By Chris Haak
From time to time, Chrysler has threatened to create a sporty variant of its garden-variety Grand Caravan. Sometimes, they actually do it. The first-generation Dodge Caravan was available with both a 2.5 liter turbo four cylinder and a five-speed manual transaxle back in the early 1980s. Surprisingly, buyers seemed to prefer the V6/automatic combination instead. Then in the van’s third generation – the first curvy one – Dodge showed a Caravan R/T concept on the auto-show circuit. With giant Viper-like crosshair grille, giant hood scoops, oversize wheels, and bright red paintjob, perhaps cooler heads prevailed, and the Grand Caravan R/T never made it past the concept stage.
At the 2008 Detroit Auto Show, Dodge again dusted off the notion of a Grand Caravan R/T, but toned down a bit more. It skipped the Viper grille and massive hood scoops, but did have upsized wheels, ground effects, and very bright paint. Dodge was so quiet about the van that it had no press conference; the thing was just sitting on the show floor behind ropes. Curiously enough, they’re actually making a Grand Caravan R/T (pictured here), but toned it down even further from the concepts. The production version has re-calibrated suspension, subtle ground effects, and is probably the most male-centric minivan on the market, if there is such a thing. But is a sporty minivan really a so-called “Man Van?”
Many people I know – both men and women, but especially men – refuse to drive a minivan, or even be seen in one. Forget the practicality, there’s an image that they have to maintain! I was such a person in 2005 when it came time to buy our first family hauler. I bought a midsize SUV instead, then two years later, realized that I had nobody that I had to impress, and traded the Pathfinder on a Sienna, which has more room inside than a family of four could ever ask for.
Would some men – or women – be willing to put aside their minivan-phobia and embrace a sporty extended-wheelbase minivan? It’s still a minivan, it still has a heck of lot of metal, glass, plastic, and rubber hanging on behind the driver (which, believe me, makes even the most-carlike minivan feel very different from a car). When you tell your friends and colleagues what kind of car you drive, you still have to say “a minivan” or “a Dodge Grand Caravan.” If you’re concerned about image, muttering “…but it’s the sporty one” after “a minivan” won’t really help you with your self image problems. Driving a minivan doesn’t make you any less of a man than a guy who drives a full-size pickup with a gun rack, but conversely, driving a sporty minivan doesn’t make you any more of a man than a guy who drives a Sienna or Odyssey, or even a Town & Country.
Instead, I’d argue that the real “Man Van” in Chrysler’s van lineup is the new Ram Cargo Van, intended to replace the 2011 Dodge Grand Caravan Cargo Van. Instead of “Baby on Board” or a soccer ball decal on the fuel-filler door, your Ram C/V might have “Joe’s Plumbing” or “Betty’s Flower Shop” emblazoned on its side. Oh wait – scratch that last one. Not “manly” enough. While you may not be able to haul your brood in a Ram C/V, you can utilize its 3.6 liter Pentastar V6 to do the same smoky burnouts that the next-door neighbor can do in his Grand Caravan R/T, while using the Ram C/V’s 144.4 cubic feet of interior storage (which can haul 4×8 sheets of plywood or drywall), all on top of a flat structural aluminum load floor.
Ford’s small-but-useful Transit Connect van has carved a nice niche for itself over the past year and a half in the US market, becoming a favorite of local delivery businesses such as caterers and florists, and even for small repair businesses that don’t need the bulk (or inefficiency) of a full-size van or heavy-duty pickup. When we reviewed a Transit Connect last summer, I found it to be incredibly efficient and roomy (for its size). When we attended its press launch, we even had the chance to pretend we were genuine delivery people. Now that’s a Man Van.
Chrysler’s Ram Trucks division wants a piece of that (admittedly small) pie. The first salvo – which likely required minimal development time or expense – is this rebadged Grand Caravan, but Chrysler/Fiat isn’t stopping there. Fiat’s Doblo (pictured at left), a direct competitor to the Transit Connect in Europe, is expected to reach US shores in 2012, imported from Turkey. Just like the Transit Connect is. Then, the final act of Ram’s van trilogy will be importing either the full-size Fiat Fiat Ducato (which has unibody construction, like the Doblo and the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter), or the full-size Iveco Daily (which has body-on-frame construction, as do the Ford E-Series, GMC Savana, Chevrolet Express, and Nissan N vans).
Dodge isn’t the only company to now have a sporty minivan in its lineup, and it’s also not the only one to have a so-called “Man Van” there either. But the forthcoming Ram cargo van models are perhaps the most masculine of all vans – at least until you remember B.A. Baracus’ GMC van from the A-Team.