Over the last century, you could probably count on one, and certainly no more than two, hands the number of vehicles that have truly revolutionized the automotive world: the Model T was one, the Volkswagen Beetle another. In recent decades, the Chrysler minivan would have to be at the top of the sea change list.
Yes, we've heard it argued that VW's Microbus came first, but it took Chrysler's versatile offerings to take the minivan mainstream. And in spite of all the jibes that "people movers" take on sitcoms and late-night talk shows, despite the competition from crossovers and SUVs, no multipurpose products are better suited to day-to-day suburban American family life.
In the nearly quarter century since Chrysler introduced its first Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager models—the Chrysler Town & Country followed, a few years later—the automaker has fought off an array of domestic and import competitors, and still commands roughly half the U.S. minivan market. To stay on top requires constant improvement and innovation, so TheCarConnection.com's editors wanted to see whether Chrysler still has what it takes as it gets ready to roll out the latest generation of minivans, for 2008.
On a cool, damp morning in San Diego , we got our first look at the production Dodge Grand Caravan. True, we'd seen the new minivan before, but on an auto show stage, you don't really get a good feel for what the '08 people mover really looks and feels like. Sitting on the side of the road, the first word that came to mind was "big," real big.
Stow and swivel
The fifth-generation Caravan—and its sibling, the T&C—are a full six inches wider than the '07 models, while the wheelbase and overall length have been stretched by two inches. Like Chrysler's latest Jeep SUV models, the new minivans are decidedly more upright in appearance, something that translates into an even more cavernous feel for those inside.
And if the 2008 Caravan begins to boast the interior dimensions of a small living room, it certainly seems appropriate to provide the sort of conveniences one might expect at home.
With the prior, fourth-generation vans, Chrysler introduced its Stow 'N Go system; both the second- and third-row seats could quickly be folded flat into the floor, providing a positively huge cargo compartment.
With the new '08s, Stow 'N Go is back in both the Caravan—it's standard on the SXT model—and the Town & Country. But the automaker goes one better, adding new Swivel 'N Go seats. With this optional system, the middle row can turn rearward—only while the vehicle is parked—so you create a living room-like environment. There's even a foldaway table so folks can share dinner, play cards or simply communicate, face-to-face.
Meanwhile, the power-operated back row bench can be flopped over to serve as a tailgate seat.
For 2008, Chrysler designers have done a good job updating the Grand Caravan. The goal was to create a more powerful, dynamic look and while it went unsaid during the media preview, Dodge hoped to make the new models look a bit more rugged. The Caravan gets a bigger, bolder chrome grille with a larger Ram icon in the center. The front end intentionally resembles the Dodge Charger, down to the "sneering" eyebrows over the headlights and the low-mounted fog lamps. From the side, there's a more SUV-like, two-box feel, rather than the conventional one-box minivan shape.
For the hyper-scheduled
Let's face it, though, you don't sell minivans on their looks. As Dodge Marketing Manager Mario Dovidio suggested, these vehicles are primarily aimed at parents with "hyper-scheduled" children. Tops on their priority list are functionality, flexibility and reliability.
We've already touched on the various standard and optional seating packages. Add to that an endless array of storage bins, cup- and juice box-holders, even a dual glovebox. An optional, three-position center storage system—which we expect to be a very popular feature—is big enough to hold a well-stuffed purse, and it can slide fore and aft, for easy access by either front or middle-row passengers.
It's bad enough when you've got a couple kids in the back seat screaming, "Are we there yet?" With a minivan full of Little Leaguers, racing to the big game, you might want to tear your hair out. Chrysler has packed in enough digital distractions, however, to keep even a child with ADHD happily distracted.
The basic sound system comes with MP3 capability and optional Sirius satellite radio. If you cough up the cash, however, you get three rows of A/V technology, with separate video screens for each row. (The optional navigation screen, in the center console, can be used to watch a movie when the van is in Park.) The second and third rows actually get to watch their own individual programs. And for 2008, Chrysler launches the new Sirius TV, which offers three channels of satellite video: Disney, the Cartoon Network and Nick Mobile.
The new MyGig system adds a 20-gigabyte hard drive that can store thousands of songs, a navigation system, Bluetooth for hands-free cellphoning, a USB digital input. You can even customize the display screen with your favorite photos.
We mentioned reliability, a major issue in a market segment dominated by protective parents. A decade ago, Chrysler nearly lost its lead in the minivan market due to a series of quality problems, notably an oft-defective automatic transmission, known internally as the A604. By the time the automaker got things back under control, it had lost countless once-loyal buyers.
