- Responsive, refined V-6
- The best storage solutions on wheels
- Excellent second- and third-row seating
- More electronic gadgets than any minivan
- Top safety scores
- Base cloth upholstery is chintzy
- Ride gets bouncy
- Handling is unremarkable
With its worst penalty-box trim neatly excised, the 2012 Dodge Grand Caravan is a high-functioning box on wheels.
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.
2012 Dodge Grand Caravan
Functional to a fault, the Grand Caravan's honest looks and nicer interior still don't strike much fear in the hearts of Toyota or Honda.
The Odyssey has a lightning bolt baked into its sides, and the Sienna has a certain tarted-up swagger--and Nissan's Quest apes some of the foxy-box proportions of the Ford Flex. Meanwhile, the Dodge Grand Caravan soldiers on with a functional shape, inside and out, that no longer looks thrifty and understyled, as it once did.
There's an honesty to the Grand Caravan that looked underdone, when the current van was introduced in the 2008 model year. This minivan replaced a very good-looking one, one with overt oval styling cues. The transition from handsome to merely efficient and boring still leaves the Dodge minivan looking dated, compared to its newest rivals. That said, there are a handful of small touches faired in nicely on the one-box body. The headlights are rounded suggestively, while the Dodge crosshair grille has been plumped up. The R/T's few distinctive touches connect a little more directly to the usual Dodge buyer and their more brash tastes. The LED taillamps that ring the tailgate mimic the ones on the Charger sedan, where the comparison ends, definitively.
2012 Dodge Grand Caravan
Driving excitement isn't on offer, but the 2012 Dodge Grand Caravan accelerates quickly and holds the road well.
In last year's major minivan makeover, Chrysler cut the number of powertrains in the Dodge Grand Caravan from two to one, and retuned its handling for a slightly better road feel. It's still not the equal of the Odyssey in that regard, but the Caravan acquits itself as well as you might demand from any minivan.
Every Grand Caravan gets its power from a 283-horsepower, 3.6-liter V-6. The "Pentastar" six is now found in most Chrysler products, and it's a well-conceived powerplant, with good midrange responsiveness and torque. It's not quite as smooth as other big-six minivans, but it produces 86 more horsepower than Chrysler's old 3.8-liter V-6, and 30 hp more than the briefly available 4.0-liter Caravan. It feels substantial, and doesn't have some of the boomy echo that the same pieces produce in other Chrysler products. Straight-line acceleration is brisk, and fuel economy is still above the class average, at 17/25 mpg, thanks to a relatively smooth-shifting six-speed automatic transmission.
Handling is nothing remarkable, but 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.) Ride quality is almost cushy compared to rival vans, but even with retuned shocks, the Caravan bounds more than it needs to over strings of low bumps. It's more content to smother, which makes its handling a neat metaphor for the kind of parenting minivans are built to support.
2012 Dodge Grand Caravan
Comfort & Quality
The most flexible seating system in the minivan business remains the 2012 Dodge Grand Caravan's hallmark.
You can't host a picnic lunch from its back seats anymore--well, there's no more table, at least--but the Grand Caravan remains one of the most spacious vehicles you can buy.
Minivans are all about utility, and the Grand Caravan shines at adapting to the needs of the day, whether it's running the school carpool or toting home all of aisle 4 at Sam's Club. It's an eight-seater when pressed to the extreme, and the 2012 Dodge minivan has room for five adults or more, depending on how long the road ahead is.
The front seats can feel a little too spongy compared to the firmer pieces in other minivans, but it's a small price to pay for the Dodge's plentiful leg and head room. The fold-away second-row seats are just a better idea, and while other vans have abandoned, or never adopted them in the first place, the Caravan keeps them as a best-in-class feature. The cushions are a little flatter than in some other vans, but these seats fold completely into the floor at the flip of a lever; even when they're up, they make those under-floor bins available for other storage.
