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Last year, Chrysler revamped the Dodge Grand Caravan with a mini-facelift, a maxi interior redo, and a major drivetrain swap. It hasn't changed much to the ordinary minivan shopper in contrast to the latest minivans from Japan, but finally, the Dodge Grand Caravan has a fresher feel that holds up better against our favorite vehicles in the class, the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna.
While the Odyssey got a new lightning-bolt sideview last year, and the Sienna was transformed for the better (and got its own social-media swagger), the Grand Caravan mostly stayed still, in styling. Halfway through the usual minivan life cycle, the Dodge suddenly seems more boxy than ever. It has its benefits, mostly in a glassy, airy cockpit with great outward visibility, but today's Dodge minivan looked unduly slab-sided even when it was new back in 2008. It's benign at best, especially compared with its egg-shaped ancestors. Step inside, though, and the big changes from the 2011 model year still play well. The gross-grain plastics of the recent past were replaced with much better materials in the 2011 model year, and the impression of quality is much higher--except for the least expensive Grand Caravan's basic cloth upholstery, which is a little too fuzzy and too cheap to be the equal of the plastics and metallic trim surrounding it.
The Grand Caravan's more powerful engine, introduced last year as well, feels more refined in the minivan than it does in other Chrysler vehicles sharing it. Old six-cylinders ditched and in its past, the current Grand Caravan powers down the road to middle school with a 283-horsepower, 3.6-liter V-6, reined in by a six-speed automatic transmission. It's smoother and more tame than in other Chryslers here, and has acceleration bordering on the perky, with just a little of the usual V-6 groan. The Grand Caravan's handling isn't quite up to the brisk steering responses of the Nissan Quest or the overall composure possessed by the Sienna, but it's reasonably close. The Caravan normally is very well composed, but its main drawback is its ride over strings of bumps, where it can get boundy.
Chrysler's minivans are the most useful of all, and that's a big factor in their high scores here at The Car Connection. Minivans are all about utility, and carrying the maximum cargo and number of people, which makes Chrysler's fold-away second- and third-row seats a brilliant idea. The Nissan Quest used to have the same arrangement, but it's abandoned the setup for a fold-away third-row seat and fixed second-row seats, while the Odyssey and Sienna have sliding, fold-down second-row seats and fold-away third row seats. In the Grand Caravan, the seats fold flat into the floor, or stay in position, with in-floor storage bins holding their place. To accommodate the disappearing act, the Chrysler seats are thinner and flatter--but we've never heard a kid complain about the seat comfort, and Costco boxes don't exactly complain, either. The Grand Caravan's third-row seat has a power-fold option, too, as do its side doors and its tailgate.Exceptional safety scores are the Grand Caravan's calling card. The IIHS calls it a Top Safety Pick, and every one comes with curtain airbags and stability control. A rearview camera, Bluetooth, and blind-spot monitors are available, and the power sliding doors have gentle closure that rebounds if obstruction is detected.
A new value edition puts this year's Grand Caravan base price at about $21,000, an incredible bargain for the class. For a well-equipped version with satellite radio and other luxuries, the price is still less than $30,000. The Caravan carries on into the pricing stratosphere with a cavalcade of electronic goodies that's second only to the Ford Flex. Top models can be equipped with a media hard drive, navigation, satellite radio, and Bluetooth—even in-car television streamed via Sirius satellite radio. 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.