That's too bad, because lately, Chrysler quality has risen notably, especially with its minivans. At the same time, some of its competitors, including both Honda, with the Odyssey, and Toyota , with the Sienna, have been experiencing snafus of their own. To get word-of-mouth building for its '08s, Chrysler has taken a bold but logical move, offering a lifetime powertrain warranty.
Three powertrains to choose from
There are three separate powertrain packages available for the '08 models. The base Grand Caravan SE comes with a 3.3-liter V-6 that produces an anemic but acceptable 175 horsepower and 205 lb-ft of torque. These days, the more appealing numbers are likely to be its 17/24 mpg fuel economy.
The SXT edition comes standard with a 3.8-liter V-6 that makes 197 hp and 230 lb-ft torque. This overhead valve engine is reasonably peppy and though some would argue that its overhead-valve technology has had its day, it's acceptably smooth and responsive.
The premium powertrain is the SXT's 4.0-liter V-6. It's a single-overhead cam configuration that makes a satisfying 251 ponies and 259 lb- ft. Stomp on the accelerator and you're in for a genuine surprise, as we discovered when it came time to merge onto a crowded Southern California freeway.
In terms of performance, it's easily the best engine Chrysler has ever offered in a minivan and arguably as good as we've seen in the segment. More surprising, the 4.0 generates the same mileage numbers as the smaller and slower 3.8, 17 mpg City, 23 Highway. If you can afford the price premium, it's worth the money.
That said, the big engine, like the mid-range V-6, was a little raspy under wide-open throttle. It's a disease that has long plagued Detroit six-bangers, for reasons we can't discern, like an athlete gasping for breath, even as he maintains stride.
Other than full-throttle engine noise, Chrysler has delivered what was promised in terms of Noise, Vibration and Harshness, or NVH, to engineers. "NVH was king in (the development of) this vehicle," explained engineering manager Steve Jakubiec. "We want you to hear your kids in the second and third rows—whether you want to or not."
Minivans, by nature, want to resonate like a drum. The automaker has done an excellent job of minimizing and blocking engine, road and wind noises, while masking all but the worst roadway bumps and jostles.
This is no sports car, let's be clear. Steering is a bit numb, though the new minivans offer good on-center feel and handle surprising well on the tight and twisty backroads we want wandering during our day-long drive. Credit the front McPherson struts with the larger stabilizer bars added for 2008 and, in the rear, a new twist-beam suspension.
With the 4.0-liter V-6, Dodge has modified both suspension and steering to provide a firmer and more aggressive ride. To our mind, it'd be the right tuning for even the base model.
We don't expect many base models to roll out of Dodge showrooms. There's a seemingly endless list of options, including larger engines, MyGig and other "infotainment" systems, the ParkView rear-mounted camera, LED lighting and, well, a lot more than we could jot down during our background briefing. So, while you can get your hands on a Grand Caravan SE for $22,470, and an SXT for $27,535, we wouldn't be surprised to see some passengers adding another $10,000 to the final transaction price. (A fully-loaded Chrysler Town & Country, we were told, will nip $41,380.)
That's a lot of money for a big family, but after spending some time inside the new, fifth-generation Dodge Grand Caravan, we're absolutely convinced this is a lot of minivan. The 2008 models aren't likely to set in motion the revolution Chrysler kicked off in 1984, but sometimes, what you really want is planned evolution. The new Caravan achieves that in spades, and the rest of the minivan segment will have to struggle to catch up.
2008 Dodge Grand Caravan
Base price: SE: $22,470 (all include $730 destination charge); SXT: $27,535
Engine: 3.3-liter V-6, 175 hp/205 lb-ft; 3.8-liter V-6, 197 hp/230 lb-ft; 4.0-liter V-6, 251 hp/259 lb-ft
Transmission: Four-speed automatic, front-wheel drive with 3.3-liter V-6; six-speed automatic for 3.8- and 4.0-liter V-6s
Length x width x height: 202.5 x 78.7 x 68.9 in
Wheelbase: 121.2 in
Curb weight: 4321—4514 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 17/24 mpg (with 3.3-liter V-6); 16/23 mpg (with 3.8 liter V-6); 16/23 mpg (4.0-liter V-6)
Major standard features: SE: power windows, doors and mirrors, air conditioning, standard CD stereo with MP3 capability, conversation mirror, 16-inch wheels, center bench seats, removable, rechargeable rear-mounted flashlight. SXT: power-adjustable pedals Stow 'N Go seats, LED lighting package, six-speaker audio with steering wheel-mounted controls.
Safety features: Dual front and curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes, traction and stability control
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles