row seat available. The windows on the sliding door also go down with the touch of a button, and even the third row windows open remotely for added ventilation. To shield passengers from the sun, Chrysler also added an integrated, retractable screen to cover the second row windows.
Our tester also had the optional Swivel 'N Go system, which allows the the second row captain's chairs to rotate 180 degrees and adds a stowable table for family fun on long road trips. Installation of the table is a snap, and the captain chairs pivot with the pull of a handle. The kids enjoyed playing cards in the back, and we loved that they weren't fighting with one another or complaining about our classic rock on the radio. We were disappointed that the third row flip-down LCD screen didn't swivel too, which means that when the kids are done playing cards and want to watch TV, you have to stop the vehicle and un-Swivel 'N Go. Overall, there were so many features inside the Grand Caravan, we had to produce the above video to walk you through all of them.
Not everything was rosy inside the Grand Caravan, however, as cheap materials found their way inside and multiplied like Gremlins. The dash plastics are hard and unappealing to the touch, and the center stack, while well laid out, is very tall and ungainly to the eye. The second DVD player is so low on the center stack that you have to bend slightly and take your eyes off the road to put in a DVD. Luckily, there are two places to enter DVDs, as the first one resides up high behind the nav screen. It's also puzzling that Chrysler isn't using features like heated and cooled cup holders across the model range, instead opting to use the feature in the lame Sebring while omitting it from the more sensible Grand Caravan.
Our least favorite feature of the Grand Caravan was the ridiculous dash-mounted shifter. I'm 5'11" and had to reach to grab the shifter, so the average 5'5" soccer mom will either have to move the driver's seat up on top of the steering wheel or lunge forward to get out of Park. On top of that, it has a completely useless manual shift option. Why would anybody want to manually shift a minivan's automatic transmission? And if you do enter the manual shift mode, the only way to return to automatic shifting is to briefly go into Neutral, which you shouldn't do, or reach sixth gear and click to the right one more time. If one cent was wasted on this manual shift mode that could have otherwise been spent on better materials, it's a real shame.
While minivans certainly aren't meant for track duty, it's nice when the driver is afforded some pop at the accelerator. Chrysler's newly available 4.0L V6 engine with 251 horsepower and 259 lb-ft of torque has as much kick as any other minivan on the market, and it can move the Grand Caravan's 4,400 lbs with ease. Passing on the freeway is a snap, and pulling out of the sub and into traffic is much less stressful than in the previous model.
Chrysler also tightened up the Grand Caravan's driving dynamics to provide a firmer and more athletic ride. While the chassis of the Grand Caravan isn't as smooth as that of the Honda Odyssey, it's very competent in the city or on the highway. Body roll is nicely composed for a top-heavy minivan that weighs nearly two tons and can carry seven in comfort, though we don't recommend hair-pin turns and stunt driving.
Overall, Chrysler did a terrific job with the 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan. Our fully-loaded SXT model was $39,305, but nicely equipped models with dual DVDs and Sirius radio/TV can be had for $8,000 less. The new Grand Caravan is way more refined and feature-heavy than the model it replaces, and we'd be thrilled to take our families on a long trip in this rolling living room. The one area where Chrysler can improve the Grand Caravan is in the area of interior refinement, but after seeing the 2009 Ram interior, we have high hopes that the company will soon fix the problem across its entire line. Minivans are all about comfort and convenience, and on those two counts, Chrysler scores a 10.
Photos Copyright ©2009 Chris Shunk / Weblogs, Inc.
click above image to view high-res gallery of the 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan
The minivan is dead, so says GM and Ford. They've all but given up on the sliding-door people movers. But where two-thirds of the Big Three see a dead end, Dodge sees an opportunity. And so do Toyota, Honda, Kia and Hyundai, which means it takes more than a smooth ride and a full set of cup holders to compete in this tricky segment. Chrysler has therefore packed its latest Grand Caravan with a family-sized list of innovations.
