Back in the early 1980s there weren't a lot of choices for hauling a family. There was the stalwart family sedan, or "land yacht" as some used to call it; the venerable station wagon with its popular rear-facing third seat; or a number of truck-based SUVs or full-size vans. Americans didn't even know what they were missing until Chrysler pulled the wraps off its newest invention, the minivan.
This new vehicle provided easy access for passengers and cargo, a car-like ride and better handling than the current offerings. It was the perfect compromise among sedans, station wagons and big SUVs.
Since that time Chrysler has sold almost 12 million minivans under both the Chrysler and Dodge brands, and in the process created a vehicle segment joined by just about every major automaker at one time or another. Even with the increased competition, Chrysler has consistently had the best-selling minivans in America.
However, in the past few years minivans have fallen out of favor. They became the stereotypical "soccer mom" car, and while they were much more logical as people movers, American car buyers began to embrace SUVs for the freedom, security and ruggedness they were marketed to represent. Understandably, many people didn't want to be seen driving minivans-if only to avoid being labeled and stereotyped.
Although Ford and General Motors have discontinued their minivan offerings, Chrysler has once again strayed from the herd and introduced a completely redesigned vehicle in hopes of luring back some of those SUV buyers.
Innovations in People Moving
From its inception the minivan was known as the ultimate family hauler, but Chrysler minivans have come a long way since their introduction in 1983. During the ensuing 20-plus years, the automaker claims 60 "minivan firsts," including "Quad Command" seats (second-row bucket seats), integrated child safety seats, the first luxury minivan, ABS in a minivan, wireless headphones for an entertainment system, a driver's side sliding door and the first airbags in a minivan.
Just a few years ago, Chrysler introduced the innovative "Stow 'n Go" seating system that allows the second and third row to be folded into the floor for a flat load surface. And with the 2008 model, the innovation continues.
Building on "Stow 'n Go" seating, Chrysler now offers "Swivel 'n Go." The second-row bucket seats can be spun 180° to face the third row, and then a removable table can be placed between the two rows providing a place for working, eating or playing. The table stows in one of the covered storage bins in the floor. Although a little tricky to install and remove at first, the table should become a snap to use with practice and eventually be another feather in Chrysler's cap of "firsts."
Another useful aspect of the swiveling seats: They can be turned to face the doors, making it easier for adults to secure small children, or better for passengers who have difficulty climbing into vans. The second-row bucket seats will also be available with integrated child booster seats.
Of course to be called the ultimate family mobile, a minivan has to offer options to keep those kids in back happy. Chrysler handles this daunting task with an industry-first SIRIUS Backseat TV, which currently offers the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network. In less than five minutes my nine-year-old daughter was wearing wireless headphones watching "SpongeBob SquarePants," after figuring out the system all on her own.
There are plenty of other entertainment goodies, including a power outlet and input jacks for an Xbox or Playstation; a dual DVD media entertainment system; and a CD/DVD/MP3/Satellite radio system with a touch-screen that can display navigation as well as real-time traffic. The Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country are also available with Chrysler's new MyGIG system, which provides a 20-gigabyte hard drive used for navigation as well as storage for photos and music downloaded from CD, DVD, HDD, MP3 or USB memory devices.
So with a table, leather armchairs, large windows, a television and a great stereo, minivan owners can now enjoy all the comforts of home-away from home.
Power and Safety
Granted, not everyone gets to ride in back and enjoy the swiveling video smorgasbord-someone still has to drive. So Chrysler remembered to make their new minivans a better experience for the pilot.
Unlike the original Caravan that was only available with 2.2-liter 96-horsepower 4-cylinder engine and a 3-speed automatic transmission, the 2008 Dodge Caravan / Chrysler Town & Country offers a choice of three different engines with two different transmissions. The top-spec mill is an all-new 251-horsepower 4.0-liter V6 teamed with a 6-speed automatic transmission; not enough power to break any land speed records, but it does get the vehicle moving pretty quickly.
If budget considerations eliminate the top-level Grand Caravan or Chrysler Town & Country-which are required in order to get the largest engine-there are still other choices.
The standard engine on both Dodge and Chrysler vans is a 3.3-liter flex-fuel V6 producing 175 horsepower, teamed with a 4-speed automatic transmission. A 197-horsepower 3.8-liter V6 also has the 4-speed automatic. Fuel economy is rated at 17/24 and 16/23, respectively. Fuel economy for the 4.0-liter powerplant also charts at 16/23.
Sufficient for most driving situations, the 3.3 liter struggles a bit on hills or places where strong acceleration is needed. Both larger engines are up to the task of motivating this 4,500-pound people mover.
The new van handles well for its size, feeling more like a car than a truck even though the driver's position is up high and it's a long way to the rear window. A smooth ride and comfortable seats make extended time behind the wheel much more tolerable. Visibility is excellent, contributing to increased confidence and better maneuverability. An available ParkSense system alerts the driver to stationary objects behind the car before reversing. For additional assistance, the ParkView rearview camera provides a clear look behind the vehicle via the navigation screen.
All 2008 Chrysler minivans come with anti-lock brakes and an Electronic Stability Program (ESP) with traction control and brake assist to help handling during emergency situations. Chrysler chose to discontinue an all-wheel-drive version since not many people ordered it, and the extra AWD components interfered with the Stow 'n Go underfloor storage.
Occupants are well-protected with standard multistage front airbags as well as side-curtain airbags for all three rows. High-strength steel and a reinforced roof keep the passenger compartment intact in case of a rollover.
Both the Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country are offered in a number of different trims, depending on the level of luxury and convenience needed.
The Grand Caravan SE is the least expensive Dodge minivan, with a base price of $22,470 (including destination charge). This SE includes an AM/FM/CD audio system, power windows and door locks, air conditioning and the safety equipment previously listed.
At the other end of the scale, a fully loaded Chrysler Town & Country Limited with the dual DVD entertainment system, 3-Zone Climate Control, Bluetooth communications interface, Sirius Backseat TV, 17-inch alloy wheels, heated first- and second-row seats, power sliding doors and liftgate, and the 4.0-liter engine will set you back around $42,000.
While these new minivans are considerably more advanced than that first Dodge Caravan introduced almost 25 years ago, the Grand Caravan and Town & Country haven't strayed far from that original concept of providing an excellent family hauler that hits the sweet spot among sedans, wagons and SUVs.