by John Matras
Base Price (MSRP) $24,275
As Tested (MSRP) $30,450
Since the introduction of the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager in November 1983, more than 8.5 million-including the Chrysler Town & Country-have been produced. Imitators have been many, trying either to outflank or outdo the original, but the Dodge Caravan, and the long-wheelbase Grand Caravan tested here, remains the king of minivans.
While the Chrysler Voyager starts at $19,800 and the Town & Country Limited has a base price of $38,000, the Dodge Caravan and Grand Caravan stake out the middle ground, offering the most popular options at an affordable price.
Dodge Grand Caravan's popularity comes from its family friendly attributes: an ability to carry mom and dad and half the little league team while delivering a smooth car-like ride and reasonable fuel mileage, and offering the features and flexibility America wants. That's not a paid commercial, just the reason they sell so darn many of them. In fact, 350,000 of them: The Dodge Caravan accounted for just shy of a quarter of all minivans sold last year.
Of course, with the competition in hot pursuit, DaimlerChrysler can't rest on its laurels. So the 2001 Dodge Caravan (as well as the Chrysler Voyager and Town & Country) are new from the ground up. There's a new look, more interior room and a host of features, including optional dual sliding doors and a power liftgate.
Dodge offers six versions of its minivans for the 2001 model year. Grand Caravan models add a useful six inches of length between the wheels. Caravans come with the standard wheelbase.
Caravan SE starts at just $19,160, and with a limited option range the price can't stray too far above that mark. It comes standard with a 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder engine, and hand-crank windows. But also standard are air conditioning, variable intermittent wipers, and an AM/FM stereo cassette audio system. Base price for the Grand Caravan SE is $21,785.
Sport models are next on the features ladder, available in either standard or extended wheelbase. All Sport models come with a standard Flex-Fuel 3.3-liter V6 engine. The Sport gets fancier seats with upgraded cloth and standard rear defroster, anti-lock brakes, power door locks, speed control and other features. The Caravan Sport retails for $23,525, while the Grand Caravan Sport lists for $24,275.
Snowbelt residents will appreciate the traction action of the Grand Caravan Sport AWD. Base price: $29,695.
Grand Caravan ES is the top-of-the-line Dodge minivan, offered only in an extended wheelbase version, but with a choice of front-wheel or all-wheel drive. ES adds an overhead trip computer, the option of leather and heated seats, the option of 17-inch wheels (fwd only), and an optional Auto-Stick transmission. Base price for the Grand Caravan ES is $29,110; for the Grand Caravan ES AWD, $32,235.
Also available is the Grand Caravan EX, which is positioned between the Sport and the ES. EX comes with the popular features found on the ES added, but with only one option available. It comes at a special price of $26,070.
It's no secret that the minivan was the mom-mobile of the 1980s and 1990s. So when stylists went to work on the Dodge minivan for the new millennium, they began by beefing up the image of the Caravan. They made it stouter up front, with a heavier cross-hair grille with honeycomb inserts, one that looks tough enough for a pickup truck. From the side, the Caravan is sleeker, with stronger horizontal lines to make it look longer and lower.
The track for the sliding doors-one on each side is standard-is disguised under the rear side window for a cleaner appearance. The D-pillars and backlight are also more inclined for a sportier look, with a discrete spoiler added to the trailing edge of the roof. Flared wheel openings add a stronger touch. Headlamps and taillamps are larger, the latter wrapping around to the sides. The roof rack is lowered closer to the roof, stylistically less obtrusive and perhaps less likely to generate wind noise, but also offering less clearance for the thicker hooks of some tie-downs.
Under the hood of our Grand Caravan Sport was the model's standard 3.3-liter V-6. The conventional overhead-valve 60-degree V-6 was massaged this year for a useful increase in horsepower, up to 180 horsepower from 158 last year. Torque also received a nudge. The engine runs happily on regular unleaded fuel or, where available, E-85 ethanol, and meets Low Emissions (LEV) requirements in all 50 states. With this engine, the Caravan is rated to tow a 2000-pound trailer.
A four-speed adaptive electronically controlled transmission is standard with the V-6 (the 4-cylinder in the SE comes with a 3-speed automatic).
A 3.8-liter V-6 is optional in the Grand Caravan. This engine is rated at 215 horsepower, but more importantly, can generate 245 pound-feet of torque. We recommended it for anyone regularly carrying a heavy load of passengers or towing a trailer. An optional towing package is available with the 3.8-liter engine that raises its trailer towing rating to a 3500 pounds. The big engine is also required to get all-wheel drive.
Less obvious changes for 2001 include heavier disc brake rotors for improved feel, performance and durability. To improve the steering wheel's tendency to return to the center and to gain a more precise feel, the front suspension is tuned with additional caster and an improved steering gear has been added. An all-new body structure is 20-percent stiffer, while also being designed for more energy absorption, especially for offset frontal impact protection.
Front suspension is by MacPherson struts, rear by a beam axle on single-leaf springs. Brakes are discs in front, drums at the rear, with ABS standard. The fwd Caravan Sport comes standard with 15-inch diameter stamped steel wheels with full wheel covers. Cast aluminum 16-inch wheels are optional.
At 200.5 inches long and under 5 foot, 10 inches tall, the Caravan will fit just about where any full-size sedan will fit.
