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2011 Dodge Grand Caravan: First Drive

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Along with most of the Chrysler lineup for 2011, this year's Grand Caravan pitches headlong into the rejuvenation fad. Not that it didn't need a tightening here, a mini-lift there, a spa weekend most everywhere (and mostly for its plasticky, creaky cabin), but the Grand Caravan's always been a fundamentally sound package.

It's only recently--since the new version arrived in 2008--that it's undercut itself with a cost-cutting interior. That's been gutted this year, and with a new drivetrain plan that includes the new Pentastar V-6, the massaged minivan greets a slew of new competitors nose-on. It's an interesting footnote: for 2011, every new minivan for sale in the U.S. gets a moderate to complete makeover, from the Kia Sedona's light updates to the complete overhaul of the new Nissan Quest, Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey.

Let's start with how it looks, because with the Odyssey's new lightning-bolt sideview and the Sienna's tarted-up swagger--not to mention the Quest's overt Flex cues--the Grand Caravan suddenly seems more boxy than ever. There's an honesty about its shape that didn't play as well three years ago, when this Grand Caravan replaced the old egg-shaped one. Going from truly handsome to truly, er, space-efficient still doesn't give the Grand Caravan the gorgeousness that no driver expects from a minivan--but the new, small touches are nicely faired into the one-box canvas. The headlights round down into suggestiveness, the crosshairs grow on the grille to military grade, and the re-faired skirts and bumpers drum up a little curiosity, especially on the new R/T version. The taillamps are LED sprays dubbed the "ring of fire" by Dodge; they mimic those in the new Charger, and sound a little unfair to Johnny Cash.

Moving inside through the front hinged doors, the Caravan's playspaces have ditched the gross-grain plastics for something more suitably adult. From the sliding side doors back, not much has changed--it's still crayon-and-vomit-proof--but facing the senior family members is an uncluttered, upgraded dash with better materials all around. That's with the exception of the cloth upholstery: the Grand Caravan will be Chrysler's sub-$30,000 minivan, and the "premium" cloth interior isn't the top-grade equal of the plastics and metallic trim surrounding it. It's a little fuzzy, a little vintage-80s Korean--and leather's only an option on the top two trim packages.


 
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