2011 Dodge Grand Caravan: First Drive Page 2

November 23, 2010
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.

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