In the Automobile Magazine letters mailbox, there is a certain genre of complaint that I'd characterize as, "Why don't you guys get real?" The theme is that we're a bunch of out-of-touch hedonists who spend our days driving Pagani Huayras up the side of the Matterhorn with Scarlett Johansson riding shotgun. And while that's a great idea, now that I mention it, it does behoove us every now and then to dip a toe into the cold bath of reality. Well, how about driving a Dodge minivan to Atlantic City? And after that, how about off-roading in rural Pennsylvania? Is that real enough for you? It's as real as the 1000 percent of the recommended daily allowance of sodium in a bag of truck-stop beef jerky, my friend.
The van in question is the 2012 Dodge Grand Caravan R/T, a.k.a. the Man Van. You may not be aware of the Man Van's existence, because soon after its introduction Chrysler seemed to become a bit sheepish about that label. And indeed, while Dodge says the R/T has a "sport-tuned suspension," this particular branch of the R/T tree is distinguished mainly by a monochrome paint scheme and red stitching on black leather seats. But the moment I heard "Man Van," I decided that such a vehicle deserves a manly road trip. So I convened my friends Elliot and Jimmy along with my brother, Graham, and set out on a thousand-mile quest for steak, danger, wagering, horsepower, and buffalo wings, not necessarily in that order.
We depart Boston early on a Friday morning, gunning for a date with Atlantic City -- after a detour to see if we can talk the Man Van onto the track at New Jersey Motorsports Park. This isn't my first meathead road trip to Atlantic City, as I and a different band of cohorts once made the trip in my grandparents' hand-me-down 1985 Cadillac Seville, which at one point ran out of gas with an indicated two gallons remaining in the tank. That wasn't as bad as the other thing that happened, which is that someone walked into the wrong bedroom one night and tried to climb into bed with a nun. (It's a long story about why we were bunking in the same house as a nun.) The bottom line is that there are many ways in which a trip to New Jersey can go awry, regardless of whether anyone bed- invades a servant of the Lord.
Thus, I'm pleased that the first leg of our trip is mercifully uneventful. When you have to cover 353 miles in one of the most crowded traffic corridors in the country, a minivan is the right tool for the job. Although, admittedly, I'd rather be in back, where Elliot is dealing blackjack while Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure plays on the flip-down DVD screen. Since I'm stuck behind the wheel, the others have to answer my barrage of questions about the unseen movie. "Was their band called 'Wild Stallions,' spelled 'w-y-l-d'?" I ask. "Yeah," Jimmy replies. "They just showed the logo. Also, they spelled 'stallions' with a 'y-n-s' at the end." It turns out that Keanu Reeves' acting is horrible even when you can't see it.
By early afternoon, we arrive at New Jersey Motorsports Park to some good news and some bad news. The good news is that we can probably score some track time late in the day, when members are packing up. The bad news is that we have a couple hours to kill. This gives us time to wander around the pits and see if anyone here has the courage to challenge a Grand Caravan R/T out on the road course. The "T" stands for "track," you know.
We find a likely candidate in Jim Scheckter, owner of Ultimate Track Rentals. As the title implies, his business is renting track time in serious machinery. He's got a Nissan GT-R here today, but my eye is drawn to a more rudimentary piece of machinery: a Dodge Charger R/T. Scheckter's R/T is possibly a little bit faster than ours, in that his is an 850-hp NASCAR Car of Tomorrow. Facilitating the fantasy Mopar showdown we've all been asking for, Scheckter agrees to put the Charger up against the Caravan at the end of the day.
Meanwhile, I also corral Rob Fini of Performance Information Technologies and convince him that the Grand Caravan needs full data-acquisition capabilities for our hot laps. By the time the track is open, the van is wired with Race-Keeper video, GPS, and OBD-II data-recording equipment (see sidebar below). I figure there's no point in using a minivan to challenge a stock car on a road course if you can't quantify your average rpm afterward.
Shortly thereafter, we're charging down the straight at 100 mph, just four guys wearing helmets and riding in a minivan that's being pursued by a full-race stock car on a fast road course. A real-world situation, just like I promised.
