Dodge minivan shines as a hauler

With the Dodge Grand Caravan’s “Stow ‘n Go” setup, you can fold the second- and third-rows seats into the floor with tugs on a few straps and a minimum of effort.

GROSSE POINTE WOODS –Nobody travels with as much stuff as my sister-in-law Mary Jane Pyzik, the mother of three children, including 4-month-old Julia.

The last time she came to my house, she seemed to have the entire contents of Toys R Us in her 2000 Dodge Caravan minivan.

She opened up the doors and out came a baby car seat, a stroller, an over-sized diaper bag, a collection of “Lord of the Rings” toys and a fancy baby walker called an ExerSaucer.

And that was just the stuff crammed into the passenger compartment.

In the rear cargo hold, she was hauling a big box with an iMac computer.

Of course, Mary Jane seemed like the perfect person to help with an extended family-style test drive of the redesigned 2005 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT, which is drawing a lot of attention from parents because of its unique “Stow ‘n Go” rear seats.

The new seats allow you to fold the second- and third-rows into the floor with tugs on a few straps and a minimum of effort, a near-miraculous advancement in the minivan market.

Our test vehicle, a top-of-the-line, seven-passenger Grand Caravan SXT, had a base price of $26,995, including a $680 destination charge.

It was loaded up with lots of options, including a $990 rear-seat DVD entertainment system with wireless headphones and a $1,760 premium option group that included three-zone air conditioning, a power liftgate, power adjustable pedals, overhead storage bins and a rear park-assist system, among other items. The bottom line: $30,925.

The two of us spent 13 days and hundreds of miles testing the Grand Caravan SXT, which is on sale now.

When we were finished, we had different opinions about the latest version of this classic family hauler.

Mary Jane loved its flexibility and hated giving it up to go back to her old Caravan with its unwieldy and heavy seats that have to be removed from the vehicle to make room for bigger cargo.

“It starts to be a little expensive at $30,000, but for what you are getting and what you can do with it, it’s worth it,” she said of the 2005 Grand Caravan SXT.

“The best things are the seats. That’s what would sell me on this minivan, having all that flexibility. I can do everything by myself.”

Like Mary Jane, I admired the flexibility of the interior, too, but thought the look of the Dodge’s cabin, heavy on the plastic trim and dark carbon fiber-style accents, was disappointing, especially next to more elegant competitors like the top-of-the-line Toyota Sienna.

A better choice for me or folks longing for a bit of luxury is the 2005 Chrysler Town & Country, a more upscale sibling to the Dodge minivan, which can be ordered with new sycamore wood interior trim accented by satin nickel touches.

The new Dodge minivan was not a vehicle I would want to use for a night on the town, nor would I recommend it to friends who use their vehicles to pick up important clients. From the inside out, it screamed “utility”.

But those impressions give you a good idea of how needs change as you move through different stages of life. Our premise was to cover the waterfront with our differing wants and needs.

Mary Jane is an active 40-year-old mother who is constantly hauling her kids to hockey practice, drum lessons and school.

I’m a 50-year-old who just got her last kid out of college nine months ago, the classic empty-nester.

Together, we make one perfect minivan tester. Chrysler says about 40 percent of its minivan buyers don’t have children or are empty-nesters like me.

The rest are largely made up of 25-to-39-year-old married women ith two or more children under 6 and an average household income of $60,000.

I used the Grand Caravan SXT for work commutes and shopping. Mary Jane and family did lots of activities with the van. They took it to the grocery store. They went to a Friday night fish fry at the local Knights of Columbus Hall near their home in Dearborn Heights. And they headed to Pontiac to participate in a fantasy baseball league draft.

Dodge highlighted flexibility and safety, not image, with the redesigned minivan. The exterior changes are minor, mainly new fog lamps and body-side moldings, and there are no engine changes.

Our test vehicle was outfitted with a 3.8-liter V-6 that made 215 horsepower and 245 pounds-feet of torque. It is the biggest of three available engine choices on the SXT. It is mated to a four-speed automatic transmission.

In the powertrain department, the Grand Caravan SXT falls short of the Sienna and the Honda Odyssey minivans. Both come with five-speed automatic transmissions and more powerful V-6 engines.

The Grand Caravan SXT got 18 miles per gallon in city driving and 25 mpg on the highway. On the safety side, there are new optional three-row side curtain air bags that provide coverage for all rows of seats instead of just the front passengers. They add $595 to the vehicle’s cost.

There is also a new driver-side inflatable knee blocker that protects your upper leg in a crash and helps to position the driver in relation to the front air bag. It is standard on all of the Dodge and Chrysler minivan models.

Another new standard safety feature is called “door alert” and it’s patterned after the warning signal lights on a school bus. If a sliding door opens on the minivan, the turn signal on that side of the vehicle begins flashing to alert other cars that someone is leaving the minivan.

But as Mary Jane pointed out, all the big news is in the Grand Caravan SXT’s interior.

She raved about the cabin setup. When the rear seat is upright, you can use the deep well behind it as the perfect place to organize groceries or bigger items like a stroller and not have them roll around.

The roomy storage wells for the second-row seats also can be used to hide smaller items in the cabin. Mary Jane used them to store the books, crayons and kid stuff carried around by sons Steven, 12, and Nicholas, 9.

“These storage bins are great,” she said. “On long trips, you run out of room and end up with bags between your feet. Now you can put all that stuff away neatly.”

Her one concern was visibility. She said the rearview mirror was more cluttered than the one on her Dodge minivan. That’s because of the placement of the buttons for the optional UConnect Hands-Free cell phone system. Also, the third-row headrests blocked her view when they were in use.

And her boys?

They happily lounged in the second-row captain.s ch airs and watched “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” on the DVD entertainment system.

Their mom, a bit old-fashioned and not a big fan of in-car entertainment, wished they would have spent more time talking to each other or even looking out the window.

But that turned out to be a very minor gripe in a beautifully organized and almost-perfect minivan.