Settling in for the long haul

“Now, I owe it to myself to tell you, Mr. Griswold, that if you are thinking of taking the tribe ‘cross country, this is your automobile. The Wagon Queen Family Truckster. You think you hate it now, but wait till you drive it.”

– Ed, the car salesman, to Clark W. Griswold, “National Lampoon’s Vacation” (1983)

Can I admit something for a minute? I used to hate minivans. I mean loathe.

They were the rolling symbol of sedate. They breathed boredom. They screamed “family truckster.”

I’m not alone. Ask your 20-year-old neighbor kid whether he wants to sit in yours, then watch as he looks at you sideways, picks up his iPod and heads home.

What’s wrong with minivans? Nothing. It’s the idea of minivans. Can I admit something? I love the 2005 Chrysler Grand Caravan. After 1,703 miles in one, our first-ever extended road test in a comparison of minivans this summer, I wanted to buy one.

As Clark W. Griswold learned 20 years ago in “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” when you’re going to take a long one, you need space. In that way, Chrysler’s new Grand Caravan is the kind of van everyone will love on a trip (even the dead Aunt).

Why? Two words and one letter: “Stow ‘n Go.”

How else can you buy a kitchen table 800 miles into a trip, then cart it around for 900 more without problem? In the old days, the third row of seating would have been left in the Ikea parking lot.

How else can you leave one seat up for a 3-year-old in a car seat, fold the other seats, load your luggage, unload the luggage, then fold one seat back up for a visitor picked up along the way?

How else can you store items under the floor? Houdini, eat your heart out.

Honda was the first to introduce the flip, fold and hideaway third-row seat, and others, including the Toyota Sienna, Nissan Quest, Ford Freestar and Mercury Monterey, quickly followed suit.

This is just one-upping to another level. A subterranean level, mind you.

For 2005, Chrysler one-ups its rivals with a new platform, updated styling inside and out, and second- and third-row seats that flip and fold. Standard on the long wheelbase Caravan SXT and optional on the Caravan SE, Stow ‘n Go is even easy to use. (Well, sort of.)

The third row is snap to hide. The second row is a bit tougher. Floor mats have to be removed, front seats have to be moved up, and headrests have to be tucked.

As for the rest of the minivan, it was everything you’d want and more. Except for the need for an alignment (there was a slight pull to the left early in the trip that never faded), the Grand Caravan was a driving dream – for a minivan. Equipped with Dodge’s 3.8-liter V-6 engine and four-speed automatic transmission, it handled well, accelerated briskly out of the gate and didn’t lean too much into corners.

On comfort, any minivan owner will brag that it’s the equivalent of riding in your living room. This was taken to another level with super-high density foam cushions using technology developed originally by NASA. Really.

Both front captain’s chairs were supportive, even after miles of driving. Second-row seats offer fore-and-aft adjustments, and the van has reclining second- and third-row seats. Leg room was abundant, and the interior was remarkably quiet.

Mileage was decent on our trip. Through all those miles of city and highway driving, we averaged 22.1 miles per gallon.

On safety, new side-curtain air bags protect outboard occupants in all three rows, and there’s an inflatable knee blocker for the driver that deploys with the air bags. Rear park assist is optional to help in tight spots.

The price is also right – $26,315 in base models on the SXT that includes Stow ‘n Go.

A couple of annoyances:

The front cupholders, when filled with cups, blocked the path to t e DVD loader in the center console, just under the radio. Minor stuff.

Every time the van was turned on, the headphone button had to be pressed on the remote so the kid in back could hear. Even more minor.

A couple of pluses:

* Dodge has added a rubberized holder that sticks out of the middle console that is just the right size for a cellphone or the DVDs remote.

* An overhead rail storage system and sliding storage units under the front seats are great for small items.

* One final note: When the Grand Caravan’s tire pressure alert system tells you one wheel is low on air, believe it. We didn’t, and that was a problem.

* Thinking it was a minor issue, we drove for about 100 miles with the alert on before realizing the left rear tire was seriously going flat.

Perhaps old technology is to blame. In other vans, on other trips, the low pressure indicator was never accurate.

Not surprisingly, Dodge was bang on.

But, then, we only had to look at the seats in our “family truckster” to know that.

Who knew?

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’05 Chrysler Grand Caravan SXT

Engine: 3.8-liter V-6

MPG rating: 18 city/25 highway

Base price: $26,315

Price as tested (including destination and delivery): $30,925