Relying on a laundry list of features is a good thing, because if the Grand Caravan depended only on its looks for sales, then the minivan might be dead meat. The last time we saw sheet metal this flat and unadorned was on a UPS truck. Surely it wouldn't have cost that much more to put in a curve or character line here and there. And is that the same grille as on last year's Dakota? But as my wife points out, "It's a van. You don't buy a van for the aesthetics." True. It's what is inside that counts, and the Caravan has interior goodies galore.
Continue reading about the 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT after the jump.
Live Photos Copyright ©2007 Chris Tutor / Weblogs, Inc.
At the top of the Caravan's options list for 2008 is, of course, the Swivel 'N Go seating seen first at the Detroit Auto Show in January. The van's second row captain's chairs can turn 180 degrees to face both the third row bench and a small table on which passengers can play games or eat or do homework. The table and swiveling seats are certainly attractive features that will probably get quite a few families looking at minivans again.
The second row seats can also be stopped halfway in their turn to face either of the two sliding rear doors, making rear-seat entry much easier for elderly passengers. Grandmother opens the door, swivels the seat to face her, sits down and swivels it to the front of the car. We see it as a bonus feature for parents of infants and toddlers, too. Swivel the seat halfway for super-easy child-seat access.
The center table, however, has its drawbacks. When removed, it and its pedestal conveniently stow beneath the center row seats. Removing the table ain't all fun and games, though. Dodge's people even had a little trouble getting the table top off of the metal pole. Maybe with practice it gets easier, but try it out yourself before taking one home. One other drawback to the Swivel 'N Go system is leg room. With the second-row seats turned backwards and the table installed, there's not really any good place to put your feet. Put four twitchy kids back there and a calm game of Go Fish can soon turn into a familiar match of "He Kicked Me!" But with only two rear passengers, those swiveled seats make great ottomans. Daddy could learn to like this.
The third row has a double personality, too. Open the rear hatch and use a series of numbered pulls on the seatbacks to fold the split bench into the floor. Pull them in another order, and the bench flips backwards for tailgate seating that's more comfortable than any bare-metal pickup truck bed.
All seats can be ordered covered in leather and, even with standard cloth, can be heated. The unheated cloth surfaces in our van looked like they'd be easy to keep clean and Dodge says they're stain and odor resistant, which all parents know is always good with kids. Rear passengers can also get optional rear climate controls and vents for each row.
But enough about tables and spinning seats – let's talk electronics. The Caravan's got that covered, too. There's an LCD screen for both sets of rear seats, and each can display different entertainment. The teenagers can sit in the way back and watch "High School Musical" while the toddlers can enjoy "Dora" on the other LCD thanks to dual DVD players in the dash, each with their own remote control. Through the magic of wireless headphones, Mom and Dad don't have to listen to any of it.
If the trip lasts longer than it takes for Dora to find whatever the heck she's looking for, two sets of A/V plugs let the little ones bring along their favorite video games. There's even an AC plug right there, so no transformer is needed. Mobile satellite television is also an option that our van didn't have.
Up front, parents have their own entertainment options. Our tester was equipped with a touchscreen satellite radio interface that also had the currently-fashionable in-dash digital storage. Put in a CD or plug in a USB device and the system rips the songs to build your personal in-car 20 gigabyte jukebox. The touch screen is one of the easiest we've seen, allowing listeners to not only tune the satellite stations by genre or by number, but also by seeking within genres or even groups of genres. Another cool feature sure to appeal to families is the ability to transfer photos into the system from USB devices like digital cameras or hard drives and then display them as either screen-saver-type slideshows or as the dash-screen's wallpaper.
Our van was equipped with the backup camera that engaged anytime reverse was chosen, but using it was worse than trying to watch football on one of those 6-inch TVs sold at drug stores. We could vaguely distinguish the outline of objects, but weren't sure if we were about to hit the curb or make a touchdown. Maybe the camera lens was dirty, or maybe it was aimed badly, but it wasn't all that much help in guiding our back-up operations. It would have helped us avoid toys, animals or kids in the way, but didn't do much for navigation. Oddly enough, our van's enjoyable touch-screen interface did not come with navigation, an option that costs an additional $1,500.
