History is riddled with stories of eventual successes that were initially ignored. For example, the automotive concept we currently know as the minivan was pitched to the Ford Motor Company in 1974 and summarily rejected. The progenitors of that idea wound up working at Chrysler, where the idea was enthusiastically received to go on to become one of the best selling automobiles of all time. In fact, the concept was so successful it spawned imitators from practically every mainstream automobile manufacturer—including Ford.
Ten years after that unsuccessful pitch, Chrysler marketed the concept as the Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager. Over the years, other Pentastar variants included the Chrysler Town & Country, Chrysler Grand Voyager and the Volkswagen Routan.
In 1987, Chrysler lengthened the Caravan’s wheelbase to create an alternative version, called the Grand Caravan. In 2007, the short wheelbase Caravan was discontinued, but the Grand Caravan survives today as Dodge’s sole minivan offering. To date, five generations of the Dodge Caravan have been marketed. This article will focus on the third, fourth and fifth generations of this iconic automobile.
Dodge Caravan: 1996 - 2000
Introduced as a 1996 model at the 1995 Detroit Auto Show, the third-generation Caravan was offered in both long- and short-wheelbase configurations. Among the innovations ushered in with this version of the Caravan were the driver’s side sliding door; “Easy Out Roller Seats”; and a regular door handle and lock was incorporated into the rear hatch to make it easier to open and close.
Engine options included a 150-horsepower, 2.4-liter inline four; a 150-horsepower, 3.0-liter Mitsubishi V6; a 158-horsepower, 3.3-liter V-6 (in states where the Mitsubishi engine wouldn’t pass smog requirements); and a 166-horsepower, 3.8-liter V6. The basic drivetrain layout was front engine/front-wheel drive—though all-wheel drive was offered as an option in 1997. The 2.4-liter and 3.0-liter engines were paired with three-speed automatic transmissions. The other two V-6 engines used a four-speed automatic.
For 1997, Caravans equipped with all-wheel drive got four-wheel disc brakes and traction control was also offered. In 1998, the four-speed automatic was paired with the 3.0-liter V-6 and the 3.8-liter V-6 was reworked to make 180 horsepower.
The 1999 Caravan got two sliding doors, a cargo net between the driver and front passenger seats, Chrysler’s “AutoStick” automatic transmission (to more readily enable manual control of the automatic transmission), and styling updates for the upper trim level models. This model year also marked the Caravan’s 15th year of production, so the inevitable anniversary-oriented “Platinum Edition” was offered. A sport package was also offered for 1999, consisting of fog lights, a revised grille treatment and a rear spoiler painted the same color as the rest of the Caravan.
For 2000, the sport package evolved into an actual sport model, and was fitted to the long wheelbase Grand Caravan body. The Sport model featured all-wheel drive as standard equipment—along with the 180-horsepower, 3.8-liter V-6. Other features included load leveling rear suspension, fog lights and the de rigeur rear spoiler. On the more pedestrian Caravan models, air conditioning and a cassette player were added to the roster of standard kit. Rear-seat video entertainment came to the Caravan for the first time as a dealer installed option. The system used a video cassette player and a 6.4-inch monitor for display.
Dodge Caravan: 2001 – 2007
Presented as 2001 models at the 2000 Detroit Auto Show, fourth-generation Caravans were larger than the models they replaced, though the wheelbase remained unchanged. These Caravans introduced remote operation for the sliding doors and rear hatch making this the first minivan to offer a power-actuated rear hatch.
Other highlights of this generation included Stow ‘n Go fold-flat seats (2005), separate climate control systems for the front and rear passenger compartments and a power operated driver’s seat. You could also get automatic climate control, an up-level Infinity audio system and, as a dealer-installed option in 2002 models, a DVD based video entertainment system (a tape-based system was still available for late adopters).
