A surprising thing happened after Ford and GM left the minivan market: People kept buying vans. The uber-utility vehicle for families remains the minivan, and the Dodge Grand Caravan and related Chrysler Town & Country are among the best-sellers on the market.
But what makes them so attractive to buyers? Can't be the looks; they're as ordinary as can be. Is it the performance?
Are you kidding?
No, it's all about the space.
The best thing about living with a minivan is the amount of room you get. Not only are the seats comfortable, but the cargo area swallowed a full-size Phil & Teds stroller and still had room for another — with all three rows in place.
While sliding doors are a given, not all minivans have Chrysler's Stow 'n Go system, which is standard in the Grand Caravan. It's the only minivan with the feature, which allows the second-row seats to fold into the floor in a nifty, nearly magical disappearing act.
But what exactly does Stow 'n Go provide? Yes, it gives you a truly flat cargo floor by folding the second row into the floor; it basically transforms the minivan into a cargo van. But how often would a family use this configuration? Not very often. As I say in my video tour of the Grand Caravan, you'll use it when you take your kid to college.
With two little ones still needing strollers and diapers, it will be many years before I'm likely to need it.
The standard second-row Stow 'n Go seats are also less comfortable than the optional Swivel 'n Go seats, which can turn to face the third row. Swivel 'n Go seats can also have built-in booster seats for younger children. These seats are only $325 and, like many competitors' second-row seats, can be removed from the cabin to create a flat floor.
Again, the question remains: When would you need the stowing feature instead?
Interestingly enough, the Grand Caravan is available in four trim levels and comes with a choice of three V-6 engines. It gets a bit dizzying, but the base SE and Cargo versions get a 175-horsepower, 3.3-liter V-6 that teams with a four-speed automatic transmission. That combination gets 17/24 mpg city/highway.
The Hero trim level (Chrysler and Dodge added new trim designations last year, which may be confusing for current owners) and SXT pack a 197-hp, 3.8-liter V-6 and six-speed automatic that are good for 16/23 mpg. The nearly top-of-the-line Crew model that I tested — formerly the SXT — has a 251-hp, 4.0-liter V-6 with a six-speed automatic that gets 17/25 mpg. Giving a higher trim level the most advanced, efficient engine is similar to what Honda does with its Odyssey minivan.
Having driven the 3.8-liter V-6 before, I much preferred the 4.0-liter. It felt like there was real power under the hood, as opposed to the 3.8's sluggish responses. The fact that it gets better mileage is just icing on the cake. Of course, it comes at a price — specifically, a $3,300-higher starting MSRP.
Like in most minivans, handling and steering are unremarkable, but I was impressed with the Grand Caravan's ride, which was comfortable and handled road imperfections, like overpass expansion joints, well. I remember testing this generation of Chrysler's minivan when it debuted and thinking that the body shimmied a lot over rough surfaces. It seems more solid now. Is it as good as the Toyota Sienna and Odyssey? No, but it is good enough — especially for the price.
The Grand Caravan's cabin, however, isn't good enough for its price. My fully loaded Crew's $39,160 sticker price included leather seats and some nicer trim pieces, like woodgrain accents, but it wasn't anywhere near as opulent as the Honda Odyssey EX-L, which costs $37,985 similarly equipped.
Busy families – and messy ones, like mine – will likely go with a more basic, less expensive trim in the $25,000-$30,000 range, making it feel like you're getting more for your money.
As in many recent Chrysler products, the cabin plastics feel rough to the touch and are unlike those from almost any other automaker. The drawers that house the cupholders and storage areas slide out rigidly, and the dashboard and door panels ring with a hollow sound when tapped.
These are the Grand Caravan's downsides, and if it weren't a minivan — a vehicle made to cart unruly children — they would be more significant. While unsightly, the materials will likely hold up to the wear and tear that the average family will inflict.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded the Grand Caravan top scores of Good in its frontal-offset and side-impact crash tests. In rear-impact testing, which rates protection against whiplash injuries, Grand Caravans built since April 2010 scored Good, but those built prior received a Marginal overall rating. The 2010 Odyssey and 2011 Sienna have top scores in all three tests, and the Sienna earned a Top Safety Pick designation because it also scored Good in IIHS' roof-strength test. (As of publication, the Odyssey and Grand Caravan hadn't been subjected to the roof-strength test.)
Stability control is standard, as are side curtain airbags for all three rows.
Grand Caravan in the Market
The Grand Caravan and its Chrysler Town & Country sibling still make up the largest chunk of the minivan segment thanks to the value offered by their more affordable trim levels. However, they'll probably only continue to sell in such volumes because of pricing and incentives. Matched against the best in the segment, when prices are similar, the Grand Caravan just doesn't compare.
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