Other gadgets include a removable, cordless, rechargeable flashlight in the cargo area, power sliding doors and rear hatch, adjustable pedals and overhead LED reading lights for all three rows of seating. Multitudes of cup holders have rubber, dishwasher-safe liners and it seems no interior surface goes without some sort of storage bin – a huge bonus for our toy-loving family.
Caravan buyers can choose an optional 4.0L V6 combined witt the first ever 6-speed transmission in a minivan or the standard engine with which our tester was equipped, a 3.8L engine mated to a 6-speed auto. While it drove alright for a vehicle that weighs around 4,300 pounds, it's no tire-smoker, that's for sure. But if you're shopping minivans, you better come to terms with that already. It's a smooth rider, and will accelerate well enough to merge with highway traffic, but don't try to take on the Volvo V70 in the next lane.
The Inferno Red Grand Caravan SXT we drove through the hills of southern Georgia had a total sticker price of almost $33,000. Considering it can carry seven passengers comfortably and keep them all entertained for miles before the first squabble breaks out, that seems like a pretty good deal. But we need to spend more time with it to see exactly how well that engine does carrying more than a couple of adults and what kind of real-world fuel economy numbers it achieves. We're holding a place in the Autoblog Garage for one and will have a full review as soon as possible.
Chrysler provided the vehicle and SEAMO the location for testing. Autoblog does not accept travel or lodging from automakers when attending media events.
Photos Copyright ©2007 Chris Tutor / Weblogs, Inc.
New Car Test Drive
Family hauler gets more safety features.
The Dodge Grand Caravan is still fresh from a complete redesign for 2008, and for 2009 the Grand Caravan gets more safety features.
The Grand Caravan is all about transporting people comfortably and safely, while keeping them entertained. Its designers focused on interior creature comforts, and they succeeded. As part of that focus, Dodge has made its Stow 'n Go seating standard. Stow 'n Go has bins behind the first row that can be used to fold the second-row seats into the floor. When the seats are up, the bins can accommodate toys, games and other cargo.
You can get Swivel 'n Go seating with second-row chairs that swivel to the rear and a table that pops up between those buckets and the third-row bench. You can get a video system with one or two rear screens, wireless headphones, and remote control. You can plug in your laptop. You can press buttons on the ceiling and watch in awe, or amusement, as the side doors and liftgate flip open and closed. You can download you music to a hard-drive radio. Or you can fold down all the seats, and haul a stack of plywood or a load of hay.
The Grand Caravan's suspension delivers a nice, smooth ride, though it can sometimes wallow. It's more about comfort and safety than carlike precision. Electronic stability control is standard, and the Grand Caravan has performed well in government crash tests. The handling is a bit cumbersome, not surprising given the Grand Caravan's size. It doesn't go around corners as well as the Honda Odyssey and Nissan Quest do. It leans in hard turns, so drivers will have to be careful not to upset whatever activities are going on in back.
Three V6 engines are available, including a 4.0-liter 250-horsepower V6 added for 2008. We found the base 3.3-liter engine can struggle with freeway on-ramps. The 3.8-liter engine is acceptable, though we prefer the 4.0-liter V6 introduced for 2008. The top engines from Toyota, Nissan and Honda offer more power and response.
But a minivan isn't about speed and handling. The Grand Caravan's unique cargo and entertainment features give it a competitive advantage in the minivan class. Families will like it, especially because those entertainment features will make for peaceful family trips.
