DaimlerChrysler redesigned its full crop of four minivans for 2001, including the top-selling, extended-wheelbase Grand Caravan. The two models available include the Sport and upscale ES, each offered with front-wheel or all-wheel drive. Dodge also offers a shorter-wheelbase Caravan, while the Chrysler brand includes a short Voyager and a posh, extended-length Town & Country. Initially introduced in 1984 as the first garage-able front-drive minivans, Chryslers highly popular people-carriers were last redesigned for the 1996 model year.
This years restyling is evolutionary rather than dramatically different, with bigger headlights up front and wraparound taillights at the rear. The new bodies are about 2 inches wider than previous versions.
In addition to fresh styling, the Grand Caravan gets more power, not only from its two available V-6 engines, but also from its accessories. Minivan firsts include an optional power liftgate thats controlled by either a remote control or interior switches. Sensors will halt its downward movement if an obstacle is encountered. New power sliding doors have a manual override and can be opened and closed by hand while the power phase is in operation. Their obstacle-detection system works in both directions, and motors are now mounted right in the door, which Dodge says is another industry first.
A new center console equipped with a power outlet can be mounted between either the front- or second-row seats. At the rear, a new optional Cargo Organizer can be positioned at floor or mid-level positions and includes pop-up storage dividers to help keep such items as grocery bags from rolling around.
As in the 1996 2000 generation models, Grand Caravans come only with the longer wheelbase, 119.3 inches, with an overall length of 200.5 inches. Dual sliding side doors are installed on all models, with power operation for both on the ES models. Tires are 15 inches on the front-drive Sport and 16 inches on other models, but the 2WD ES can be fitted with 17-inch rubber tires.
All models seat seven, but the ES has Quad-Command second-row bucket seats and can be fitted with leather upholstery rather than cloth. Extra equipment in the ES also includes woodgrain trim, an overhead console with trip computer and a power eight-way drivers seat. A new tilt mechanism improves backseat entry and exit. With the seats removed, cargo capacity is 146.7 cubic feet.
Unlike the Honda Odyssey and Mazda MPV, DaimlerChrysler minivans do not have a third-row seat that folds into the floor. But a new 50/50-split third-row bench divides into two sections that can be removed separately, reclined or folded flat.
The Grand Caravan has a new in-dash four-CD player. Infrared-sensing three-zone automatic temperature control also is offered. In addition, a rear-seat entertainment system with wireless headphones is available as a dealer-installed option.
Under the Hood
The 3.3-liter V-6 engine installed in the Grand Caravan Sport and 2WD ES has escalated from 158 horsepower in the previous generation to 180 hp for 2001. The Grand Caravan ES AWD has a 3.8-liter V-6, which has jumped from 180 hp to 215 hp its optional in the two-wheel-drive ES. All models have a four-speed-automatic transmission. The ES is available with DaimlerChryslers AutoStick, which operates with a toggle control in the column-shift lever the only minivan that permits manual gear changes.
Front airbags now have dual-stage inflators, and side-impact airbags are optional. Front seat belts now have pretensioners, and antilock brakes are standard. Front-disc/rear-drum brakes are installed on the 2WD Sport, but others have all-disc braking.
Calculated together, Dodges Caravan and Grand Caravan have held a 24 percent share of the market, and the Grand Caravan has been the most popular minivan for family travel. The 2001 redesign was not especially dramatic, and competition has stiffened considerably in the past few years. But with their new features several of them industry firsts Dodge is likely to remain on top. All told, these remain the minivans to beat the ones that set the standard.
Its not easy to find much wrong with the Grand Caravan, from its exceptional seat comfort to an appealing ride and satisfying engine response. Lively acceleration from a standstill with the 3.3-liter V-6 engine is not quite matched by the Grand Caravans passing and merging prowess, but its more than adequate. Buyers who travel in mountain states might consider the 3.8-liter engine, but the majority of other owners will be content with the 3.3-liter engine.
Like other DaimlerChrysler minivans, the Grand Caravan handles with a relatively light touch, yielding excellent steering feel. Secure on the highway, its a very easy vehicle to drive and copes with curves admirably. The Grand Caravan maneuvers efficiently in urban driving, confident and capable in difficult spots or bad weather. The driver faces a down-to-business dashboard in an appealing interior.
Grand Caravans run quietly. Quality issues of the past appear to have been resolved, and the current minivans seem well constructed and nicely refined. One annoyance is the parking-brake release lever, which is a long reach for the driver. Though oddly shaped, the column gearshift lever operates easily.
Worthy and capable as the competition is nowadays, no shopper should make a minivan purchase without test-driving the latest products from DaimlerChrysler.