“Thirty years ago, a transportation revolution began…”
A line above serves as a reminder on how things have changed, evolved and devolved since the debut of the Chrysler minivans. In October of 1983, Dodge and Chrysler-Plymouth dealerships were wondering if the K-Car based family conveyances would sell or not. Some thought that the other major debut sat their stores would do better – the Dodge Daytona and Chrysler Laser.
History has a funny way to remind us of the reality that transpired since the first Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager arrived on the showroom floor.
Three decades later, the minivan is still around. Once a crowded field with subsegments for both mainstream and luxury consumers, the North American market has whittled down to a few entries. The original remains amongst the few – the Dodge Grand Caravan.
How has the original held up over the past three decades?
The shape is familiar with its tall profile and short front end. These days, the Grand Caravan only comes with one wheelbase – the long one. You might recall that Chrysler offered two wheelbases for their minivans for most of its lifespan. Both side doors open with power assist, as does the tailgate. Front row occupants get a very low step-in through huge doors. In all, this is a very practical vehicle by all accounts – same as it has been for 30 years.
This particular third generation Grand Caravan is something a bit special – a bit more fun than the usual offerings. At the 2011 Chicago Auto Show, then-brand CEO Ralph Gilles introduced the R/T version of the Grand Caravan, dubbing it the “Man Van.” Chrysler tweaked the suspension for a firmer ride and better handling, while crafting an all-leather sports interior for all three rows of seating.
This model has a bit of the R/T’s spirit. The SXT Backtop takes Dodge’s most popular trim level and gave it some of the R/T’s flavor. There are some differences, such as the all-blacked out grille, the SXT’s cloth interior and Redline color scheme. You might even call it the “Man Van, Jr.” Or, not…
Stepping inside one of the most aggressive looking minivans in history may be sort of a let down. As with the R/T, you get one interior color choice – black. The almost monotone interior scheme may be off-putting for mainstream minivan owners, but there are plenty of surprises inside. With three rows of seating for seven, the Grand Caravan is actually very comfortable.
Up front, there are big seats for the front row with enough bolstering and cushion to keep you behind the dashboard. The lack of height adjustment is a concern in the manual seat set-up, but there is enough rake, recline and headrest adjustment to keep all drivers happy. Second row seating may look temporary, but are truly functional and comfortable. They also adjust for rake and recline with their own head restraints. You could even recline to get some sleep – almost like a business-class airline seat. The third row is set up for three passengers of many shapes and sizes. In all, you get the best of what a minivan could offer – excellent room for seven adults.
Minivans are also made to carry other things – such as plywood, garden supplies, flatpacked furniture, groceries for the local food pantry and so forth. TO do so, both rows use Chrysler’s Stow ‘N Go seating to fold and tuck away the seats for a truly flat floor. No longer do you need to remove the seats as we did 30 years ago. There are power operations to facilitate Stow ‘N Go, but it is always best to learn to do so the old fashioned way. You will find that stowing the seats do not require a trip to the gym to accomplish this feat. Operation is light and uncomplicated.
Drivers will find familiarity behind the wheel. Instrumentation is clear and simple. The center stack offers Chrysler’s touch screen audio and navigation system including a rearview camera screen – very helpful for minivan owners. HVAC controls and other switches are right to the touch and easy to use. The shifter is right next to the instrument binnacle, which makes things easier for the driver. That leaves plenty of room for a console with enough storage for anything.
Chrysler’s 3.6litre Pentastar V6 is the only engine available in the Grand Caravan. With 283 horsepower and 260-pound-feet of torque, the Grand Caravan is well motivated but does not induce true spirited driving. A six-speed automatic is attached to the Pentastar V6 sending power to the front wheels. Be forewarned of a long first gear when pressing the throttle hard onto the freeway.
Minivans are supposed to ride smoothly. The Grand Caravan is no exception, but with the added adrenaline of the Blacktop package there is some firmness and solidity to the suspension package. While the Grand Caravan smoothes out the corners just fine, you will find some lean and roll at higher speeds.
Steering is fine, but a bit heavy when turning at times. The turning radius is not tight. A little maneuvering is necessary to get the Grand Caravan out of plenty of situations. Brakes are good with decent modulation on both normal and panic stops.
Though Minivans offer more space than crossovers and SUVs, there is some parity in terms of fuel economy. The Grand Caravan SXT Blacktop averaged 21.4MPG. There is an argument in favor of some mid-sized, three-row crossovers and SUVs that averaged higher than the Grand Caravan in this department.
Believe or not, the Grand Caravan is the lowest priced minivan in the market at just over $20,000 for the AVP model. Most transactions are for the SXT model, which starts around $27,700. Once you spec everything for the Blacktop package, such as this tester, your sticker would end up at $32,505. If you must have the R/T, with similar equipment as our tester the sticker would come out to $33,675.
For three decades, Chrysler has transformed the family conveyance. It was a great vehicular idea, turned into a cultural phenomenon, a social backlash, a political football, and transformed into a niche product. Yet, we still buy them – and drive them!
Why? The minivan fills a need. Not all shoes fit everyone. If you have a family of five and your children are growing, you will outgrow a three-row crossover. You might not fit everything and everyone in a large sedan. You may have to forsake the move of your college-bound child, spouse, significant other or close friend because there is no room for everything inside of your vehicle(s).
In celebration of its centennial model year, the Dodge brand not only continues to own this segment – it made the Grand Caravan less embarrassing to drive by being more aggressive. It never forgot its intentions – room for seven, space for cargo and the important test of them all: carrying a sheet of plywood on the floor flat.
Sure, you could get one of its competitors with “swagger” as standard equipment. Or, shop for another challenger with a vacuum cleaner as an option. But, if you want the original – there is absolutely nothing wrong with the Grand Caravan.