The 2009 Dodge Grand Caravan SE ($23,530) comes with a 175-horsepower 3.3-liter overhead-valve V6 mated to a four-speed automatic transaxle. Seating is two-two-three, with Stow 'n Go (second- and third-row seats fold flat, into the floor) standard. Also standard on the SE are cloth upholstery, air conditioning, tilt steering wheel, cruise control, heated power mirrors, power windows and locks, remote keyless entry, four-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo, conversation mirror, and P225/65R16 tires on steel wheels with wheel covers. Options exclusive to the SE start with Quick Order Package 24G ($1770) with tri-zone manual climate controls (including rear controls), tachometer, trip computer, outside-temperature indicator, compass, and alloy wheels. The tri-zone manual climate controls are offered separately in a Climate Group ($995). The Popular Equipment Group ($1495) adds power-adjustable pedals, power-sliding rear doors, and a power rear liftgate. UConnect Tunes ($725) comes with a 30-gigabyte hard-drive radio, six-disc CD changer, two additional speakers, and a USB connection. An Entertainment Group ($1395) includes a rear DVD entertainment system with a single nine-inch screen and Sirius satellite radio. A roof rack is also offered ($250).
Grand Caravan SXT ($27,825) uses a 197-hp 3.8-liter overhead-valve V6 with a six-speed transaxle. SXT equipment includes three-zone manual climate control with rear-seat controls, leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, eight-way power driver's seat with lumbar adjustment, power-adjustable pedals, power sliding rear doors, Sirius satellite radio, trip computer, compass, outside-temperature indicator, universal garage door opener, illuminated visor mirrors, 115-volt power outlet, fog lights, roof rack, overhead storage, pinpoint LED lighting, and alloy wheels. The 250-hp 4.0-liter V6 ($630) is optional. Other SXT options include Quick Order Package 28L ($2365) with leather upholstery, heated first and second-row seats, power passenger seat, power rear liftgate, vehicle information center, additional interior lights, rechargeable/removable flashlight, bright bodyside moldings, sport suspension, and P225/65R17 tires. The Premium Group ($1995) includes tri-zone automatic climate controls (including rear controls), third-row power-folding seat, nine-speaker 506-watt Infinity audio system, UConnect Phone wireless link, auto-dimming rearview mirror, and rain-sensing wipers. The Security Group ($1425) adds rear-obstacle detection, Dodge's new Rear Cross Path and Blind Spot Monitoring systems, UConnect Phone, auto-dimming rearview mirror, and automatic headlights. The Family Value Group ($695) includes a removable center console, sunshades for second and third row, and remote engine starting. The SXT Entertainment Group 2 ($2200) comes with a rear DVD entertainment system with two nine-inch rear screens, a six-disc CD changer, USB connection, UConnect Tunes, and a rearview camera. UConnect Tunes ($675) is available as a standalone option. UConnect GPS ($1300) includes UConnect Tunes, plus a navigation system with voice activation and real-time traffic, rearview camera, six-disc CD changer, Sirius satellite radio, UConnect Phone, and an auto-dimming rearview mirror. With rear DVD entertainment, customers can order Sirius Backseat TV ($495). Other SXT options include a Trailer Towing package ($600) with heavy-duty engine and transmission cooling, load-leveling suspension, and a trailer-wiring harness; a sunroof ($895), a power rear liftgate ($400); and heated first- and second-row seats ($500).
Options available for both models include Swivel 'n Go seating ($495) with swiveling second-row bucket seats and a removable table; a Mopar Exterior Appearance Group ($937) with special floor mats, mud guards, bright door sills, and running boards; second-row integrated child seats ($225); running boards ($700), and an engine-block heater ($35).
Safety features that come standard on all models include dual front airbags, all-row curtain side airbags, tire-pressure monitor, four-wheel-disc ABS with brake assist, traction control, and electronic stability control. Front side airbags are not available. Optional safety features include a rearview camera, rear obstacle detection, and the new Rear Cross Path and Blind Spot Monitoring systems. The Grand Caravan received five-star front and side crash ratings and four stars in rollover ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
A minivan is not a stone that lends itself to sculpture. A description of the overall shape of this newest generation of the Dodge Grand Caravan wouldn't sound too much different from a description of the 1982 model. People don't buy minivans so others will look and say, 'That's the new minivan. Some styling!'
