Some people shop for a minivan as if they're buying a house. That's because most have families and want plenty of room and lots of comfort and convenience features.
DaimlerChrysler's Chrysler division is an old hand at making minivans. It gives buyers of this type of vehicle virtually everything they want. That's why the Dodge Caravan
long has been the world's top-selling minivan, with annual sales of approximately 350,000 units. However, the division missed the boat by not offering a third-row seat that folds flush with the floor when it redesigned its Chrysler and Dodge
nameplate minivans for 2001.
Rivals such as the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna have that handy feature.
The split third-row bench seat in DaimlerChrysler minivans is easy to remove, but is no substitute for a stowable seat that folds into a recessed floor area.
That situation might change because of appealing new foreign entries in the minivan market, but don't look for the Caravan
to be upstaged in the near future. For one thing, it's got a trusted, familiar name in a conservative market that values such a thing.
By necessity, most minivan buyers look for practicality, not driving excitement. That doesn't mean the Caravan
is a bore. Rather, its carlike nature makes it enjoyable to drive -- as long as children carried in the back behave reasonably well. A new factory-installed DVD entertainment system with a flip-down seven-inch diagonal screen is meant to help keep them quiet.
DaimlerChrysler minivans haven't changed much since 2001, when they got a sleeker, wider, longer body -- along with more power, stronger construction, revised suspensions and better steering and brakes.
The $20,640-$35,390 Caravan
shares its design with the Chrysler Town & Country and Voyager models. It comes in regular-length models and in extended-length Grand versions. They're well equipped, and the high-line Grand ES version is offered for the first time with a power sunroof, which costs $895.
Safety features include $390 front side air bags. The $150 tire pressure monitor also is a key option for a family vehicle, but is only offered for the top model.
s provide seven-passenger seating in three rows of seats and two sliding side doors, but the extended-length versions offer more room for second- and third-row occupants. The integrated second-row child safety seats are a good idea.
There's little cargo room in either version for more than, say, a week's worth of groceries, with the third seat in its normal position, although that's the case with most minivans.
The Grand version offers power operation for the sliding side doors, while the regular-length version provides that feature only for the right sliding door.
A power rear hatch is standard on the higher-line Grand models and optional for other "Grands.'' The power hatch seems excessive at first, but comes in handy when your arms are filled with groceries or other objects and you can open and close it with a key fob. The hatch also can be manually operated with ease.
The power side doors don't open quite fast enough when you've got a bunch of impatient kids waiting to leap into the rear of the vehicle. On the other hand, you probably wouldn't want those doors to open too quickly; they come in handy while scooping up kids during heavy rain. During most circumstances, the manual sliding side doors work fine.
Front-drive is standard, while all-wheel-drive is offered for Grand Caravan
s. I tested the virtually top-line $33,490 Grand Caravan
ES, with front-drive. The all-wheel-drive ES with a load-leveling, height-control suspension is the most costly version.
The ES with front-drive and its standard traction control system provides plenty of road grip -- one reason why few Caravan
s are ordered with all-wheel drive.
The extended-length version isn't as easy to maneuver as the regular-length Caravan
, which is 11.2 inches shorter than the longer model. But the 200.5-inch-long Grand Caravan
still is nimble despite being one of the longest minivans. It's much shorter than a luxury auto such as the Lincoln Town Car. Still, the Grand Caravan
isn't happy with such maneuvers as quick lane changes on highways.
Steering has the right amount of quickness for a tall, rather large vehicle, and the Grand Caravan
's longer wheelbase results in an especially smooth ride. Braking is good, with a soft, but easily modulated, pedal.
The base 2.4-liter, 140-horsepower four-cylinder engine provides lazy acceleration. The 3.3-liter, 180-horsepower V-6 is best suited for regular-length models and provides decent performance; it's in most Grand Caravan
s. However, the strong 3.8-liter, 215-horsepower V-6 in my test minivan is the best engine for Grand models.
All engines work with a generally responsive four-speed automatic transmission. The shift lever is on the steering column to allow entry to the rear without leaving the vehicle. However, the lever partly blocks radio controls when in the "drive'' position.
As for miles per gallon, figure on the mid- to high teens in the city and about 24 mpg on highways.
It's easy to get in and out of Caravan
s, with their nicely shaped door handles, wide doorways and low floor.
Occupants sit high in a quiet interior, and a driver faces easily read gauges and conveniently placed controls. There are plenty of cup and bottle holders, and $185 power-adjustable pedals let shorter occupants sit farther from the steering wheel air bag.
There's no razzle-dazzle with any version of the Caravan
, and there shouldn't be.
Strong 3.8-liter V-6. Roomy. Carlike. Good handling. Smooth ride.
Small sound and climate system controls. Shift lever partly blocks radio controls. No fold-away third-row seat.