In the to-minivan-or-not-to-minivan debate, parents are about as polarized as most of us are in the age-old dog vs. cat showdown: You're either a minivan person or you're not.
The limitless functionality of the 2012 Dodge Grand Caravan, however, is just about enough to convert even the most vocal anti-minivan protestors among us, including my husband.
Our week with the Grand Caravan started with him joking and jesting relentlessly about how hot I looked driving the kids around in the minivan. But by the end of the week — after he drove it with a load including the two of us, all three of our kids and their tall teenage cousin and grandpa to a birthday dinner — he was eating his words. "How much is this van again?" he was asking sheepishly. "Wow — you get a lot of space for the money. … I could see us having one of these — you know, just as a third car for hauling the whole family."
The Grand Caravan hasn't changed much since the 2011 model year, though this year's base price is a sweet $3,000 lower. Who doesn't like that? See both model years side by side here. The Grand Caravan I drove was the SXT, but the Grand Caravan also comes in three other trim levels: SE, Crew and R/T. See them all compared here.
While minivans are as notoriously frumpy-looking as mom-jeans, the Grand Caravan isn't offensive to me at all. It's evolved just enough since its last major redesign, which left its squared-off butt looking like a toaster oven on wheels. Sure, it's still thick and heavy, simply because it's a van, but my test vehicle's dark charcoal metallic paint gave it a decidedly bad-ass, man-van look. I'd rather drive that than a toaster any day.
The Grand Caravan's low step-in height and high headroom eased entry and exit for everyone in my family, from my 7-year-old daughter to my 70-year-old father: Neither climbing nor ducking required. However, my 16-year-old nephew, in his hormonal teen stupor, was very confused by the power button that opens the optional power-sliding side doors from the inside. After a few efforts to explain it to him — "just push that button there" — resulted in that blank stare teenagers have perfected, I finally just opened the door for him using the button above the rearview mirror.
The Grand Caravan has so many family-friendly features I doubt I could cover them all in one review. My favorite feature over other minivans today is the Grand Caravan's flexibility: The second-row Stow 'n Go folding seats disappear completely into the floor, trumping all other minivans on the market and allowing for a total of 81 seating configurations, according to the number-crunchers at Dodge.
When the second-row seats are raised, there are two huge storage bins in the floor in front of them where you can stash anything from backpacks to soccer balls. When you have fewer people and more stuff, the seats fold into those storage bins. It's quite an easy process: Just open up the bin and, using a single hand, release the lever. The seat then folds, flips and tumbles effortlessly into the floor. The second-row captain's chairs also slide back and forth to create extra legroom in either the second or third row.
The third-row bench seat also disappears into the floor when not needed, though its process is a little more complicated. It consists of pulling a series of four numbered nylon straps. Folding the seats back up into place is a bit of a puzzle, causing me to guess which strap to tug and when. Apparently, pulling strap 2 and then strap 4 is the magic combination.
It's an impressive sight, watching this minivan transform from a people-hauler with seven seats into a cavernous, open cargo van in mere moments. I can definitely see the benefit for my family, which hauls family members one minute then rents a Home Depot van for DIY projects the next. I'd prefer coming along for a DIY load in the Caravan rather than one of those gross rentals.
In addition to the under-floor storage bins in the second row, there are nooks and crannies for everything your family's heart desires. We especially liked the optional "super console" that was part of the Power Convenience Group I Package. The bottom portion of the super console slides back to open a storage bin and two cupholders that second row passengers can access. This is extremely helpful, as the only other storage provisions for the second row are small bottleholders in each side door, plus pockets on the back of the front seats. Third-row passengers have their own cupholders and open storage bins.
My test car also came equipped with the optional $1,395 single-screen DVD system. While I typically shy away from integrated entertainment systems (letting the kids use my iPad is often easier and more versatile), I was impressed that the kids could get the Grand Caravan's DVD working on their own without assistance.
The rear cargo space is deep and has plenty of room on its own (33 cubic feet), and even more with the third row folded down (83.3 cubic feet). Stow the second row as well, and cargo space expands to an impressive 143.8 cubic feet. The optional power liftgate is an absolute must for families with young kiddos, allowing you to open the liftgate while still keeping a grasp on little Timmy in the busy parking lot, with another hand left over to load the groceries.
And speaking of little Timmy's safety, the extra-large foldaway garment hooks are located just behind the second-row seat, so you can hang your dry cleaning back there without risking suffocation to the children sitting in the second row.
IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS THAT COUNT
Storage Compartments (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Galore
Cargo/Trunk Space (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Galore
SENSE AND STYLE
Family Friendly (Not Really, Fair, Great, Excellent): Excellent
Fun-Factor (None, Some, Good Times, Groove-On): Some
BEHIND THE WHEEL
The Grand Caravan looks much bulkier than it feels to drive. While of course it's long and wide, just like every other minivan, its 39.1-foot turning diameter allowed me to make the tight turn in and out of my garage every time without having to give it multiple tries.
The Grand Caravan, surprisingly, has close to no body roll on winding roads. It hugs the road nicely, making me feel in solid control at all times. Where you really feel like you're driving around in your entire living room is when trying to get the 283-horsepower, 3.6-liter engine to accelerate up hills. You'll feel the weight when braking, too, though I adjusted pretty quickly to the extra braking distance required.
The Grand Caravan's EPA mileage rating is 17/25 mpg city/highway.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the Grand Caravan an overall score of four out of five stars for its crash tests. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rated the 2012 Grand Caravan Good (its top rating) in all categories, earning it Top Safety Pick status.
As is required of all 2012 models, the Grand Caravan has standard antilock brakes, an electronic stability system and traction control.
The Grand Caravan features dual front airbags, dual side-impact airbags for the front seats and side curtain airbags for all three rows.
Families installing child-safety seats will have plenty of room for just about any configuration of rear-facing, forward-facing and/or booster seats. The second-row captain's chairs each have their own set of Latch anchors that are open, visible and easily accessible, regardless of the type of child seat you're connecting. The top-tether anchors are toward the bottom on the back of each seat and are also very easy to access. The third row has one extra set of lower Latch anchors, slightly off-center from the middle of the bench seat.
Children in booster seats can easily buckle their own seat belts in the second row, thanks to buckles in the captain's chairs that are on stable bases. The third row belt buckles are on nylon bases, making it more difficult for younger kids with more limited dexterity to buckle up independently.
In addition to the safety features listed above, the 2012 Grand Caravan offers an optional Safety Sphere Package that includes a rear park assist system, with sensors on the rear bumper to let you know, via an audible tone, if you're about to back into something (or someone). This package also includes a backup camera, a blind spot warning system and Chrysler's cross path detection system. Cross path uses radar to "watch" not only directly behind you when you back up, but also to either side of the rear of your vehicle, ensuring you're not going to back out of a parking space as someone is speeding into your "cross path."
See all the 2012 Dodge Grand Caravan's standard safety features listed here.
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