America's most popular minivan.
by John Matras
Base Price (MSRP) $19,155
As Tested (MSRP) $32,925
Dodge Caravan is one of the most popular vehicles on the road. Dodge sells more than 350,000 of them every year; one in every five minivans sold is a Dodge Caravan.
Dodge Caravan's popularity comes from its family friendly attributes: The Grand Caravan can carry half the little league team while delivering a smooth car-like ride and reasonable fuel mileage, and offering the features and flexibility America wants. A broad range of models means that nearly anyone who needs a minivan can find a Caravan that fits their needs and budget.
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 Caravans range from $19,155 for a front-drive Caravan SE to $33,320 for an all-wheel-drive Grand Caravan ES that's stretched across a long wheelbase.
Dodge completely redesigned the Caravan for 2001, but several new features are available for 2002: adjustable pedals, DVD rear-seat video and audio, a tire-pressure monitoring system. There's also a new Grand Caravan EX model loaded with a powerful V6, a power rear liftgate and other popular options.
Eight versions of Caravan are offered for the 2002 model year. That includes two standard-wheelbase Caravans and six extended-wheelbase Grand Caravans: Caravan SE ($19,155); Caravan Sport ($23,420); Grand Caravan SE ($21,785); Grand Caravan Sport ($24,275); Grand Caravan EX ($26,070); Grand Caravan ES ($29,480); Grand Caravan Sport AWD ($29,825); Grand Caravan ES AWD ($33,320).
Grand Caravan models are significantly longer (11 inches) than Caravan models. Grand Caravans are 200.5 inches long, stretched over a 119.3-inch wheelbase. Caravans measure 189.3 inches across 113.3-inch wheelbase. That makes a big difference in cargo capacity when all three rows of seating are in place.
Caravan SE comes standard with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, hand-crank windows, and a limited list of options. SE comes standard with air conditioning, variable intermittent wipers, and an AM/FM stereo cassette audio system. The bigger Grand Caravan SE is similarly equipped, but gets a 3.3-liter V6 engine.
Sport models are next on the features ladder. Caravan Sport and Grand Caravan Sport models come standard with the 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. Snowbelt residents will appreciate the superior all-wheel-drive traction of the Grand Caravan Sport AWD.
Grand Caravan EX comes loaded with popular features, such as the power up-and-down rear liftgate, removable power center console, 50/50 split removable seats on rollers, three-zone temperature control, four-wheel disc brakes, traction control, and a more powerful 3.8-liter V6 engine.
Grand Caravan ES is the top of the line, available with front-wheel drive 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.
Dodge redesigned the Caravan and Grand Caravan just last year, for 2001, improving its appearance, reinforcing the body structure, and refining it throughout.
It looks sleek, by minivan standards. The styling is actually quite dramatic with an aggressive grille and steeply raked windshield. It is a very attractive vehicle, making the boxes of the past look bland.
The tracks for the sliding side doors are disguised under the rear side window for a cleaner appearance. The D-pillars and backlight (rear window) are steeply inclined for a sporty look, with a discrete spoiler added to the trailing edge of the roof. Flared wheel openings add strength to the appearance. Headlamps and taillamps are big, the latter wrapping around to the sides. The roof rack is hunkered close 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.
At 200.5 inches long and less than 5-feet, 10-inches tall, the Caravan will fit just about where any full-size sedan will fit.
Dodge Caravan's interior is comfortable and convenient. Caravan and Grand Caravan can accommodate seven passengers in a 2/2/3 arrangement.
Caravan and Grand Caravan offer a slightly higher seating position that enables even short drivers to see over traffic. Yet a rope isn't needed to climb into the seats, unlike SUVs and some of the more truck-like minivans. The driver's seat could use more support in the seat bottom, however.
The gauges are straightforward, big, round analog displays, a great basic design. The instruments feature light gray faces with black numerals that are not quite as legible as white on black; they illuminate in green at night. The dash is canted slightly forward; the designers claim this provides better visibility. Indicators for the turn signals and high beams are cleverly located in a thin hooded display above the instrument panel where they are easy to see.
The steering wheel controls are among the best we've seen. Cruise controls are on the front of the steering wheel and allow precise control of the speed; an indicator on the dash tells the driver the system is on. Behind the steering wheel are audio controls that let the driver easily adjust volume, seek, switch among pre-set stations, and switch between AM and FM bands. It's a brilliant design.
