Dodge's popular Grand Caravan minivan has been overhauled for 2008 with new styling inside and out, more family-friendly features and additional safety equipment. The van is definitely an improvement over the prior-generation Grand Caravan, which finished last in a three-way Cars.comparison last year against the Kia Sedona and Toyota Sienna. While that's good news for Dodge, the Grand Caravan didn't wow me (yes, even minivans can wow me sometimes) like the Honda Odyssey did when it debuted its current generation a few years ago.
Exterior & Styling
The new Grand Caravan sports a more squared-off appearance than the previous-generation van. The new look is especially evident in front, which now features sharp bodywork creases. What hasn't changed is the presence of Dodge's signature crosshair grille — it's still front and center, and it's finished in chrome on SXT models. The Grand Caravan looks blocky from the sides, and the rounded D-pillars don't really hide the fact that the Grand Caravan has a frumpy rear. But hey, it is a minivan.
Sixteen-inch wheels are standard; the base SE trim level gets steel wheels and hubcaps, while the uplevel SXT comes with aluminum rims. Seventeen-inch aluminum wheels are optional on the SXT.
Ride & Handling
The Grand Caravan's softly tuned suspension provides good ride comfort, which will be appreciated by families making vacation treks across the country. Steering response is acceptable; the Grand Caravan goes where you point it — nothing more, nothing less.
While the Grand Caravan rides comfortably, it doesn't ride quietly, especially on bumpy roads; the cabin is filled with noise from the suspension as it works to damp out the rough spots. Hard braking induces significant body dive.
Going & Stopping
All Grand Caravans have front-wheel drive, but buyers have a choice of three V-6 engines. SE models get a 3.3-liter V-6, while the SXT has a 3.8-liter V-6. A 4.0-liter V-6 is optional for the SXT. As the table below shows, there's very little difference — and in some cases no difference — in gas mileage estimates among the three engines despite significant horsepower and torque differences. The two automatic transmissions play a part; there's a four-speed for the 3.3-liter V-6 and a six-speed for the larger two.
|Dodge Grand Caravan Engines|
|3.3-liter V-6||3.8-liter V-6||4.0-liter V-6|
|175 @ 5,000||197 @ 5,200||251 @ 6,000|
(lbs.-ft. @ rpm)
|205 @ 4,000||230 @ 4,000||259 @ 4,200|
|Required fuel||Regular or E85||Regular||Regular|
My SXT test van had the 3.8-liter V-6, and the engine feels plenty strong in this model. Whether you're running errands on suburban roads or merging onto the interstate, this V-6 has enough grunt to easily accelerate the Grand Caravan up to speed. It's pretty much taxed if you want to accelerate from 70 mph, though; it only provides a modest tug at that speed.
Apart from an unsettling clunk I heard when cruising at low speeds in the Grand Caravan, the six-speed automatic is otherwise refined. Shifts are smooth and the automatic kicks down quickly when necessary. The transmission also does a good job keeping the 3.8-liter V-6 in its optimal rpm range so its power is always on tap. That said, the clunk didn't inspire confidence in the transmission, and it's all the more troubling due to the fact that I heard the same sound in a Chrysler Sebring convertible we tested that had the same six-speed automatic. Even if the sound has no bearing on the reliability of the transmission, Dodge should figure out a way to eliminate it; perceptions are so important today.
Dodge did get things right with the Grand Caravan's brakes. The all-disc setup is connected to a brake pedal that has a really natural feel to it; it's very progressive and you get accustomed to it pretty quickly.
The old Grand Caravan's cabin was overdue for an update, and the 2008 version is a huge improvement in terms of materials quality. The fit and finish are nearly as good as the Odyssey's, and the Honda is one of the segment leaders in this area. Astute observers will notice Mercedes-Benz bits and pieces, like the power window buttons sprinkled here and there — a remnant of the recently dissolved merger between Chrysler and Daimler-Benz. While the buttons work just fine, the green backlighting on the Mercedes controls is a different shade than the rest of the interior's hue, and it's clearly evident at night.
Cabin ergonomics are good in some instances and poor in others. I like the high dash position of the audio system, but the air conditioning controls are positioned really low in the center of the dash below the vents, which makes them hard to adjust while driving. The automatic transmission gear selector, which pokes through the dash next to the gauge cluster, is also a reach when you need to shift into gear.
