2011 Dodge Grand Caravan: First Drive

November 23, 2010

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.

2011 Dodge Grand Caravan

2011 Dodge Grand Caravan

A bigger boost, but boundy

Chrysler's hacked down the list of available drivetrains down to one. Each and every Grand Caravan powers down the road to middle school behind 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.

The Pentastar generates a huge boost in spec-sheet power figures, with 86 more horsepower accounted for over the old Chrysler 3.8-liter V-6, or 30 hp more than the limited-run 4.0-liter Caravan. There's something more substantial going on underfoot this time around, but the bulky minivan really disguises any dramatic improvements in straight-line acceleration. The off-line impulse of power doesn't exactly follow through in long passes. And the Pentastar doles out its power through a six-speed automatic that's been staged for gas mileage above all else. For a nearly 300-horsepower vehicle, there's very little scrambling going on through the Caravan's front wheels. (All-wheel drive? It's been gone from the lineup since 2008.)

If the mild signs of life are too much to handle, click the Caravan's Economizer switch. It fiddles with shift timing to sip a little less fuel. Fuel economy was 17/25 mpg in the best Grand Caravan last year; the EPA's sitting on the 2011 van's ratings as of this writing, but it's probably a safe bet the numbers won't go down at all--or up significantly.

Toyota's made some mini-waves with the "swagger-wagon" Sienna and a new sport version. Until the Grand Caravan R/T arrives early next year, Dodge's minivan still gets the mid-pack marks for handling it's held since time immemorial, or in Western numerals, since 1984. Gauging the changes in the Caravan's handling and ride updates is tough, too, since your ears account for so much of the new-and-improved perceptions that settle in right away, inside the van.

Chrysler says new steering, better rear-end control, and retuned shocks give the Grand Caravan more nimble feel, along with a lower ride height, but there's a physical distinction between the high driving position of the Caravan and the relatively low-slung Odyssey and Sienna that makes the Caravan feel a bit more upright--i.e., less sporty. Quicker steering isn't any meatier. Tire sizes max out at 17-inchers, putting a damper on most cornering urges. Even with retuned shocks, the Caravan bounds more than it needs to over strings of low bumps. It's resolute, conservative to any response, with a smothering instinct that will shame lots of the moms and dads who actually will drive it, pretty much the polar opposite of the taut, tightly-sprung (well, for a van) Honda Odyssey.

2011 Dodge Grand Caravan

2011 Dodge Grand Caravan

Swivel 'N Go, FloTV: gone, gone

Say your blessings now: the idea of having a light civilized brunch inside the Grand Caravan is gone, now that the "Swivel 'N Go" picnic-table package has been sent packing. We covet the marvy new movable, and removable, "super console" with its many cubic inches of covered space, so perfect for expensive music players, spare change and the odd French fry gone rogue. It's a box within a box--and it is so sold.

Elsewhere inside, the Grand Caravan sticks with the most functionally fleshed-out minivan on the market, save possibly for the old Nissan Quest. 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.  Argue all you want, Sienna and Odyssey, about the virtues of business-class second-row seats that have to be removed for the big chores in life. Minivans are about utility first and foremost, and fold-away second-row seats are a better idea. We've never heard a kid beef about the trade-off of skinny seat cushions--and if we ever do, there's a writing job on hold.

On the safety front, the Grand Caravan has all the perquisites. A new bundle of safety options includes parking sensors, a rearview camera, blind-spot monitors and automatic headlights, together at last. A note on safety scores, though: the 2010 Grand Caravan earned good safety scores, though not best in class, from both the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) and the IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety). Both agencies have changed their scoring standards, so we'll have to wait for more information before pronouncing the Chrysler vans' grades.

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. Offered in four trim levels, the Grand Caravan Express, Mainstreet, Crew and R/T may throw you, so we'll translate the somewhat goofy subheads into "base, popularly equipped, the real deal, and sporty." All have the same drivetrain, and all have power front windows, locks and mirrors as standard equipment, along with three-zone climate control; cruise control; a telescoping/tilting steering wheel; and an AM/FM/CD player with an auxiliary audio jack.

Other features we'd choose--either in packages or as included in the upper trim levels--are a media hard drive; navigation; satellite radio; Bluetooth (either bundled with an upgraded radio, or an auto-dimming rearview mirror, or heated seats and steering wheel); a DVD entertainment system; and a power package for the side doors, tailgate and pedals. Remote start and a 115-volt outlet wouldn't be left off either, not on such a high-functioning machine.

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, but the short-lived FloTV option for live video streaming is gone--due to FloTV's exit from the business. As for the new Stow 'N Place roof rails, which have fold-away crossmembers, you'll have to be the judge: just about all of our stuff fits inside the Grand Caravan, and rooftop storage bins cut into the coefficient of drag. We can't have that.

With a gentle fluffing here and there, the Grand Caravan still stakes out the broadest base of minivan shoppers. It's a high-functioning box on wheels--with the old penalty-box trim neatly excised, and a new powertrain spliced into place. TheCarConnection's top-rated minivan remains the 2011 Honda Odyssey, but the glaring improvements lift the Grand Caravan considerably in our esteem, in our eyes and to our fingertips. Best of all, it's most entertaining when in Park--just like a minivan should be.

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