There is absolutely nothing wrong with utility. After all, at least two major classes of vehicles, SUVs and crossover utilities claim the word as a middle name. Despite that, SUVs and CUVs are in fact far from the most utilitarian vehicles on the road. That claim belongs the classic minivan, including the progenitor of the class, the Dodge Grand Caravan.
The original Caravan and its Plymouth-badged twin the Voyager, debuted 30 years and have helped define the segment ever since even if they haven’t always been the overall best examples of the breed.
The current fifth-generation Dodge minivan debuted in the final days of the DaimlerChrysler period and at the time suffered from much of the same cheapening and ill-conceived design that plagued other Chrysler products of the period. That means the interior was dominated by poorly finished, hard plastics. Fortunately, the Caravan and its Chrysler-badged twin, the Town and Country slipped through with mostly just boxy blandness rather than the downright homeliness of the Sebring and Avenger sedans.
Today, the Caravan looks much the same on the outside with only minor updates to the front fascia and lighting that resulted from the post-Fiat crash update program. Since we spend most of our time living inside a van rather than perusing the boxy exterior lines, Chrysler put more effort into upgrades there and it was a good decision.
The third row seat backs fold forward and then the split seats flip back, disappearing into the bin behind the rear axle leaving a flat floor. Even with the second row seats in place, 83.3 cubic feet of stowage is available. The second row seats fold and then drop down into under-floor bins behind the front seats for maximum cargo volume. With all of the seats down, the proverbial 4×8-foot sheets of plywood will easily fit, or in my case materials for rebuilding the fence around my yard.
The relatively soft lines and soft-to-the-touch surfaces make the cabin of the Caravan a much more pleasant place to spend time than it was in 2008. The fit and finish right up there with chief competitors Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey.
The test unit I drove was a mid-level SXT with the available Blacktop package that adds black trim to the grille, headlamp bezels, wheels plus leather steering wheel and shifter trim inside. The dual DVD entertainment package upgrades the audio system to the UConnect 430 system along with a pair of nine-inch displays that drop down from the ceiling for the second and third rows.
If you’re hauling kids on a road trip, this in-flight entertainment system can be a good option if they don’t have individual tablets or laptops to watch their own entertainment choices. On the other hand, if your young passengers do have access to individual entertainment, you might want to bypass the $2,490 entertainment system and get UConnect Web option that adds a WiFi hotspot and cellular modem so passengers can browse the web on the road.
If you have a smartphone, I’d also recommend buying a $25 mount for the phone and skipping the optional Garmin navigation. The Garmin maps as always are good, but the points of interest database is woefully lacking compared to Google maps. The UConnect 430 touchscreen display only measures 6.5-inches diagonally, not much more than most modern phones and the resolution is pretty low.
The UConnect hands-free option also only provides voice control for phone calls. All other inputs such as getting directions require tapping the touchscreen, something you can’t do while driving. Whether you’re using Apple’s Siri, Google’s Android voice controls, or relying on your passenger for input (something they can’t do on the move with the embedded Garmin system) you’re better off. Garmin even has an app for phones that would probably be superior.
In addition to the visual updates, the 2011 update replaced Chrysler’s aged old V6 engines with the more modern 3.6-liter PentaStar V6. The all-aluminum engine is rated at 283-horsepower and 260 lb.-ft. of torque in the van. The PentaStar is flex-fuel capable so you’re free to fill the tank with E85 if it’s available, although be forewarned that mileage will drop by about 10-15 percent when running on alcohol. In this application it’s paired with a smooth shifting six-speed automatic transmission. The Grand Caravan is certainly no sports car, but the PentaStar V6 has no trouble motivating it even with a curb weight of 4,500 pounds.
In a week of driving that consisted of about two-thirds highway commuting, the Grand Caravan managed just shy of 23 mpg, a pretty impressive feat for a vehicle this size.
If you have more than three passengers to haul around on a regular basis and don’t need to tow a big boat, a van like the Grand Caravan is an excellent option. The sliding side doors and relatively low floor make access to the second and third rows far easier for adults and children than any SUV or crossover.
The current generation of Chrysler’s minivans is nearing the end of its life-cycle with an all-new model coming for 2016. At that time, the Dodge version will be discontinued, leaving only the Chrysler Town & Country. Assuming it gets a design as stylish as the new 200 sedan and more contemporary technology inside, it could be a formidable competitor.
In the meantime, the Grand Caravan remains very competitively priced with an American Value Package that starts at just $20,895. The least expensive Toyota Sienna starts $7,000 higher while the Honda Odyssey will run another $1,000 on top of that. Even as tested this Grand Caravan Blacktop Edition stickered at a quite reasonable $32,805.