The Dodge Grand Caravan is boxy, but it's attractive in an SUV kind of way. The hood is less fairly flat, and it bears character lines. The grille is very upright, making the Dodge crosshair grille look like that of a Dodge truck, especially in chrome. Just the thing to encourage that pokey driver in front of you to get out of the way.
Sixteen-inch wheels are standard. They're boring looking, but the optional five-spoke 17s look better.
Dodge now offers only the long-wheelbase Grand Caravan. The short wheelbase Caravan was dropped with the 2008 redesign. All of them are now Grand.
The Grand Caravan is the second largest minivan on the market, smaller than only the Nissan Quest. These comparisons are relatively unimportant, however, because the other minivans are within an inch or two of the Grand Caravan in both wheelbase and overall length. The Grand Caravan is a big vehicle, with a 202.5-inch overall length and a 121.2-inch wheelbase.
The Dodge Grand Caravan leads the minivan field when it comes to interior convenience, capability and versatility. Chrysler has been working to give its minivans a competitive advantage in these areas for a long time, and they haven't been afraid to be creative.
The interior materials are lackluster, however. Hollow hard plastic dominates the dash and door panels. Everything fits together well, but it doesn't make for a luxurious look and feel. Yet options quickly add to the price.
Our Grand Caravan SE came with stain-resistant fabric for the seats, designed for the soccer-mom lifestyle. We quite liked the look and feel. The black vinyl trim and satin aluminum-look plastic didn't look rich, but nor was it ugly. These fabrics can be easy to clean, however, dog hair still has a way of sticking into them, so those who haul canines are probably better off with leather.
The Grand Caravan is designed well for hauling youngsters with some thoughtful features. Among them is the convex 'conversation mirror,' which might also be called the 'looking at your kids while you're yelling at them without having to turn around mirror. We like this feature.
We had six 10-year-old soccer players test the Grand Caravan's video player during a 90-minute drive to the game, and they liked it. The DVD was a snap to play, which is important because some of them, even those in much more expensive vehicles, are not easy to use. Plug in the DVD, press Play, and you have a miracle: It works. The screen drops down from the ceiling and the viewing begins. It comes with wireless headphones. It has jacks to plug in video game systems. It's available with Sirius Backseat TV, which comes with three kid-friendly channels: Disney Channel, Cartoon Network, and Nickelodeon. When the DVD screen is deployed, the driver loses some visibility in the rearview mirror so more attention needs to be paid to the side mirrors.
The dual-DVD entertainment system is even more impressive. With the two-screen system, third-row passengers can watch one thing and second-row passengers can watch (or play) another. Plus, video can be shown on the front touchscreen (which comes with both UConnect Tunes and UConnect GPS) when the vehicle is in Park, for viewing by the driver and front-seat passenger.
We liked the UConnect systems, as well. Both come with a hard-drive radio with 30 gigabytes of storage space to hold music and picture files. UConnect GPS adds a navigation system with voice activation and real-time traffic provided by Sirius. Songs can be ripped from CDs, and music and pictures can also be downloaded from thumb drives via a standard USB port. The hard drive is a great way to have ready access to your music collection without toting around a bunch of CDs.
The Grand Caravan's second-row bucket seats slide rearward to ease access to the third row, so there's less fighting and yelling about stepped-on feet. Or they flop forward with one lever. Don't get your foot caught on the seatbelt or you might end up face-down on the rear bench. You will want the available LED pinpoint lighting for back there, for your children to read by so they don't fight or bug you while you're driving.
Stow 'n Go works superbly well. For a fairly simple invention, it's a masterpiece. In just a minute or so, and without having to refer to the manual, we dropped the second- and third-row seats flat into the floor. We put them away manually, though a power option is available for the third-row bench. We unloaded the kids, then stopped at the furniture store to pick up a long leather couch. We converted the Grand Caravan from soccer bus to cargo van in 60 seconds, and easily carted the couch home.
