A best-seller for good reasons.
by Kevin Ransom
Base Price $18,685 (Caravan)
As Tested $30,460
Year after year, the Dodge Caravan is one of the top two or three best-selling minivans in America. Most years, it's been in the No. 1 spot. After all, what's not to like? Caravan and Grand Caravan outpace most of the minivan field when it comes to interior space, and it boasts a versatility that allows it to carry varying configuations of humans and cargo.
The Dodge Caravan provides the kind of comfort, styling, ride quality and handling buyers have come to expect from the company that has dominated the minivan field since the early '80s. And, amazingly, for all of that, the Caravan is priced so that it's still one of the best buys in the minivan market.
DaimlerChrysler knows there are many different types of minivan buyers out there, so the company offers a model to suit the tastes, needs and budget of every imaginable buyer. Buyers can choose from among short- and long-wheelbase versions to accommodate different lifestyles and space requirements. Chrysler Town & Country rides like a luxury sedan, while the Chrysler Voyager and Dodge Caravan are more value-conscious. The base Dodge Caravan doesn't skimp on the essentials, but is priced about $18,000 less than the Town & Country Limited.
For 2000, some new colors were added to the palette--patriot blue, bright silver, inferno red, aquamarine and shale green.
For those who carry smaller loads, Dodge offers the short-wheelbase version, which comes in two flavors: entry-level Caravan and mid-line Caravan SE. Buyers with larger loads can choose from among the longer-wheelbase Grand Caravan, Grand Caravan SE, Grand Caravan LE. The top of the line is the Grand Caravan ES. Both the Caravan and Grand Caravan can be ordered with the jaunty Sport package. Grand Caravans can also be ordered with all-wheel drive (AWD).
Prices for the Caravan stable run from $18,685 for the base Caravan to $30,010 for the Grand Caravan ES with all-wheel drive.
Several engines are available in the Caravan line. In the short-wheelbase editions, the base Caravan comes with a 2.4-liter 16-valve four-cylinder engine as standard with a 3.0-liter 12-valve V6 as an option. A 3.3-liter 12-valve V6 is available as an option on the base Caravan and the Caravan SE. A 3.3-liter Flex Fuel V6 is available in some states. A three-speed automatic is standard on the base Caravan; a four-speed automatic is optional on the base model and standard on the SE.
For the long-wheelbase Grand Caravan line, the 3.0-liter V6 is standard in the base model. In some states, the 3.3-liter Flex Fuel V6 is standard in the SE and ES. A 3.8-liter 12-valve V6 is standard in the mid-line SE and LE all-wheel-drive models, and optional on the LE front-wheel drive model. The 3.8 liter plant is standard on the top-line ES.
All of the long-wheelbase Grand Caravans come with a standard four-speed automatic transmission. The short-wheelbase base Caravan comes with a three-speed automatic. The four-speed AutoStick is standard in the top-line ES. All-wheel drive is available on Grand Caravan SE, LE and ES.
Our Grand Caravan ES test model represents the top of the Caravan line. With a base price of $29,405, the ES comes with a level of standard equipment normally associated with a luxury car, including: overhead console with trip computer, front and rear floor mats, power speed-sensitive locks, speed control, front-seat cargo net, illuminated visor vanity mirrors, leather-wrapped steering wheel, keyless entry and eight-way power driver's seat.
Our test model came equipped with a $320 Value Plus ES Group package that includes rear air conditioning and heating, seven-passenger seating with quad bucket seats, security alarm. It also came with a $200 inferno red tinted pearl coat paint job; a $20 smoker's group (ash tray and lighter); and a $125 seating package with child seat. Along with the $590 destination charge, these options boosted the total price to $30,660. (Some of the items listed include common discounts.)
With sliding doors on both sides of the Caravan, getting in and out is a breeze. Once you've had two sliding doors, you'll never go back to one, whether you're moving toddlers, teens or tools. You'll love the speed and convenience of loading cargo from the driver's side. Head and legroom are more than generous, in both the front bucket seats and the second-row seats.
Clearance between the second-row seats, and between the passenger's side seat and the sliding door, is sufficient for most people. And although Dodge says the Grand Caravan's rear bench can seat three, one of them would have to be a child.
The Grand Caravan ES is extremely spacious - particularly after the seats are removed. Removing the seats is easy. The center-row bucket seats can be unlatched and removed via the sliding side doors, while a solid yank on a lever pops the third-row bench seat up onto a set of wheels, allowing it to be rolled backwards and removed via the tailgate. However, it's still a two-person job as those seats are heavy. For smaller loads, the seat backs can also be folded down -- affording enough room for the proverbial sheet of plywood.
Cargo space is no longer the only consideration when buying minivans, but it's still an important one. So here are some numbers: The wheelbase of the Grand Caravan (119.3 inches) is 6 inches longer than that of the Caravan (113.3 inches). Besides providing more space, that means the Grand Caravan is more stable at high speeds and in cross winds. But it also means that it's less maneuverable than the smaller Caravan. The Grand Caravan is also longer: 199.6 inches, compared to 186.3 for the Caravan. Grand Caravan ES offers 168.4 cubic feet of cargo space with the seats removed. By comparison, the GM stable of minivans (the Chevy Venture, Oldsmobile Silhouette and Pontiac Montana) hold 156 cubic feet; the Honda Odyssey EX holds 141.1 cubic feet; and Volkswagen's EuroVan holds 187 cu. ft.
These minivans drive like sedans. The Caravan's suspension is attached to a rigid chassis, which helps it keep the tires firmly planted in corners. That's definitely a benefit in the Caravan. Tall minivans tend to lean a bit when cutting a corner or hitting a cloverleaf. The Grand Caravan's suspension is so well controlled that even when it leans it feels solidly planted. Power rack-and-pinion steering adds to the responsiveness during abrupt lane-change maneuvers and when negotiating tight turns. The Grand Caravan rides as smoothly and as quietly as many sedans.
The 3.8-liter V6 engine that came on our Grand Caravan ES is the biggest engine offered in the Dodge and Chrysler minivans. Rated at 180 horsepower, it provides significantly more punch than the 158-horsepower 3.3-liter engine. The 3.8-liter engine delivers lots of thrust in all situations-whether launching from a standing start, passing slowpokes on the highway or merging into heavy traffic. Coupled with a 4-speed automatic transmission with AutoStick, it really delivers the goods. The Grand Caravan ES accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in about 10 seconds. That's comparable to the Honda Odyssey LX, but the Ford Windstar LX and Toyota Sienna XLE have an edge in the drag racing contest.
Grand Caravan's front disc and rear drum brakes offer controlled stopping power. All but the base Caravan come standard with anti-lock brakes, which allow the driver to maintain steering control during panic stops.
There are so many minivans on the market these days of varying sizes and configurations that the buyer almost always wins out. Minivan makers continue to offer more space, bigger engines, increased ride comfort and higher trim levels to lure buyers away from the competition.
Chrysler popularized the modern minivan and continues to be on the leading edge of features, convenience and comfort. Its minivans, especially the Caravan, continue to be among the most popular. They also offer some of the best values in the minivan market.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.