I don't know any guy who gets too excited about a minivan. But if you're a family man like me, there's a good chance that a minivan will be as much a part of your life at some point as Saturday soccer games and birthday slumber parties. After all, when it comes to hauling kids, their friends and their accoutrements, few vehicles are better suited to the task.
While crossovers have been crowding into minivans' traditional territory as a primary people hauler, the standard-bearing 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan comes with the type of conveniences and top-notch safety ratings to make it a perfect mommy mobile. The version I recently tested (with a sticker price of $31,320), also has enough cool tech to appeal to almost any guy's inner gadget geek.
Make it Easy on Mom
The Customer Preferred Package (CPP) option that came with our Caravan is steeply priced at $3,740, but includes Chrysler's innovative Stow 'n Go second-row bucket seats and third-row bench seats. In an upright position, the two rows have enough room to comfortably carry five adults and plenty of space for an equal amount of kids. And in a matter of seconds the seats fold completely into the floor to yield 143 cubic feet of cargo space.
The option package also includes venting of the rear side windows from a switch on the driver's door, power-adjustable pedals and a remote start that fires up the engine so that the interior can be heated or cooled before departure. The Power and Entry Group option that also came with our Caravan adds passenger and driver-side power sliding doors, and a power liftgate for $1,995.
These features can prove priceless when you have your hands full and you're trying to herd five first-graders inside. And Dodge conveniently offers three ways that the sliding doors can be activated: from the key fob remote, switches just inside of each door or in an overhead console.
Rip and Roll
Once you get the kids buckled in, the Single DVD Entertainment System-which adds another $2,120 to the sticker and includes an 8-inch video screen in the rear overhead console, two pairs of wireless headphones and a wireless remote-will keep them quiet and content. A DVD is inserted into a slot behind the 6.5-inch touch screen that's part of the MyGIG Multimedia Entertainment System in the dash. But even with the single-disc slot occupied during movie time, the system gives you many more media options.
About a third of MyGIG's 20 GB hard-disc drive (HDD) can be loaded with MP3 and WMA files, and even jpeg pictures to create digital "wallpaper" on the touch screen. MP3 and WMA files can be ripped to the HDD from a CD or transferred via a flash drive plugged into a USB port on the radio's faceplate.
Gracenote Music Recognition Service incorporated into the system provides artist, album, song title and genre information, and once music is loaded onto the hard drive it can be organized using MyGIG's Jukebox Mode. AM, FM and SIRIUS Satellite Radio are also on tap and a portable media player can be plugged into an aux input on the MyGIG's faceplate. With the addition of an optional USB cable available from a Dodge dealer, an iPod can be controlled directly from the MyGIG's touch-screen.
While shuttling my brood back and forth between school and their various activities, the remote power doors and liftgate made life easier. And on a quick family road trip, with the kids quietly glued to a movie on the DVD entertainment system, my wife and I experienced what it was like to actually hold an uninterrupted conversation.
The Caravan performed dutifully if unspectacularly during everyday driving, but the anemic 3.3-liter V6 left me wanting more power when merging into freeway traffic or climbing a hill. The minivan also felt uninspired when cornering and the brakes over-tasked when asked to quickly halt the 4,300-pound vehicle. At highway speed, interior noise made it difficult to enjoy all the various music options, although at moderate speeds the six-speaker audio system had decent sound.
Family Man Mobile
The $10,000 worth of options on the $21,000 base-price Caravan also included a backup camera, Bluetooth hands-free and a 115-volt power inverter. And the Caravan can be loaded with even more bells and whistles: Swivel 'n Go second-row seats that turn to face the rear of the vehicle, a table that installs between the second- and third-row seats and SIRIUS Backseat TV that receives live Nickelodeon, Disney Channel and Cartoon Network programming. Try getting all of that-plus a wife, a couple kids and all their stuff-in a sports car or even a sedan, and all of a sudden the 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan SE seems exciting to a family man.
Doug Newcomb has been writing about car electronics since 1988, as editor of Car Audio and Electronics, Car Stereo Review, Mobile Entertainment, Road & Track Road Gear and as a freelance writer. His new book, Car Audio for Dummies, is available from Wiley Publications. He lives in Hood River, Oregon.