By Kevin Miller
It has been a quarter of a century since Chrysler Corporation launched the K-Car based Voyager and Caravan in the North American market, creating an entirely new segment of vehicle. Those minivans were incredibly successful for Chrysler, and they owned the segment for more than a decade. In the time since, domestic rivals GM and Ford each took several stabs at designing minivans before finally calling it quits. Meanwhile, competition arrived from Toyota, Honda, Nissan and Hyundai. While Hyundai/Kia has essentially dropped out of the market, the three Japanese-brand competitors are now to the point of having very competitive products in the minivan segment, with class-leading features of their own.
With all-new products for 2011 from Honda, Toyota and Nissan, Chrysler has given the Grand Caravan (and its Chrysler Town & Country sibling) a thorough refresh. Much like Toyota has done with the Sienna’s Swagger Wagon marketing campaign, Dodge has tried to make the Grand Caravan a “man van” by giving it aggressive styling features. A new front fascia with integrated chin spoiler, an integrated rear spoiler, and new LED taillamps reminiscent of earlier Dodge Durango products attempt to give the Grand Caravan more visual attitude. These subtle upgrades do make a notable upgrade in appearance compared to the absolute anonymity of the 2008-2010 version.
In addition to the visual upgrades, Chrysler’s new 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 gives the Grand Caravan best-in-class horsepower and more torque (283 HP and 260 lb-ft torque), compared to the outgoing 3.8 liter V6. Because of the Grand Caravan’s increased horsepower (as well as due to the use of lower-rolling-resistance tires), it was easy to spin the front tires when setting off from a stop, especially when setting off from a stop on a steep uphill grade. Steering was precise and offered a surprising level of feedback for a large family hauler. The Grand Caravan’s ride was quiet, with good damping and predictable handling. Under heavy throttle on uneven pavement, some torque steer was evident. The brakes were adequate for stopping, but under harder braking the pedal felt mushy, which didn’t inspire confidence although the van stopped as intended. As you might expect, the boxy Grand Caravan was susceptible to crosswinds.
Engineers also re-tuned the suspension components for a “more sedan-like” ride. I was impressed by the way the big Grand Caravan hustled effortlessly through the corners, with enough balance and communication to really take advantage of the 283 horsepower on tap. The six-speed automatic transaxle shifted smoothly and quickly, truly impressing me with single-ratio downshifts to dig for more power on the highway. Double-downshifts took a bit of time, which probably leads to smoother overall operation by avoiding unwanted gearchanges. Shifts can be manually actuated by tapping the dash-mounted shifter to the left or right; doing so resulted in prompt shifts which were not rev-matched.
Inside, the Grand Caravan is on of the Chrysler Group products that has benefited from upgraded interior materials and design. A stylish one-piece dashboard cap (made from low-gloss grained hard plastic) is now in place, and controls are significantly nicer looking (and feeling) than before. The trim on the inside of front doors is now soft-touch. Instruments are clear and legible, ergonomics are well-thought out, and the leather-wrapped steering wheel has a premium feel at hand. A surprising option found on the van I tested was a heated steering wheel; this Grand Caravan is by far the least-expensive vehicle I’ve seen with a heated steering wheel.
Seated behind the steering wheel, I found that the Grand Caravan is not made for a 6’4” driver. Although the pedals are power-adjustable, they didn’t move far enough away from the driver to accommodate my long legs; I had to keep my legs bunched up in order to reach the too-close pedals. The steering wheel has tilt and telescope adjustment, but in order to clear my knees, the wheel had to be closer to my body than is comfortable.
The Grand Caravan has power sliding doors on each side, as well as a power tailgate. Each of those power doors could be opened or closed using buttons on the key fob, buttons in the front seat’s overhead console, buttons on the inside of each door jamb, or by pulling on door handles. The sliding doors each had roll-down windows and manual sunshades, and accessed a roomy interior with two bucket seats in the second row plus a three-position bench seat in the third row.
The Grand Caravan’s party-trick is its Stow-and-Go seats in the second and third rows, which fold away into the floor when a flat-floor load space is desired. Those seats are thicker and better-padded for 2011. Our family found the seats to be comfortable, though at 6’4” tall I thought the seat bottom cushions in both second and third rows were a little too close to the floor, leading to my knees being at chin-level. Other adults found the second and third rows quite comfortable, and blamed my long legs rather than the Grand Caravan’s seats for my discomfort. The vehicle I tested had seating for seven people, with two bucket seats in each of the first two rows, and a three-person bench in the third row which stows in a 60/40 split. Upper and lower LATCH points were present in the second row and were easy to use for securing a forward-facing child seat; ample space existed so that my daughter in that seat couldn’t kick my seatback.
