ANAHEIM, Calif. -- On the eight-lane I-5 freeway cutting a concrete swatch toward Anaheim and our rendezvous at Disneyland, way too many California commuters slow the flow of traffic crawling into Orange County. The snail′s pace isn′t a concern for one driver, however, because we′re quite comfortable inching along in the ultimate carpooling computer′s vehicle -- a Grand Caravan minivan by Dodge.
Besides, this particular drive is a test run to collect impressions and experience the nuances and intricacies of a new generational design for the minivan through various driving situations, and that would have to include the commuter′s too-frequent drama of getting stuck in congested stop-and-go freeway traffic. Despite the noisy tangle of honking metal and puffing mufflers surrounding our vehicle, we note that the situation inside our Grand Caravan seems remarkably different.
It′s a quiet and serene space, with all external sounds muted and the in-coming air filtered and conditioned. Soothing symphonic music from a premium surround-sound audio system with 506 watts of power and ten speakers drifts through the cavernous cabin stuffed with luxurious appointments as we sit in supportive buckets with a commanding view of the freeway world around us. Forward visibility, expanding outward through a massive display of tinted window glass, encompasses the road scene in the best design yet. The steering wheel, set precisely to the angle we prefer, feels of soft leather, as does the chair-like driver′s seat.
A handy cupholder -- one of many scattered around the compartment -- cradles our Starbucks latte mug within easy reach. With little effort, we crank the steering wheel and deftly slip the minivan to the inside lane for our exit onto Disney Way, on-ramp to the Magic Kingdom. A tap on the throttle at the exit summons serious horsepower and we leave the carpooling crowd behind on the freeway. For three days running across Southern California we cycle through various iterations of the new design for Grand Caravan, cast on an extended platform with choices for three V6 powertrains in front-wheel-drive (FWD) format.
Overall impression from these rides: Once again, designers at Dodge (and Chrysler, which shares the minivan under the Town & Country badge) sets the high mark for minivan styling in terms of power and performance, space utilization, but particularly for easy operation and everyday practicality. One could argue that Dodge and Chrysler had no choice but to establish a new standard in minivan design. After all, this is the company that coined the concept of a convenient carpooling box-on-wheels back in 1984, then set the pace for every subsequent year. Rivals turned out keen alternatives to the previous Dodge-Chrysler benchmarks (the last in 2001), so it was time to raise the bar again.
Grand Caravan′s new generational design for the editions of 2008 begin with a two-inch wheelbase stretch and a larger and stronger structure which contains more space for riders in a cabin outfitted with plush comforts and new convenience features, flexible layouts for seating on three rows, and far more standard equipment for safety. Two trims emerge -- the amply stocked entry issue Grand Caravan SE and a luxury model, Grand Caravan SXT.
Both versions seem progressive in style with angular sheetmetal returning for an athletic stance and a decidedly squarish and boxy shape (jettisoned is the jellybean shape of the previous generation) and both contain interiors with three distinct choices for layout of seating and storage systems. Dodge (and Chrysler) go further than any competitor to create innovative and practical cabin layouts.
The doors hold useful storage compartments; the dash makes room on the right side for twin glove boxes; there′s an optional multi-function sliding console between the two front buckets and it slides rearward for 21 inches so riders on the second row can use it too; there are covered stow bins below deck in the second row and these containers can hold a lot of gear out of sight; another stow spot is located in the third-row area and cupholders and pockets are scattered everywhere. As to cabin layout, all plans show twin buckets seats on the first row, a pair of buckets on the second row and a bench for two on the third row.
Options to vary this format include a second-row bench with fold-in-the-floor third-row seat, the inventive Stow ′n Go with second and third tiers of seats folding into the stow bins concealed in the floor, or a new Swivel ′n Go plan with second-row seats rotating to face the rear bench and a fold-up table to set in the center spot between the rows -- so the riders on second and third tiers face each other for chatting, playing board games or even dining on the move.
Another option is a one-touch button for power-folding the third-row bench into the floor. Standard on all Grand Caravan editions are frontal air bags and curtain-style air bags extending above side windows for all three rows of seats and linking to rollover sensors. Also standard on all editions is a four-wheel disc brake system tied to an anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake assist (BA), plus electronic stability program (ESP) anti-skid device with all-speed traction control (ASTC).
A rear back-up camera -- ParkView -- is on the option sheet, along with an integrated child safety seat and an integrated child booster seat. For motivation, Grand Caravan of 2008 shows three different V6 engines. Stock plant for Grand Caravan SE is a 3.3-liter V6 pumped up to 175 hp with torque at 205 lb-ft.
Stock plant for Grand Caravan SXT is a more powerful V6 displacing 3.8 liters and delivering 197 hp with 230 lb-ft of torque. Optional for SXT is a new 4.0-liter V6 with 251 hp and 259 lb-ft of torque. An electronic automatic transmission works in all issues, with a four-speed variation for the 3.3 engine and a new six-speed for the 3.8 and 4.0 plants.
The list of optional features for comfort and convenience ranges from leather upholstery and heated seats on the first and second rows to a remote starter, power windows on the second row, power to slide the two side doors, a power liftgate, movable pinpoint LED reading lamps and a tri-zone climate system. And electronic gear includes a dual DVD multimedia entertainment system and Sirius Backseat TV with three channels of family programming. Dodge sets MSRP figures on 2008 Grand Caravans well below 2007 models yet puts more content aboard. The prices begin at $22,470 for a base Grand Caravan SE model.