It's easy to tell that General Motors is going through a rebirth; it has flashy new cars, like the Chevrolet Camaro and Volt, splattered all over TV to shout its resurgence from the mountaintops.
But as Chrysler climbs out of its sordid past, it's counting on improving what it already has on hand in its Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep brands.
It may not be as sexy as a slew of all-new models, but most products we've seen get automotive plastic surgery from Chrysler have been impressive — and probably the most surprising is the bread-and-butter Grand Caravan minivan. After a long test with my family on board, I was shocked that this car was from the same company that produced the 2010 model I tested just last year. You can compare the two here.
Why? Simply that, while it's essentially the same vehicle, Dodge has thrown a lot "more" at it. The Grand Caravan has more refinement in terms of performance, more high-quality materials and more value.
It may not beat the Honda Odyssey, but it’s likely to give you everything you need in a minivan, and for less money.
The 2011 Grand Caravan sports a lot of new features that car dealers will try to sell you on, but none are as important as the minivan's improved ride and engine. Well, maybe the interior quality is as important, but the other two are vital to the Grand Caravan being more than competent this time around.
What struck me most was how solid the ride is. The 2010's entire body creaked when taking even the slowest of corners. It was as if you could literally hear the structural problems — hence, a rough and noisy ride. Not so in the 2011, in which I commuted to and from work over miles of rough, concrete tollways. It was so pleasant, I wouldn't mind the Grand Caravan as a daily commuter.
Obviously, a minivan isn't made for commuting, but that comfort will be appreciated on road trips with the entire family. Passengers in the third row did, however, find the ride back there much less hospitable. Instead of putting your wife and mother-in-law there, I'd suggest leaving it to the teenagers, who will likely take the comfort tradeoff for some parental distance.
An all-new V-6 engine powers all trim levels, which is a welcome relief for those confused by the three engines previously offered. It's also a significantly better engine, both in terms of smooth power delivery and in terms of improved mileage. It doesn't feel as energetic as the Odyssey's V-6, nor is it as fuel-efficient, but it's above-average for its class. And considering that class is minivans, you shouldn't exactly expect a NASCAR experience. The improved interior, though, will likely be that overwhelming to previous Grand Caravan owners.
Gone are the harsh plastics that were not only hollow, but also hard to the touch — scratch-inducing, even. The doors have softer materials, so when you rest your elbow on the door, it doesn't hurt. The dash itself has a nicer finish, the gauges are sporty, and even the shift knob is much more substantial now. My 2010 test car's shifter was loose and wobbly, so this upgrade was especially nice to see.
There's also an all-new center console — called the Super Console — that extends in a gentle arc away from the dash. It's standard on the higher Crew and RT trim levels, while a more conventional cubby is found in the base Express and Mainstreet trims. While I found the console fashionable and useful, with numerous cubbies and cupholders for everything you'd need, I wouldn't really call it super. The lower trims' console is removable and has four cupholders, while the Super Console cannot be removed. Many minivan owners prefer having that area open, for at least some of the time, so they should take that into consideration.
The other major feature of the Grand Caravan is the Stow 'n Go seating system, which allows the second-row captain's chairs to fold flat into the floor, creating a flat cargo floor without removing the seats from the car. Dodge says it has made those seats more comfortable, but I disagree. They're still hard as rocks for adults and tough to install child-safety seats into. I much prefer the innovative bench seat in the new Odyssey or the larger, more comfortable captain's chairs in the Nissan Quest.
For 2011, there's just one engine option for the Grand Caravan: an all-new 3.6-liter V-6 that's available on almost every new Chrysler product. Not only is it a better performer than what was under the hood for 2010, it clears up the confusing array of engine choices that even I had trouble deciphering in my 2010 review.
At 283 horsepower, the V-6 puts out more power than any of its competition. Its mileage, 17/25 mpg city/highway, is significantly less than the 18/27 mpg the Odyssey gets, yet it matches favorably with the V-6 Toyota Sienna, which is rated 18/24 mpg. Those two have power figures of 248 hp and 266 hp, respectively. However, after testing the Odyssey, the Grand Caravan and most recently the 260-hp V-6 in the new 2011 Quest, it's hard to say which felt fastest. When you're moving this much metal — along with kids and cargo — you just want steady passing power, and all of these vans deliver that.
The Odyssey has a smoother transmission despite having five gears versus the Grand Caravan's six. I also enjoyed the Quest's CVT automatic a bit more than the Grand Caravan's transmission.
The biggest performance upgrade, though, is the smoother, quieter ride I mentioned above. That puts the Grand Caravan on par with the rest of the field.
Trim Levels & Pricing
Where the Grand Caravan easily bests the field is on price. The Grand Caravan's base trim, the Express, starts at $24,995. The nearest comparable minivan on price is the base Sienna V-6, at $25,800. (A base Sienna with a four-cylinder — the only full-size minivan with a four-cylinder — starts at $24,560.) All Grand Caravans come with the Stow 'n Go second row seats that fold flat into the floor.
The Express comes with 16-inch wheels with plastic covers, three-zone manual climate control, a conversation mirror, cruise control, a six-speaker stereo, and a tilt/telescoping steering wheel with audio controls.
At $25,995, the Mainstreet trim adds 16-inch aluminum wheels, body-colored exterior mirrors, power second-row windows and a one-touch up/down driver's window.
The Crew starts at $28,695 and adds much more equipment, including dual power-sliding side doors, fog lamps, a roof rack, 17-inch aluminum wheels, three-zone automatic climate control, overhead storage bins, a HomeLink garage-door opener, a leather shifter and steering wheel, the Super Console, a trip computer, an eight-way power-adjustable driver's seat, a 6.5-inch touch-screen media center, Sirius Satellite Radio and adjustable pedals.
The top trim is the R/T. For $30,595, it adds leather seating in the first and second rows, an eight-way power-adjustable front passenger seat, an Infinity stereo and a performance-tuned suspension.
My Crew tester came to $34,150 after a number of option packages and the destination charge. That included family-friendly options like a rear DVD system for $1,300 — reasonable for this segment — a power liftgate ($425), the Infinity sound system ($795), navigation ($695), the Driver Convenience Group, including heated front seats and Bluetooth ($810), and a Passenger Convenience Group with heated second-row seats and window shades ($695).
That's a lot of content for the money.
The Grand Caravan comes with a standard array of airbags, including seat-mounted side airbags for the driver and front passenger and side curtain airbags for all three rows. Click here for a full list of safety features.
Neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration nor the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety had crash-tested the 2011 Grand Caravan at the time of this writing.
Grand Caravan in the Market
Dodge has always produced one of the more affordable options in the minivan segment, but now it doesn't have to use that as an excuse for a cut-rate interior and sluggish engine.
Is it superior to the top dog in this segment — in my mind, the new Odyssey? No. But you can get it in your driveway for thousands less. However, buyers will need to be diligent about the pricing and trim levels of the competition.
There hasn't been a time when minivans have been as good as they are today, and it's nice that Dodge now has a product that's competitive on more than just price.
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