Pros: Great value, plenty of options, much-improved interior quality, flexible seating configurations, available "Cargo Van" version.

Cons: Lacks the premium vibe and cutting-edge technology of some rivals.

Introduction

The 2012 Dodge Grand Caravan is once again a proud descendant of the world's first minivan. Why "once again"? Well, the current Grand Caravan took a little detour for the first few years of its life, beset by serious quality issues due to Chrysler's economic woes. Fast-forward to the present, and we see a healthy Chrysler investing anew in the Grand Caravan. Result? The Grand Caravan has returned to being a genuinely competitive minivan, boasting all the features and craftsmanship a growing family needs.

However, despite last year's thorough overhaul-including a new engine, a re-engineered suspension and a refinished interior-the Grand Caravan still seems a bit pedestrian next to top models from Nissan, Toyota and Honda. That probably won't change till the Grand Caravan receives a complete redesign. Don't get us wrong, the Grand Caravan is a completely respectable choice now that Dodge has addressed the van's main weaknesses. It's just that the Japanese minivans have become seriously fancy and high-tech inside, so the Grand Caravan had a lot of catching up to do.

But, hey, are we nitpicking? Absolutely. The Grand Caravan is a great family vehicle, and it's attractively priced to boot. Buying American in this case doesn't mean you're taking one for the team. Rather, you're getting yourself a world-class minivan, just like the first Dodge Caravan all those years ago.

Comfort & Utility

The 2012 Dodge Grand Caravan comes in five trim levels: American Value Package ("AVP"), SE, SXT, Crew and R/T. For a shockingly low MSRP of $20,995, the AVP model offers 16-inch steel wheels with plastic covers, heated exterior mirrors, power accessories, dual-zone manual climate control, cruise control, handy Stow 'n Go rear seats, a full roster of safety equipment and a four-speaker audio system with an auxiliary audio jack. The SE adds body-color exterior accents, tri-zone manual climate control, a removable center console with four cup-holders and a six-speaker audio system.

The SXT steps up to 16-inch alloy wheels, dual power-sliding doors, a power liftgate and power adjustable pedals, while the Crew gets fancy with 17-inch alloy wheels, chrome exterior trim, tri-zone automatic climate control, a power driver's seat and a 6.5-inch touchscreen infotainment system with hard-drive-based digital music storage and an integrated rearview camera. The sport-themed R/T-christened "The Man Van" in a memorable marketing campaign-includes a sport-tuned suspension, black leather upholstery with red stitching, a power front passenger's seat and a nine-speaker Infinity audio system with a subwoofer.

Notable options include iPod connectivity, Bluetooth and a rear-seat DVD entertainment system with a nine-inch flip-down screen.

The Grand Caravan's standard cloth-upholstered front seats are nondescript, but the available leather-upholstered chairs are pleasantly firm and supportive. Moreover, the dashboard that those chairs overlook is vastly improved relative to where the current Grand Caravan started. Materials quality still isn't great, but the various panels no longer feel as though they could be disassembled by hand and the craftsmanship overall seems to be respectable. As ever, the Grand Caravan sports easy-to-read gauges and ergonomically sound controls.

Second-row space is a strength, as adults should have no problem getting comfortable and enjoying the ride. The third row is predictably tighter, but adults can fit back there, which is more than you can say for many crossover SUVs. Note that the Grand Caravan is only offered in a seven-passenger configuration, whereas some rivals offer eight seats.

Cargo capacity, aided greatly by the Grand Caravan's signature Stow 'n Go seat-folding system, measures 33 cubic feet behind the third row, 83.3 cubic feet behind the second row and 143.8 cubic feet behind the first row. Huge numbers, for sure, but par for the course among minivans (which are anything but "mini" these days).

The Grand Caravan is also sold under the name "Ram Cargo Van" as a windowless work van-the only current minivan to have undergone such a conversion.

Technology

We're a bit disappointed that Dodge makes you pay extra for Bluetooth and iPod/USB connectivity in the Grand Caravan, but since the starting price is so low, anteing up for these options won't kill you. In any case, the technological nerve-center of the Grand Caravan is clearly the available 6.5-inch touchscreen display, which includes about 30 gigabytes of digital music storage. That's a neat touch, and the system is actually pretty neat in general, offering a comprehensive feature set. It's getting on in years, though, a fact that's painfully obvious if you look at Chrysler's shiny new 8.4-inch touchscreen in products like the Dodge Charger sedan. Don't shy away from the Grand Caravan's touchscreen, but keep in mind that it's not the freshest face on the block.

Performance & Fuel Economy

After many years of offering numerous engines, the Grand Caravan now solely employs a 3.6-liter V6 that's rated at 283 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque. The transmission is a six-speed automatic. This is a solid middle-of-the-road drivetrain, providing smooth shifts and strong if somewhat noisy acceleration. Fuel economy is also middle-of-the-road at 17 mpg city/25 mpg highway.

Safety

The 2012 Dodge Grand Caravan comes with standard stability control, four-wheel antilock disc brakes and six airbags (front, front-side, full-length side-curtain).

In government crash-testing, the Grand Caravan received an overall rating of four stars out of five, including four stars for frontal impacts, five stars for side impacts and four stars in the rollover test. The independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety deemed the Grand Caravan "Good"-the highest possible rating-in every category.

Driving Impressions

The current Grand Caravan doesn't have the most robust chassis in this class, and that's evident over big ruts and potholes, where the Dodge shimmies and shakes to an extent that most rivals don't. The highway ride is quiet and relaxed, however, and the Grand Caravan actually has reasonably precise steering, which mitigates the sensation that you're driving a bus.

Other Cars to Consider

Honda Odyssey - The recently redesigned Odyssey boasts an impressive technology suite and comfy accommodations, but its dull dynamics and odd styling are question marks.

Nissan Quest - Based on a Japanese-market van, the Quest is taller and narrower than the rest, but it's also got the nicest interior and an eager V6.

Toyota Sienna - Also recently redesigned, the Sienna offers the unusual option of a four-cylinder motor, but the engineering highlight here is Toyota's peerless 3.5-liter V6. The Sienna also offers a novel split-screen entertainment system that allows two kids to do their own thing simultaneously.

AutoTrader Recommends

Call us cheap, but we'd take the AVP for a hair under $21,000. You get an incredible amount of utility for that price, and if you want more features, you can take some of the savings and add them via the aftermarket.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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