The Swivel 'n Go seating option is another great development from Chrysler. It comes with second-row seats that rotate 180 degrees and a stowable table that fits between the second and third rows. The seats are easy to turn (once you figure them out), and the table stows away easy enough. Best of all, if you have kids that can get along (at least for a while), they can play games on road trips.
The overall interior volume in the Grand Caravan isn't class-leading, the competition offers more legroom, but all of these minivans are big inside and the Grand Caravan is comfortable for kids. Both rear rows are big enough for adults.
Up front, the instrumentation is good, black on light gray lettering, with big divisions so you can read each 5 mph. Our option package included a digital information display (it showed an average of 19.1 miles per gallon for one week of city and highway driving), but the button to change the information is in a terrible position, most easily (but treacherously) reached by your left hand through the three-spoke leather steering wheel. Otherwise you have to lean forward, reach around the wiper stalk, and fumble for it, which isn't a whole lot safer. Other information includes distance to empty (about 400 miles on a tank of gas), compass, outside temperature, and estimated time to destination.
A leather-wrapped shift lever sticks out just to the left of the center stack, an efficient location. The automatic transmission offers a manual-shift feature allowing the driver more control. There isn't much need for manual shifting with this relaxed cruiser of a vehicle, but the sturdy, well-placed lever may encourage this in certain situations.
The sloped A-pillars allow good visibility, but the longer hood in the redesigned Grand Caravan means the driver sits back a bit farther from the front bumper, so it's harder to gauge when parking.
The center console is removable, which is good; but when it's fully attached it feels loose. We lost count of all the storage cubbies and cupholders. Dodge has outdone itself in this area. The driver and front-seat passenger can each drink four drinks at once (or store empties). Front-seat occupants will never be lacking for a place to put stuff of all sizes and shapes. We're talking bins under the second-row seats, compartments in the floor, and an umbrella holder.
Fifteen hundred dollars is a lot to spend for the convenience of not having to physically slide your minivan's side doors (there are two of them, by the way), or lift the liftgate, but it might be worth it, maybe especially the liftgate. Minivan owners tend to have full, busy lives, and small conveniences like having the power tailgate raise as you walk up with your arms full can be worth a million bucks. The buttons are located on the headliner between the front seats, and using them imparts a wonderful sense of power. It makes you look cool to your kids, too. Everything is controlled by you. Your assault vehicle awaits your command.
Minivans tend to generate pages of notes on the interior but little driving impressions. The Dodge Grand Caravan is a transporting machine, not a driving one. The main thing is, on the road, it's safe and stable. Electronic stability control is standard, and it activates fairly early, minimizing wheelspin and reducing the chance of a spin.
Our SE had the smallest of the three engines, the 3.3-liter V6 making 175 horsepower at 5000 rpm and 205 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. For the way we drove it during our week, which we believe is the way most Grand Caravan owners drive, it offered enough acceleration and speed, though it struggled to merge with freeway traffic. The 3.3-liter can be fueled with E85, an ethanol mix.
The 3.3-liter engine comes with a four-speed automatic transmission with overdrive. We found it shifted smoothly and wasn't overworked by our suburban demands. Theoretically, more speeds than four is better, but it depends on the programming; in some cases, more speeds means more snatches or rough spots. In any case, we found the four-speed automatic worked well and did not hunt for gears.
Theoretically, a manual mode allows smoother transitions because the driver can choose when he or she wants to shift. Our four-speed had Dodge's AutoStick manual shift capability, controlled by reaching toward the center stack and notching the shift lever from side to side. But we found little need or occasion to use it, because minivan driving occasions demand less sporty performance. However, with more miles and more demands, we might change our tune. Chrysler invented the manual mode about 10 years ago, and it's good to have. Holding a gear in hilly terrain or sluggish traffic or in tight quarters is sometimes advantageous.
