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For 2011, Chrysler has rehabbed the Dodge Grand Caravan with a mini-facelift. While not much has changed on the outside, its plasticky, creaky cabin is much-improved, and a more powerful and refined engine together give this family hauler a fresher feel.
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.
In a class of minivan designs that includes 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. Moving inside through the front-hinged doors, the Caravan's playspaces have ditched the gross-grain plastics for something more suitably adult and upscale. 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.
Chrysler's hacked the list of available drivetrains down to one. Each and every Grand Caravan powers along the road to middle school with a 283-horsepower, 3.6-liter V-6, reined in by a six-speed automatic transmission. The Pentastar is to Chrysler now, what the VQ V-6 is to Nissan—only in the new domestics, the Pentastar sounds smoother and more tame, while Nissan's V-6 has gotten more grouchy over time.
Minivans are about utility—passengers and cargo—first and foremost, and the Grand Caravan is comfortable to the max. The fold-away second-row seats are a great idea. We've never heard a kid beef about the trade-off of skinny seat cushions, though admittedly the harder-to-remove business-class seats in the Sienna and Odyssey would be the preferred choice for touring adults. The base van has seven-spot, three-row seating; add on Stow 'N Go for fold-away second- and third-row seats, and you'll get a new twist for 2011 in the form of a one-touch fold-down mechanism, and power folding for the third-row bench.
The Caravan carries on with a cavalcade of electronic goodies that's second only to the Ford Flex—with the bonus of in-car television on the intangible list. On the exotic edge, we're sold on the latest, cheapest, high-tech piece: a USB port for 3G dongles that turns the Grand Caravan into a WiFi hotspot, missing only its own barista and a host of funemployed table-squatters. We'd opt for Sirius' BackseatTV and its SpongeBob marathons, and top models can be equipped with a media hard drive, navigation, satellite radio, and Bluetooth.