The road to redemption is long and winding. With the German overseers at Mercedes-Benz beginning to have second thoughts about their acquisition of Chrysler Corporation two years ago, redemption is very much on the minds of America's DaimlerChrysler executives. Compared to a $1 billion operating profit in the third fiscal quarter of 1999, the company has just posted a $512 million loss for the same quarter in 2000. Mind you, that's a 12-month, $1.5-billion fall from grace for a company that once assumed it had the world by the tail.
After all, this is the company that, back in 1983, stumbled onto the mother lode by daring to invent the minivan category, which it subsequently dominated for at least the next 15 years. Today, the Dodge Caravan and Grand Caravan (and their siblings the Chrysler Voyager and Town & Country) remain the benchmarks by which all other minivans are measured. The problem is that the number of all other minivans has grown dramatically in the last few years. It has therefore been incumbent upon DaimlerChrysler to update its mommymobile for the new millennium in hopes of safeguarding this critically important market franchise.
If my week in Dodge's all-new Grand Caravan Sport is any indication, the DaimlerChrysler folks have an exceedingly smooth yet excruciatingly narrow path to follow in shoring up their minivan's reputation--smooth because the Grand Caravan is a mechanical masterpiece with very clever and unique features; narrow because consumer buying habits may be transforming the formerly broad minivan category into an increasingly slender specialty niche.
The list of industry firsts in the Grand Caravan is impressive: A power rear door or liftgate is available that opens and closes automatically, just like the available power sliding doors on each side of the van. Accelerator and brake pedals are adjustable. An optional cargo organizer pops up out of the floor behind the rearmost seats. The center console, with its power outlets, can be moved from the front row to the middle row. An in-dash CD player loads up to four discs. Automatic HVAC operation is adjustable for three distinct seating zones.
2001 Dodge Caravan
Curiously, however, it wasn't the gadgets that grabbed my attention, clever as they are. It was the Grand Caravan's driving manners. Simply stated, the minivan's combination of a 180-horsepower V-6 and four-speed automatic transmission delivered the smoothest, most unruffled acceleration and cruising feel I may have ever experienced. Automatic gearshifts were so imperceptible, yet pulling power so substantial, that I imagined I might have been driving an electric- or turbine-powered vehicle.
2001 Dodge Caravan InteriorEnlarge Photo
Thoughtful touches like the Caravan’s optional video screen keep kids under their boiling point — but the non-removable back seats push parents toward theirs.
Dodge has bumped the power of the 3.3-liter engine I tested by nearly 30 percent for 2001. A larger, optional 3.8-liter pushrod V-6 makes 210 horsepower, while a 3.5-liter single-overhead-cam V-6 delivers the most power available in the minivan segment, 230 horses.
In allowing myself to become seduced by the fluid cruising feel and self-confident cornering ability of the new Grand Caravan Sport, I inadvertently stumbled against this minivan's — and DaimlerChrysler's — chief obstacle. Just at the moment when many men are discovering the pleasures of driving a sporty minivan like this Dodge, many women are rebelling against the perception of the minivan as a troop carrier for infants and adolescents. I was quite taken aback by the reaction of a friend's wife who railed against the prospect of ever having to drive another minivan, even as my friend was considering hot-rodding a Grand Caravan Sport for the sake of playful mischief.
So it's all the more curious that DaimlerChrysler should overlook certain women-friendly considerations. Foremost among these is the awkward method for removing the third-row bench seat. Yes, the little rollers and rails make this task somewhat easier, but lifting the assembly out of the rear door is still quite a grunt. Honda's Odyssey and Mazda's MPV both employ a "self-collapsing" rear bench that hides under the floor; even the Dodge Durango sport-ute does. But not the Grand Caravan — because, rumor has it, Dodge engineers feel that the storage well for such a seat would invite too much road noise into the cabin.
2001 Dodge Caravan
Also ironic are certain complications deriving from Grand Caravan's highly evolved safety engineering. The dual-stage front airbags are indeed wonderful, and the optional side airbags ($350) are a boon. The anchoring system for child seats employs the new international standard known as ISOFIX. But when it comes time to offload the children at school via the power-sliding doors, or when the kids need to load or unload backpacks through the rear power liftgate, the driver must resort to a flurry of button-pushing and lever-lurching. For the doors to work, the transmission must be shifted into Park, the auto-locking doors must be unlocked, and the power-door buttons overhead must be pressed. After seven or eight seconds of safety beep-beep-beeping, the kids disembark, grab their bags, and skedaddle. But the driver must reverse the procedure to the accompaniment of all those beeps and warnings. Only when all doors are automatically re-latched does the Grand Caravan give permission to shift back into Drive for departure.
After living with a Grand Caravan only a short while, most buyers, no doubt, will have adopted this entire procedure as second nature. And I certainly applaud Dodge's determination to minimize the risks to little hands and feet from all those power-operating doors and liftback.
Nevertheless, I couldn't help wondering, as I sprinted around town chirping the front tires and basking in Grand Caravan's seamless powertrain, whether a fancier, more gadgety minivan was the solution DaimlerChrysler was needing at this critical juncture — or whether the rich seams of the minivan mother lode were slowly beginning to play out.
|2001 Dodge Grand Caravan Sport
Engine: 3.3-liter V-6, 180 hp; 3.8-liter V-6, 210 hp; 3.5-liter V-6, 230 hp
Transmission: four-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 200.5 in x 78.6 in x 68.8 in
Wheelbase: 119.3 in
Curb weight: 4146 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 18/24 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual-stage front SRS airbags w/ optional side airbags,
ABS, optional traction control
Major standard equipment: HVAC, AM/FM/cassette, LATCH child seat
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles
Review continues below
The Car Connection Consumer Review
in your area