A slide into third, when the team needs a home run
Dodge Grand Caravan – 2008 Review: Dodge is swinging for the fences with its latest Grand Caravan. After unwillingly ceding an advantage to its Japanese rivals, Dodge wants to dominate the segment again, throwing all its engineering talent and resources at the all-new 2008 model. With new features like Swivel ‘n Go seating, LED lighting, and satellite TV for the kiddies, it’s certainly packed with stuff. Yet after a week with the new van, it’s clear that while the features are there, the execution isn’t. At a time when Dodge is desperate for a home run, the new Grand Caravan is desperately sliding into third.
by Keith Buglewicz
Photo Credit: Oliver Bentley
What We Drove
Our test car was a loaded Grand Caravan SXT. It starts off reasonably, with a base price of $27,535 including the $730 destination charge and. the usual power accessories and a decent audio system. However, our test van was loaded with nearly $12,000 in options. The $7,290 Customer Preferred package added Swivel ‘N’ Go seats, headed front and second row seats, three-zone air conditioning and the overhead video system, among many other features. It also had a $600 towing package, $1,130 leather interior, $1,300 navigation system, $630 4.0-liter V-6 engine and $595 power folding third row for a total of $39,305.
Under the hood of our test car was the top-of-the-line 4.0-liter V-6 engine with 251 horsepower and 259lb.-ft. of torque. It’s mated to a six speed automatic transmission with manual shift control. It all sounds good on paper, but the drivetrain has two drawbacks. First, the engine is thirsty; we only averaged 14.4 mpg during the week we had the car. Second, the transmission is poorly sorted. The first three gears are snappy and provide good acceleration, but fourth through sixth are tall gears that make freeway passing sluggish and, apparently, don’t even help with fuel economy.
The 2008 Dodge Caravan leans in corners, understeers at the very low limit, and is overall unsatisfying to drive quickly. No surprise, since nobody’s looking to minivans as the ultimate expression of high-performance driving. However, getting the ride right is important, and here the Caravan is still only so-so. The floaty, bouncy, wallowing ride is likely to make the kids seasick over the long haul, especially if you’re going up a mountain road. The steering effort is light, but the mechanism is vague and lifeless. The brakes feel strong enough for a good hard stop or two, but no more.
The Caravan’s visibility is good, until you look toward the rear. Out front things are good; the low hood is nearly invisible, the windshield pillars are thin, the mirrors are large and well placed. Immediately to the side things are fine, too. Yet the thick rearmost pillars, intrusive headrests and thick C pillars all conspire to limit the rear view. If you have the screens down on the video system, you can kiss your rear visibility goodbye; we strongly recommend opting for the rear back up camera.
Fun to Drive
A van doesn’t have to be fun to drive, but it shouldn’t be a chore either. The Grand Caravan is neither, striking an unremarkable middle ground between driving enthusiasm and excruciation. It would be more satisfying if the transmission were better paired with the engine, if the suspension were firmed up a bit, if the steering provided some measure of feedback, and if we could see out the back more easily. As it is, the Grand Caravan drives like, well, it drives like a minivan.
This is one of Dodge’s more comfortable driver’s chairs. It’s well padded and supportive, with multiple power adjustments and a quick-acting heater, too. The steering wheel is meaty and falls readily to hand, although we do wish it telescoped in addition to tilting; the power pedals only alleviate the distance problem a little bit. The gear selector is mounted high on the dash next to the steering wheel. It looks ergonomic, but it’s actually something of a stretch to reach. It also has a fold-down armrest, and overall is a good chair in which to while away the miles.
Second Row Comfort
Our test car boasted the Grand Caravan’s new Swivel ‘n’ Go seating, an interesting option that allows you to turn the second row seats 180 degrees to face the rear. It wows on the showroom floor, but demands compromises. However, while the seat is comfortable, at 90 lb. per chair it’s extremely heavy, which makes removing it difficult when you need to maximize the Caravan’s cargo space. In addition, a warning sticker on the seat says that it shouldn’t be used with any child seat, which to us means boosters for the grade school age children who would probably enjoy it the most.
Third Row Comfort
The third row is also home to some seating innovations. The power split fold is handy, albeit a little slow, and the ability to independently power fold the seats in different configurations is in our opinion far more significant than the headline-grabbing Swivel ‘n’ Go middle row. There’s even a tailgate party setting, which basically flips the whole bench backwards, making the seatback the bottom cushion and vice versa. Access through the center aisle is easy, but tall riders will find their legs cramped. Kids won’t notice, however, nor will they care about the low-mounted head restraint.
