2011 Dodge Grand Caravan: First Drive Page 3

November 23, 2010
2011 Dodge Grand Caravan

2011 Dodge Grand Caravan

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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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