The 3.0-liter Mitsubishi engine didn’t make the cut for the fourth-generation Grand Caravan leaving the engine lineup the 150-horsepower, 2.4-liter inline-four, a 180-horsepower version of the 3.3-liter V-6 and a 215-horsepower iteration of the 3.8-liter V-6. The four-cylinder engine remained paired with a three-speed automatic transmission, while the other two engines ran with four-speed automatics.
Front-wheel drive was the norm, with all-wheel drive offered with the long wheelbase Grand Caravan models. If you ordered all-wheel drive, you automatically got the “big” 3.8-liter engine. ABS was standard equipment on all but the SE model of the Caravan.
In 2005, with the introduction of the Stow ‘n Go Seating system (the seats folded into storage bins in the floor), all-wheel drive had to be discontinued. The packaging requirements of Stow ‘n Go didn’t leave room for an all-wheel drive system to route power to the rear wheels.
It should be noted this version of the Caravan got tagged with a “poor” safety rating from the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety. A fuel leak occurred during the crash testing procedure. Chrysler retrofitted a fix for 2002 models. Side curtain airbags were introduced to the Caravan for the 2006 model year.
Dodge Grand Caravan: 2007 – 2010
Having the distinction of being designed by the man who eventually became president of the Dodge brand—Canadian-born Ralph Gilles (Jeels)—the 2008 Dodge Caravan bowed at the 2007 Detroit auto show as the Grand Caravan. The short wheelbase model was axed.
The four-cylinder engine was also dropped and the Grand Caravan became exclusively V-6 powered. The base engine was the 3.3-liter V-6, now producing 175 horsepower. The alternative offerings were a 197-horsepower version of the 3.8 and a 251-horsepower version of the 4.0. The 3.3 continued with its four-speed automatic transmission, while the larger engines got a six-speed automatic. Electronic Stability Control was introduced as standard equipment.
Standout features for the fifth-generation model include; Swivel ‘n Go Seating, which mated rotating seats for the middle row with a removable table; a hard-drive based audio system subbed MyGIG by Chrysler’s product planners; second and third row video screens; power actuated second row windows; standard side curtain airbags; and dashboard-mounted transmission controls.
Stow ‘n Go seating became standard equipment, and an iPod interface was offered as an option along with blind spot monitoring. Rear Cross Path Monitoring was fitted to warn the driver of obstructions behind the vehicle when the transmission is shifted into reverse.
Dodge Grand Caravan: Current Model
For 2011, with the “re-invention” of the Dodge brand as the Chrysler Corporation emerged from bankruptcy, the Grand Caravan was re-imagined as a more “manly” minivan. Suspension refinements were introduced to improve its handling, all the engine choices, save one, were dropped, leaving the 283-horsepower “Pentastar” V6 as the sole powerplant. The six-speed transmission came along.
Interior refinements include extra sound insulation, acoustic glass, new seats, softer-touch dash and door panel surfaces and new LED ambient lighting for the center console
Dodge Caravan and Dodge Grand Caravan: Summary
While the concept of the minivan can be traced all the way back to the 1930s, the 1984 Dodge Caravan ignited the contemporary minivan boom in this country. Arguably the first modern minivan, the innovations in packaging introduced by the vehicle paved the way for an entirely new genre of automobile.
Unfortunately for Chrysler, over time its competitors peeped the game and got better at it than the O.G. That said; over the periods covered in this article, the Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna and Nissan Quest routinely spank the Caravan in terms of smoothness of operation, reliability, safety, features, and sophistication.
This makes it difficult for us to heartily endorse the Caravan/Grand Caravan as a sound choice on the secondary market. However, if you absolutely have your heart set on one, you’ll definitely find Caravans at better prices than the Asian minivans.
Given the reliability concerns however, we strongly recommend you subject any one you intend to purchase to a rigorous pre-purchase inspection by a trusted professional mechanic, solidly grounded in these vehicles. Additionally, there have been a number of recalls of the Caravan over the years. To find the ones involving a vehicle of your interest, run an Internet search for “Dodge Caravan recall”, including your model year of intent.