The third row is still useful for smaller adults, and it too folds out of sight when needed--by power, if you pay for that option. We do lament the Swivel 'N Go back seats and the pop-up picnic table they brought with them, but the space and excellent use of it remains intact. We'd opt for the 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--what's not to love about that?
2012 Dodge Grand Caravan
Great safety scores and a raft of anti-collision gear make the Grand Caravan one of the safest family vehicles on the road.
The Grand Caravan continues a long string of top safety scores, earning kudos from the feds and from the insurance industry.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gives the Dodge minivan an overall rating of four stars, with an individual five-star rating for side-impact protection. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) says the Caravan's a Top Safety Pick.
Standard equipment includes the mandatory dual front airbags and stability control; the Caravan's curtain airbags extend protection to all three rows of seats.
A bundle of safety options includes parking sensors, a rearview camera, blind-spot monitors and automatic headlights. And thanks to the boxy design and vast greenhouse, outward visibility in the 2012 Grand Caravan is very good.
2012 Dodge Grand Caravan
A value-rich van in base form, the 2012 Dodge Grand Caravan does its best impression of a family room when you opt for its van-load of entertainment features.
It's the oldest nameplate in the minivan business, but the 2012 Dodge Grand Caravan has one of the most comprehensive sets of entertainment features of any minivan, and some tech gear you can't get in any other family eight-seater.
The 2012 Grand Caravan lineup loses some of the kitschy trim names it brought with its 2011 redesign, and now comes in five different trim levels, including a $21,000 "American Value Package that's priced against many smaller crossover vehicles--thousands less than some of the Japanese-brand minivans. It comes with power windows, locks and mirrors; keyless entry; a fold-away third-row seat; air conditioning; and cruise control. Mid-line versions add power side doors and a power tailgate, with options for more than the usual CD player, while the Crew edition adds a power driver seat, satellite radio, and ambient interior lighting. An R/T model wears monochromatic trim, black leather seating, and gets its own sound system and suspension tuning.
From those basics, the Grand Caravan stands out with options that run the gamut of in-car technology. The latest, cheapest, high-tech piece is a boon for connected families: it's a USB port for 3G dongles that turns the Grand Caravan into a WiFi hotspot. It's a no-brainer versus the more expensive DVD entertainment system, even if you spend for a couple of iPads. Still, we might add on the Caravan's BackseatTV for its three channels of kid-friendly streaming TV.Other features to check out are navigation; satellite radio; Bluetooth (either bundled with an upgraded radio, or an auto-dimming rearview mirror, or heated seats and steering wheel); the DVD entertainment system; and a power package for the side doors, tailgate and pedals on models where they're not included. Remote start and a 115-volt outlet wouldn't be left off either, not on such a high-functioning machine.
Think twice about ordering the new Stow 'N Place roof rails. It's possible, with all this interior room, that all of your stuff will fit inside the Grand Caravan. Rooftop storage bins cut into the coefficient of drag anyway, right?
2012 Dodge Grand Caravan
The 2012 Dodge Grand Caravan earns solid fuel-economy numbers to go with its eight-passenger package.
Gas mileage isn't as much a selling point in minivans as it's become in family sedans. And for solidly average performers like the 2012 Dodge Grand Caravan, the figures don't have to be class-leading for the minivan to be a best-seller.
The Grand Caravan returns for the new model year with the same ratings it earned last year, when its 3.6-liter V-6 and six-speed automatic were new. It gets the EPA's nod for 17/25 mpg, which is competitive with the mainstream versions of the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna, though it's a couple of miles per gallon less than the six-speed Odyssey (the most expensive version) and with the four-cylinder versions of the Sienna.
The Grand Caravan also has an "economizer" switch, which isn't the Doctor Who feature it sounds like. It's an electronically controlled mode that fiddles with shift timing to let the minivan sip a little less fuel.
There's no hybrid or diesel edition of the Grand Caravan, and with a replacement due in the 2014 model year, no other powertrains are expected before that major model change.