Reviews

2011 Dodge Grand Caravan Walk Around

The Dodge Grand Caravan is attractive, as minivans go. The look is less boxy for 2011, as Dodge has softened the lines a bit while adding a touch of sportiness.

For starters, the 2011 Grand Caravan sits an inch lower than before. Up front, it has a sportier fascia with mesh inserts, a revised version of the Dodge crosshair grille, a slightly reshaped hood and quad headlights. At the rear, the liftgate is slightly modified to accept new DODGE lettering, there is a body color roof spoiler, the fascia is new, there a step plate with chrome trim, and the taillights add LEDs. Sixteen-inch wheels are standard. We think the available five-spoke 17-inch alloy wheels look better.

A minivan shape does not lend itself to artistic sculpture. A description of the overall shape of this current generation of the Dodge Grand Caravan wouldn't sound too much different from a description of the 1982 model. There is a big box behind, where all the people and cargo fit, and a smaller box in front, for the engine. That very efficient outline defines every minivan on the road.

All the leading minivans, including Toyota Sienna, Honda Odyssey, and Chrysler Town & Country, are within an inch or two of the Grand Caravan in overall dimensions. They're all big. The Grand Caravan has a 202.8-inch overall length and a 121.2-inch wheelbase.

These so-called minivans are quite large. However, they share their basic architecture with cars, using unit-body structures and front-wheel-drive platforms, with the engine mounted transversely. Conversely, full-size vans, such as the Chevrolet Express, are built on truck platforms, with body-on-frame structures, rear-wheel-drive platforms and giant, longitudinally mounted V8 engines. Minivans are lighter, more fuel-efficient and offer more responsive handling than the full-size vans.

Interior

The 2011 Grand Caravan gets a new interior design, and it's a considerable upgrade versus the 2010 model. The dashboard is still hard plastic, but that's the norm for the class. The look and feel is much better, with a more flowing, one-piece design. The door tops are now padded, adding a touch of comfort, and the cloth and leather upholstery are upgraded. We liked the stain-resistant cloth seats on last year's models, but the cloth seats on the 2011 models look quite good as well.

Up front, the instrumentation is changed for 2011, with bigger black dials offset by blue-tinted graphics and chrome trim. There are big divisions so you can read each 5-mph increment on the speedometer. The shift lever sticks out just to the left of the center stack, an efficient location.

The steering wheel is new on the 2011 model. It incorporates trip computer, phone, audio, cruise control, and, when ordered, navigation controls. That's nice because the 2010 model had the trip computer controls inaccessibly placed on the dashboard behind the left side of the steering wheel. It now telescopes as well, allowing more drivers to find an ideal seating position. As an added touch, its available heated, which is nice on cold winter mornings.

The sloped A-pillars allow good visibility, but the long hood means the driver sits back a bit farther from the front bumper, so it's a little hard to gauge when parking.

The center console is integral on the 2011 Grand Caravan, instead of removable as it was last year. It offers deep storage, two cupholders and a covered shallow tray. There are also bottleholders in each front door, so the driver and front-seat passenger can each bring along two drinks at once.

The Grand Caravan is designed well for hauling youngsters, with some thoughtful features. Among them is the convex conversation mirror, which is handy for talking to those in the rear seats without having to turn around. We like this clever little feature.

The available DVD entertainment system is a snap to play, which is important because some of them, even those in much more expensive vehicles, are not easy to use. Plug in the DVD, press Play, and it works; the screen drops down from the ceiling and the viewing begins. Video can be shown on the front touch-screen when the transmission is in Park. It comes with wireless headphones for rear seat passengers and has jacks to plug in video game systems. When the DVD screen is deployed, the driver loses some visibility in the rearview mirror so more attention needs to be paid to the side mirrors. Sirius Backseat TV, which was offered on the 2010 model, is no longer available, though it can be had in the Chrysler Town & Country. That is another part of the strategy to price the Grand Caravan below $30,000 and the T&C above $30,000. Last year's dual DVD entertainment system is now only offered in the Town & Country. FloTV, which was offered in both minivans, is also gone as the company that provided it has gone out of business.

We like the Uconnect systems as well. There are three versions, all with a 6.5-inch touchscreen. The base version has a 30-gigabyte hard-drive that can hold about 6,700 music files. Another version has an integrated Garmin navigation system that works just fine but has cartoonish graphics. It also has a 30-gig hard-drive, but it can hold about 4,250 songs because some of the space is used for Navigation map information. The top version has a more familiar Dodge navigation system that we like better. It can also hold 4,250 songs and adds Sirius satellite radio, Sirius Traffic and Sirius Travel Link. This system comes with Uconnect Phone wireless cell phone link, voice recognition, and iPod control, and it can record voice memos.

With any of the systems offered, songs can be ripped from CDs, and music and pictures can be downloaded from thumb drives via a standard USB port. The hard drive is a great way to have ready access to your music collection without toting around a bunch of CDs. For further connectivity, Uconnect Web, a mobile wi-fi router, is offered as a Mopar accessory.

The second-row bucket seats are stationary, but the back folds forward and the seat tips up to allow access to the third row, all with the pull of a lever. Open the bins and you can then push the seats into them.

This system, now called Super Stow 'n Go, works superbly well. For a fairly simple invention, it's a masterpiece. To test it, we hauled a couch. In just a minute or so, and without having to refer to the manual, we dropped the second- and third-row seats flat into the floor. We unloaded the kids, then went to the furniture store to pick up a long leather couch. We converted the Grand Caravan from soccer bus to cargo van in 60 seconds, and easily carted the couch home. Power-folding rear seats are no longer offered, another concession to pricing.

In previous iterations, the second-row seats were notoriously flat and uncomfortable, compromises needed to allow them to fit into the underfloor bins. This time around, Dodge has added more padding to the seats, and also made them taller and wider. They're still not as supportive as the buckets in most competitors, but the new design should prevent some kids' complaints.

(The Swivel 'n Go seating option available on pre-2011 models has been discontinued, which is a shame. Swivel 'n Go offered second-row seats that rotated 180 degrees to face a stowable table that fit between the second and third rows. Dodge says about 25 percent of buyers chose this option, which seams to make it worthwhile to us, but many probably never used it. We liked it for long road trips because it allowed the kids to stay occupied with games or coloring books. Many wanted it for the better second-row seats, and Dodge has addressed this issue by making those seats more comfortable on the 2011 models.)

The third-row seats will fit three kids or two adults. It's as useful and comfortable as most competitors. The third-row folds into a well behind it to create a flat load floor. While the overall interior volume in the Grand Caravan isn't class-leading, it's close with a whopping 143.8 cubic feet of space with all the seats folded down. The competition offers more legroom, but all of these minivans are big inside and the Grand Caravan is comfortable for kids.

Thirteen hundred dollars seems like a lot to spend for the convenience of not having to physically slide your minivan's side doors open or closed (there are two of them, by the way), or lift the liftgate, but it might be worth it. (Especially if resale value is considered.) Minivan owners tend to have full, busy lives, and small conveniences like having the power tailgate raise as you walk up with your arms full can be worth a million bucks. The buttons are located on the headliner between the front seats, and using them imparts a wonderful sense of ease and convenience.

The Grand Caravan leads the minivan field when it comes to interior convenience, capability and versatility. Chrysler has been working to give its minivans a competitive advantage in these areas for a long time, and those efforts show.

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