Dodge says it worked hard to keep make the Grand Caravan quiet, and to us they succeeded. That it’s as silent inside as it is represents a significant feat, since the big empty box shape of vans inherently promotes booming road noise. Wind noise is kept to a minimum and engine noise is muted except at full-throttle acceleration. Even in back things are kept quiet, a boon for parents who don’t want to crank the volume on Spongebob just so the kids can hear it. A little road noise intrudes at highway speeds, but overall this is likely the quietest van out there.
We like the power folding third row, but the Swivel ‘n’ Go seats must be removed to maximize the Caravan’s cargo capacity. At 90 pounds each, they’re likely not much lighter than many moms who try to remove them and wrestle them to the ground. Once you get them out there is plenty of space, and like any minivan the Grand Caravan excels at being a big empty box into which you can put just about anything. But if think you’ll frequently need to maximize the Caravan’s hauling space, we say get Stow ‘n’ Go seats instead.
Our Dodge Grand Caravan test vehicle was a pre-production unit. We did not assess build quality, as it is our rule to praise or critique this aspect of a vehicle only when it is reflective of what consumers will find at the local dealership.
We can forgive hard plastic when it has a nice sheen and texture. This Dodge has neither. Much of the plastic feels cheap, and the dash has a hollow sound when you rap your knuckles on it. The innovative sliding center console is marred by Dodge’s use of the cheapest possible plastic they could find. The coverings on the seats are a combination of actual leather, simulated leather and mesh cloth; pick a spot, please. There are nods to comfort with rubberized plastic in various spots, but we aren’t fooled. Give us actual padded surfaces, please.
Chrysler wowed the minivan world with its jellybean-styled vans in the 90s, and continued the theme when they were redesigned in the early 00s. So this is something of a backward step. The style evokes more truck-like themes, especially in front where the big square grille looks very similar to Dodge’s truck line. The interior is so blocky that it looks like it’s built from Legos. None of it is actually ugly mind you – with the possible exception of the rear three-quarter exterior view – but we think that Dodge has handed off the van styling baton to its competition.
With enough bins, nooks, crannies and holders for a wheelbarrow full of junk, the Grand Caravan has you covered. Here’s a quick list of highlights: double-tiered door pockets in front; big slide-out cupholder in center stack with a storage ray underneath; storage bin between the center air vents; twin glove boxes with a clamshell lid; multi-configurable center console bin with several compartments, sliding positions, and four cupholders on top; bins in the floor behind the front seats; bottle holders on the sliding doors; nets here and there…and that’s not even all of it.
MyGIG is a good audio/visual/navigation system, with multiple functions, an integrated hard drive for your own MP3 songs (note that iTunes downloads won’t play), and an easy to use navigation system. Our test car also featured the optional rear seat satellite TV, which currently only gets Disney Channel, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon, but hey, who else but rug rats are going to be watching anyhow? While we like the twin screens, both must be flipped down manually; a power mechanism for at least the rearmost one would be handy. Additionally, there are five rear seats, but only two wireless headsets.
Automatic and easy to figure out, the Grand Caravan’s climate controls were efficient and effective. The knob-based layout is familiar enough, and there are redundant controls for the rear passengers mounted on the ceiling. In addition, you can sync both the left and right front passenger and the rear compartment to the driver’s temperature knob, very handy if you don’t like setting the temperature multiple times.
The placement of the switchgear is fine, but we generally weren’t impressed with its quality. The window switches and other secondary controls clacked cheaply and the gear selector, while high on the dash, was actually something of a stretch to reach. The turn signal stalk incorporates the windshield wiper controls, but it felt like it might snap off eventually, and the integrated controls had a downgrade feel to them. On the plus side the six overhead map lights were clever, with LED bulbs, a simple pushbutton operation, and a swivel mount lets you aim them wherever you want.
The 800-lb. gorillas of this segment no longer wear wings or a rams head on their noses, but an “H” and a highly stylized “T.” While Dodge may have the advantage in the sheer amount of stuff offered in its vans, the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna have two other primary advantages. First, the Japanese vans are simply put together better, with higher quality materials, and offer a better driving experience. Second, while you have to fully load your Dodge to get the most power, the Honda and Toyota come with it standard. Note that Hyundai’s Entourage and Kia’s Sedona are also very tough competitors.
2ND Opinion – Beamesderfer
Perhaps the folks at Dodge were numb from the cold of Michigan winter when they designed the interior for the Grand Caravan. While it’s perfectly reasonable and logical to put kid-proof materials in two-thirds of a minivan, the adults up front could use some softer materials. Helps absorb the sounds of childhood. But it isn’t just the hard plastics adorning just about everywhere. There are also the faux leather seats, which might as well be circa 1965 vinyl.