Despite nearly two decades of making minivans, DaimlerChrysler is still finding ways to improve comfort, usability and safety. Side impact airbags for front seat passengers are now optional on Caravan models, and front airbags have multi-stage inflators for differing severity of accidents. Front seats also have pretensioners to remove slack from seat belts during a collision. Middle and third row seats include child seat anchors for installation not requiring the vehicle's seat belts. And finally, the energy absorbing properties of lateral interior surfaces have been increased.
Both Caravan and Grand Caravan can accommodate seven passengers in a 2/2/3 arrangement. Our Grand Caravan Sport came equipped with the middle row bench replaced by twin bucket seats and the rear bench replaced by a 50/50 split rear bench as part of the Customer Preferred Package 25K. The middle row buckets raise the second row passengers to front seat passenger comfort. The third row bench seats two adults rather admirably, but is a bit short of shoulder room for three adult males. The split rear seat eases removal of the rear seat, halves being easier to lift than a whole. The rear bench and the middle row seats, however, are all on "Easy Out" rollers to facilitate conversion of the van from people to cargo hauler. Seats removed, the Grand Caravan can haul 4x8-foot sheets of plywood. It offers 158.5 cubic feet of cargo space. That's 16 cubic feet more than Caravan.
Up front there's a new dash, restyled with what the designers call a crisper appearance. The instruments are new, with white faces and black numerals that illuminate in green at night. The dash is canted slightly forward; the designers claim this provides better visibility. Controls for the sound system and HVAC are intuitive and easy to use, though the audio system's on-off/volume knob is obscured by the gearshift lever when in Drive. Our test vehicle had the 4-CD in-dash changer, a nice feature even if separated from the AM/FM/cassette unit by the HVAC controls. Speaking of the HVAC, package 25K includes rear heat and A/C ventilation with three-zone control: driver and front passenger can set their own temperature and there's a single control for the rear of the cabin for the kids to fight over.
However, there is a place for everyone's cup. The Grand Caravan is brimming with cupholders, the third row of seats having multiple holders for drinks of different shapes. Seatbacks can also be folded flat to make tables, complete with molded-in cupholders.
Everyone also has easy access, with a power right sliding door included in package 25K (a left sliding door is also available, but not on our test vehicle). Our test Grand Caravan did have the new optional power liftgate. The power doors may seem like an extravagance, until your arms are full and it's raining. The power doors and liftgate can also be controlled from the driver's seat, a real boon around kids who may not have the strength or height to open or close the door. And yes, for safety's sake, the doors and liftgate will reverse if they strike an object when opening or closing. The power liftgate also keeps you from having to touch the liftgate when it's all gorpy with road sludge.
Not on our test vehicle were the optional pop-up paper grocery bag holders for the cargo compartment, though like all DaimlerChrysler minivans, the rear seatbacks had hooks for those plastic grocery bags that otherwise scatter your oranges and rutabagas all over the place at the first corner or stop sign. We didn't get to test the new optional moveable and powered center console that can be placed between the front or middle-row buckets as it wasn't on our test vehicle, but we found the net between the front seats to be a handy place to toss things-a favorite was mail-so it doesn't slide around the van's flat floor.
The most common phrase spoken in the ordinary minivan might be, "What? I didn't hear you." Ambient noise frequently interferes with conversation, especially between passengers in the front and rearmost seats. But on the 2001 Grand Caravan, all sorts of things reduce wind noise, from additional underhood padding to gaskets between the outside mirrors and the body and around outside and inside door handles. Roof rack crossbows were reshaped in wind tunnel tests to reduce wind noise. It's paid off. Road noise and wind noise are minimal in the Grand Caravan, making it a veritable chat room on wheels.
Handling for most minivan owners is how well the vehicle maneuvers in a parking lot and tracks down the highway rather than how fast it can slalom through a series of cones. So we tested it in parking lots and discovered that it had a small enough turning radius to get into parking spaces easily, though with the front corners of the van blocked by the cowl, it wasn't always easy to tell where the front really was. It was easy to tell where the rear was, on the other hand, but the height of the windows blocked the view of cars or other low objects. This is typical of most minivans, however, and something that one must learn to live with.
With the Grand Caravan, one won't be tempted go racing. Even with the extra horsepower, it's two tons the 3.3-liter V-6 has to pull about. Still, the 3.3-liter has enough power to climb hills without breathing hard, and merging onto the freeway doesn't give you visions of your life insurance salesman.
Highway ride, considering the rather basic nature of its underpinnings, is supple and well controlled. The rack-and-pinion steering was improved this year and winding roads show dividends in the precision of the steering and the feedback through the wheel. The Grand Caravan also tracks true on the interstate. It may not have sports car-like cornering limits and the bias is toward understeer, but within its performance envelope, it's super.
The Grand Caravan Sport combines the slightly higher seating position that enables even short drivers to see over traffic ahead without the nosebleed climbs of some more truck-like minivans or sport utilities. Nature didn't cooperate by giving us a snowstorm to drive in, but the windshield wiper deicer that comes with the Sport trim level, heating elements on the glass where the wipers park, are an excellent addition for anyone who must drive in wintry precipitation.
A minivan isn't something that usually sets passions aglow. Rather it's the appliance that becomes part of the family, loaded with kids going to a soccer game, or kids and stuff for vacation, or even with three couples who'd rather travel together while following the high school marching band to a distant competition. That's where the Grand Caravan Sport excels. Try that in your Porsche, pal.
At just over $30,000, out test Grand Caravan Sport wasn't cheap, nor hardly the most expensive minivan one could buy. But members of the family, especially one as useful as the Grand Caravan Sport, are worth every penny.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.