The SXT offers higher performance with its 3.8-liter V6 making 197 horsepower or the aluminum overhead-cam 4.0-liter V6 making a big 250 hp. These engines only get one less mile per gallon than the 3.3-liter, so they should be seriously considered. All of these engines run on 87 octane Regular gas, a nice advantage over engines that demand more-expensive Premium. The 3.8-liter and 4.0-liter engines use a six-speed transaxle, compared to the four-speed in the 3.3-liter.
During our test drives of SXT models with the 3.8-liter and 4.0-liter engines we found that 3.8-liter offers more useable power than the 3.3, but we'd recommend the 4.0. The 4.0-liter engine is close in power to the best engines offered by Honda, Nissan, and Toyota. The six-speed transmission that comes with the larger V6s can sometimes hunt for gears, but it helps both of these larger engines get decent fuel economy.
Suspension-wise, the Grand Caravan has rear coil springs and a twist-beam rear axle with a track bar. (A Trailer Tow Package includes self-leveling shock absorbers.) In other words, it's not an independent rear suspension. Despite being less sophisticated than other minivans, the ride is good. Our SE didn't bounce or strike any notes of discomfort, during three hours with six kids in the back, and more hours driving alone over freeway and city streets. The only demerit is a bit of wallow at speed.
Handling, on the other hand, isn't impressive. The Grand Caravan is large and it handles like a large vehicle. It leans a lot in turns and takes awhile to react to changes of direction. The Honda Odyssey and Nissan Quest are more carlike on the road.
The brakes are plenty big, though a braking test conducted by Car and Driver magazine suggested the Grand Caravan doesn't offer the shortest braking distances.
We've tested Dodge's two new safety systems for 2009. The new Blind Spot Monitoring system uses radar sensors to detect vehicles in the van's blind spots and warns the driver with lights in the side mirrors or a driver-selectable chime that sounds like the seat belt chime. We found it worked well, but like similar systems offered by other manufacturers it can sometimes give false readings. It's still important to look before you change lanes.
The new Rear Cross Path system is activated when the van is in reverse. It uses radar sensors to detect vehicles crossing behind the Grand Caravan and warns the driver with lights in the side mirrors and that same chime. The system won't detect small objects, like pedestrians, so it's still important to proceed slowly. It does, however, detect vehicles up to 20 meters away, and is programmed to recognize the speed of oncoming vehicles and alert the driver only if they are traveling at a speed that could lead to an accident (in other words, stationary and very slow moving vehicles probably won't register). We like this system. It works well and is especially useful in crowded parking lots.
The Dodge Grand Caravan offers unmatched versatility. The 3.3-liter V6 with 175 horsepower is fine, while the optional 3.8-liter and 4.0-liter engines make more power with almost the same fuel mileage. The ride is smooth, but handling is decidedly minivan. It's inside where the Grand Caravan leaps high hurdles. Flexible seating, lots of storage space, good lighting, and impressive entertainment options can upgrade your lifestyle, at least while underway. In terms of versatility, the Stow 'n Go seats that disappear into the floor for carrying cargo are hard to beat.
Sam Moses filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com from the Columbia River Gorge, with correspondent Kirk Bell contributing from Chicago.
Dodge Grand Caravan SE (23,530); Grand Caravan SXT ($27,825).
Windsor, Ontario; South St. Louis, Missouri.
Options As Tested
Quick Order Package 24G ($1770) with tri-zone manual climate controls (including rear controls), tachometer, trip computer, outside-temperature indicator, compass, and alloy wheels; Popular Equipment Group ($1495) with power-adjustable pedals, power-sliding rear doors, and power rear liftgate; UConnect Tunes ($725) with 30-gigabyte hard-drive radio, 6-disc CD changer, two additional speakers, and USB connection; Entertainment Group ($1395) with rear DVD entertainment system with a single 9-inch screen Sirius satellite radio; Mopar Exterior Appearance Group ($937) with special floor mats, mud guards, bright door sills, and running boards; roof rack ($250).
Dodge Grand Caravan SE ($23,530).
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