Controls for the sound system and HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) are intuitive and easy to use. However, the audio system's on-off/volume knob is obscured by the gearshift lever when in Drive and the separate button on the radio for setting a preset seems less convenient than the traditional method of holding the button down. Our test vehicle had the 4-CD in-dash changer, a nice feature even though it is separated from the AM/FM/cassette unit by the HVAC controls. Three-zone temperature controls allow the driver and front-seat passenger to set their own comfort levels and there's a separate control for the rear of the cabin for the kids to fight over.
Access to the rear sets of seats is easy, much easier than in a sport-utility. Power sliding doors, available for one or both sides work very well. The driver can operate them by pressing buttons on the dash or on the keyless remote. The second-row passengers can operate them by pressing a switch on the B-pillar, but that can be overridden by the driver. And yes, for safety's sake, the doors (and liftgate) will reverse if they strike an object when opening or closing.
Our Grand Caravan ES came equipped with bucket seats in the second row and a 50/50 split rear bench seat. The second-row buckets make the second-row passengers as comfortable as the front-seat passenger.
The third-row bench provides room for two adults rather admirably, but is a bit short of shoulder room for three adult males. The split rear is easier to remove because the two seats are easier to lift out individually than a big, heavy bench seat.
The seats are easy to remove. They come loose in three steps and can be rolled out on rollers to facilitate conversion of the van from people mover to cargo hauler. One person can do it, but they are heavy, so it's easier on the back to have a little help moving them from the van to the garage. With both rows of 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 the shorter Caravan.
Cup holders are everywhere. 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 cup holders, just the thing for taking friends to the football game.
Our Grand Caravan was equipped with the optional power liftgate. The power doors may seem like an extravagance until your arms are full and it's raining. The power liftgate also keeps you from having to touch the liftgate when it's all gorpy with road sludge.
Optional pop-up paper grocery bag holders in the cargo compartment keep the bags from tipping over. Standard are hooks on the rear seatbacks for those plastic grocery bags that otherwise scatter your oranges and rutabagas all over the place at the first corner or stop sign. A net fitted between the front seats is handy for keeping mail or other items used for daily chores from sliding around on the van's flat floor. The optional moveable and powered center console that can be placed between the front or middle-row buckets is interesting.
Dodge minivans come loaded with safety features. Side-impact airbags for the front seat passengers are optional on all models. Front airbags, which, of course, are standard, feature multi-stage inflators designed to automatically compensate according to the severity of the accident. Front seat belts use pretensioners to take up slack during a collision. Middle- and third-row seats include child-seat anchors for a more secure installation.
Nature didn't cooperate by giving us a snowstorm to drive in, but the windshield wiper deicer that starts with the Sport trim level includes heating elements on the glass where the wipers park, an excellent addition for anyone drives in wintry conditions.
Dodge Grand Caravan and Caravan offer a smooth ride. They handle well with responsive steering and are stable at speed. The Grand Caravan offers strong acceleration performance when equipped with the big 3.8-liter V6.
By minivan standards, the Grand Caravan is relatively quiet. Dodge has worked to reduce wind noise by adding underhood padding, using better gaskets between the outside mirrors and the body and around outside and inside door handles. Roof rack crossbows were designed in a wind tunnel to reduce wind noise. It has paid off, though there is still some wind noise.
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. However, 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, and something that one must learn to live with.
The Grand Caravan delivers strong power when equipped with the 3.8-liter V6. That's useful for merging onto a crowded, fast-moving freeway, for quickly accelerating away from intersections, and for passing on two-lane roads. 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.
When equipped with the 3.3-liter V6, the Grand Caravan has enough power to climb hills without breathing hard, and merging onto the freeway doesn't give you visions of your life insurance salesman.
The optional AutoStick transmission is useful for skilled drivers, particularly for shifting between third and fourth in traffic. You need to be going 20-25 mph to downshift into second gear without an abrupt downshift. First gear is occasionally useful in very low-speed situations.
Highway ride, considering the rather basic nature of its underpinnings, is supple and well controlled. The rack-and-pinion steering offers precise response and feedback through the steering wheel, nice on winding roads. The Grand Caravan 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 is super.
Heavy-duty disc brake rotors offer good feel, performance and durability. Brakes are discs in front, drums at the rear, with ABS standard. Four-wheel disc brakes are available and should be more resistant to brake fade, the tendency of the brakes to lose performance when heated in mountain passes.
Dodge continues to show why this company is a leader in minivans. The roomy interior offers convenient, carefree motoring, the driving experience is controlled and enjoyable, and there's lots of power available in the lineup. A wide selection of models means there's a Dodge Caravan or Grand Caravan to fit any minivan budget.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.