Four separate numbered straps must be pulled on to fold away each half of the third-row seat; I was amused to see the plainly-numbered folding straps the first time I opened the tailgate. They are helpful, however, and make quick work of stowing the rear seats. Middle-row seats fold in to compartments under the floor of the van. To stow them, the front seat on the relevant side of the van has to be moved fully forward, and relevant floor hatch lifted up. Lifting the seat recline lever on the outboard side of each seat causes the headrest and then the backrest to fold forward, then the whole seat flips forward into the floor bin. The only trick I found was that that floor bin has to be held open by hand, and fingers can get pinched or scraped if that lid isn’t held up high enough.
As you might expect in a minivan, storage compartments were everywhere. Each front door had large integrated (illuminated) door bins with water bottle holders plus two smaller areas higher in the door; the dash had two bins plus a slide-out double cupholder, a sliding console between the seats featured four cupholders plus an incredibly deep, spacious interior bin. Two glove boxes are present in front of the passenger seat. Farther back, each sliding door has a cup-holder, and there are cupholders on each side of the third row seats. Including the door bins gives a count of 13 cup holders.
Safety and security features include standard front seat-mounted side air bags, a new driver-side knee blocker air bag, three-row side-curtain air bags, electronic stability control, tire pressure monitoring and remote keyless entry. The available Safety Sphere package (not included on the vehicle reviewed) includes ParkSense rear park assist system, ParkView rear backup camera, Blind-spot Monitoring and Rear Cross Path detection system, rain-sensitive wipers and automatic headlamps. As the Grand Caravan is a big vehicle, the rear parking sensors would have been appreciated; as it was, the backup camera plus generously-sized exterior mirrors kept me from reversing in to any stationary objects during my weeklong test.
Visibility out of the Grand Caravan is actually pretty good, though with headrests up on the third row seat, rear visibility suffers; that gets worse when the rear video screen is deployed. Also, in heavy traffic I didn’t like changing lanes to the right on the freeway because I felt that I couldn’t get a good view of that side of the van for confirmation that the lane was clear, though in reality the mirror on that side of the vehicle did provide a good view.
Amenities in the Grand Caravan included a hard-drive audio system (on which a previous driver had left some great driving music), a nine-inch video screen above the second-row seats, roof-console nighttime illumination, and tri-zone electronic climate control.
Although the 2011 Grand Caravan is leaps and bounds ahead of last year’s model in terms of refinement, there is still room for improvement in a few areas. I found the climate control kicked up the blower speed before the van warmed up in the morning, effectively blowing cold air on cold passengers. Too, the seats’ plush upholstery was a more effective lint collector than some lint-brushes. Grippy in the extreme, the driver’s seat was covered in spare threads and fuzz after just a couple of days, and my wool dress trousers stuck to the upholstery nearly as effectively as Velcro.
The Grand Caravan has an EPA fuel economy rating of 17/25/20 MPG city/highway/combined. When I got the van with 2789 miles on it, the trip computer showed an average of 21.2 MPG; after I reset the computer and put 300 miles on, the average showed 18.3 MPG. My driving was probably 30% highway and the rest city, and I tend to drive somewhat aggressively. The available power and ready-to-downshift transmission made me eager to step on the throttle, and I was not inclined to use the ECON MODE button, which caused rapid downshifting and delayed upshifts.
My Deep Cherry Red 2011 Dodge Grand Caravan Crew has a base price of just $28,695, and included standard equipment such as cloth-upholstered seating for seven passengers electronic stability control, dual power sliding doors, tri-zone electronic climate control, 8-way power driver’s seat, power windows in three rows, media center head unit with touchscreen and SIRIUS satellite radio and 30 GB hard drive 110 V power inverter, and ParkView rear camera. Included options were Deep Cherry Red Crystal Pearl exterior paint for $295; Customer Preferred Package 29K that included Trailer Tow Prep Group for $620, Passenger Convenience Group (heated second-row seats, second- and third-row manual window shades, removable/rechargeable flashlight) for $595; Driver Convenience Group (Bluetooth streaming audio, heated steering wheel, remote USB ports, Uconnect voice command with Bluetooth, heated front seats, and auto-dimming rearview mirrow with microphone) for $810; Entertainment Group #1 (second-row overhead 9-inch video screen, wireless IR headphones, video remote control, second-row overhead DVD console, premium sliding front console with cup holders) for $1300, Power Liftgate for $425, and Destination Charge for $835, for a total of $33,575.
That price is very reasonable price for such a well-equipped vehicle. Similarly-equipped (but less-powerful) vans from Toyota and Honda cost two to three thousand dollars more based on information available from truedelta.com. With its combination of features, power, and price, the 2011 Dodge Grand Caravan shows Chrysler remains serious about minivans, and is once again worth a look if you’re shopping in this segment.