SE models have cloth seats, while the SXT features stain- and odor-resistant seating surfaces. Leather seats are optional for the SXT. The stain-resistant front bucket seats are fairly firm and don't have much contour to them, but I didn't find them uncomfortable. However, I would have liked the power driver's seat more if it would have allowed me to move back more; I'm about 6-foot-1, and I was a little cramped. There are cupholders throughout the cabin, and the front doors have a selection of pockets for storing odds and ends.
The second row can have one of three kinds of seats. The base setup is a two-person bench. The optional Stow 'n Go system includes two bucket seats that can fold flat into the floor. Dodge's latest seating system is called Swivel 'n Go, and it consists of two captain's chairs that can rotate to face people in the third row. A removable table can be installed between the rows. All passenger versions of the Grand Caravan have a third-row seat that can fold into a well in the floor.
My test Grand Caravan had Stow 'n Go seats in the second row. The seats can slide forward and back and the backrests recline, but they're not ideal for adults because of their small size and a low bottom cushion that makes for a knees-up seating position. Folding the seats into the floor is relatively easy once you get the hang of it, but if the front seat has been slid back, you'll have to move it forward so the Stow 'n Go seat has enough clearance to get into the floor.
The third-row bench provides passable comfort for adults. It features a reclining backrest, and it only takes one hand to fold each section of the 60/40-split third row into the floor or put it back in place, though it does take a good tug on the strap to return the seat to its upright position. The third row can flip backward for rear-facing picnic seating. A power-folding mechanism for the seat is optional.
Standard safety features include antilock brakes, side curtain airbags for all three rows of seats and an electronic stability system. A nice touch: When the sliding side doors are opened, the Grand Caravan's hazard lights activate to warn other drivers that people may soon be getting out of the van. A backup camera and power-adjustable pedals — the latter of which can help shorter drivers maintain a proper distance from the steering wheel — are optional.
Cargo & Towing
One of the main advantages of Grand Caravans with Stow 'n Go seats is that it's easy to go from passenger-carrying to cargo-carrying duty because none of the seats have to be removed. Many competitors have bulky (and heavy) second-row captain's chairs that have to be taken out to create space. For some buyers, Stow 'n Go will more than make up for the Grand Caravan's lesser cargo dimensions compared to the Odyssey and Toyota Sienna. (If you get the standard second-row bench or optional Swivel 'n Go seats, Stow 'n Go for the second row is no longer an option.)
|Cargo Room (cu. ft.)|
|Behind 1st row||Behind 2nd row||Behind 3rd row|
|Dodge Grand Caravan||144.3*||83||32.3|
|Kia Sedona (long wheelbase)||141.5||80.1||32.2|
*SE; SXT: 140.6
The standard towing capacity is 1,800 pounds, but Grand Caravans with the 3.8-liter or 4.0-liter V-6 can pull up to 3,600 pounds when they're equipped with the Trailer Tow Group option package, which adds an upgraded radiator, engine oil cooler, heavy-duty transmission oil cooler, trailer wiring and rear automatic leveling.
Dodge offers a new way to keep the kids entertained with Sirius Backseat TV. Three channels — Nickelodeon Mobile, Cartoon Network Mobile and Disney — are included in the subscription to the service (the first year is free). One- and two-screen entertainment systems are offered, the latter of which includes separate overhead LCD screens for the second and third rows. With the two-screen setup, the Grand Caravan can accommodate two sources at once, so second-row passengers can watch something different than those in the third row. Both systems include a 115-volt household power outlet where you can plug in electronics, like a video-game console.
For the parents in front, the Grand Caravan offers the MyGIG entertainment system option, which has a 20GB hard drive that can store songs and images uploaded to it from CDs or a USB flash drive. The system is available with or without an integrated navigation system that can show traffic updates via Sirius Satellite Radio. The UConnect Bluetooth-based cell phone system is also optional.
Grand Caravan in the Market
Minivans' role as efficient people-movers is under attack as more large crossovers hit the streets. That's not to say minivans aren't good at what they do, because they are, but minivans were never a type of vehicle for the style-conscious, and vans seem to be going even more out of style.
Judged against its own kind, though, is the Grand Caravan the best overall minivan on the market? Nope. The Odyssey is better in my book, yet the Grand Caravan was already the best-selling minivan in the U.S. before its redesign, so it's hard to fathom how it could lose that title now that an improved 2008 version is here.
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