I'm surprised to find that the Caravan actually holds together on the track. With 283 hp and a six-speed automatic, the Man Van has some punch, particularly in the tightly spaced first three gears. The stability control system stays out of the way, the brakes resist fading, and the transmission responds to manual downshifts without second-guessing. As for that special R/T suspension, the Caravan can be induced to rotate a bit with a sudden lift of the throttle and a violent yank of the wheel. Sure, the low-rolling-resistance tires are grip-averse (strangely, they're both narrower and higher-profile than the rubber on non-R/T Caravans), but I'm sure most R/T buyers will probably go straight for a set of track-compound Michelin Pilot Sport Cups after the ol' Kumhos wear out.
After three laps, there's smoke billowing off the front brakes and my passengers look decidedly green. Jimmy reports that high-g maneuvers caused him to hit the door-mounted seat-heater button with his knee. I hope Dodge addresses this potentially devastating ergonomic flaw. As for the Charger, it seems like he can pull me on the straights. But does he have a heated steering wheel? No. And I do. So I'll call that one a draw.
By the time we make it to Atlantic City, night has fallen and we're exhausted. I'd anticipated an evening of debauchery, but ten hours in the car has a way of dulling one's ambitions. Wings at Hooters followed by some light gambling? Sounds great. We sit down at a $15 blackjack table at the Tropicana and Graham is dealt an eighteen. "I'll double down," he says. He goes on to win $50 while I lose my pile of chips within ten minutes. It's fair to say that I'll never develop a gambling addiction, because that would require winning sometimes.
The next morning, our bleary-eyed crew piles back into the Dodge. We have three hours of driving to get from Atlantic City to our ultimate destination: the headquarters of Legendary Excursions in Tremont, Pennsylvania. Legendary operates a 3000-acre off-road park that includes a two-mile high-speed dune-buggy course. Buggies await, if we can get there on time.
First, we hit heavy traffic in Philadelphia, even though it's Saturday. As Philly gives way to farmland, we pass a billboard for a church that reads, "Heaven or Hell: Your Choice." The very next billboard is for an amusement park. It reads, "Choose Your Own Adventure!"
We're choosing our adventure according to the advice of my TomTom, because a navigation system is missing from the $33,070 R/T's otherwise decadent specification. And that poses periodic directional issues, as my TomTom's software is so old that its routes include the Silk Road, the Oregon Trail, and the Bering Land Bridge. It has a habit of choosing strange routes, my TomTom.
We're within about a half hour of our destination when TomTom commands us to exit the highway. I dutifully obey the little screen suction-cupped to the windshield, and soon we're climbing a sinuous road through the trees, ascending a ridge that occasionally offers gorgeous views. Right on, TomTom! This is what it's all about -- getting off the highway and actually seeing the country.
That is, until we come to the roadblock. Feeling lucky despite the beating I received last night at the blackjack table, I make the executive decision to double down and ignore the roadblock. Several miles later, we encounter a Chevy Tahoe coming down the hill, and I open the window to ask the driver what's up ahead. He says, "There's a steam shovel blocking the road up there." A steam shovel?! This roadwork must really be taking a while.
Around the corner, we discover a Caterpillar excavator very deliberately blocking the road. We'll have to backtrack to the highway. Now we're late. But any epic quest requires its tribulations, as Homer and Clark Griswold well know.
We pull into Legendary Excursions behind schedule but, we hope, with enough remaining daylight to execute our plan. Mark Townsend, CEO of the company, meets us at the ticket booth. Behind the building is a man-made concrete mountain covered in skid marks and littered with broken pieces of four-by-fours, and the parking lot is filled with tents, campers, and RVs. This place is the Disneyland of getting your truck stuck in the woods.
With time our enemy, Legendary Excursions employee Ron Lobb hustles us into the world's most battered Jeep Grand Cherokee, the patina of its tufted leather seats evoking a Samoyed dog with a skin condition. We head into the woods to tour the buggy course, Lobb using this prerun to impress upon us all the ways in which things can go wrong if we overestimate our buggy-driving prowess. "See that tree over there?" Ron asks as we're heading down an innocuous straightaway. "The one with no bark? A guy decided to start pitching the car back and forth along the straight, and he lost it and went into that tree. That was $8000 worth of damage." Once I start paying attention, there are a disturbing number of barkless trees in this forest.
Back at the office, there's a buggy ready to go. The weather is cold and drizzly, and I can't help but notice that the buggy has no windshield. Or doors. Or a floor constructed in such a way that it might prevent geysers of puddle water from spraying up your pants. "Uh, is there a chance you guys might have some ponchos or something?" I ask. Mark looks to Ron and says, "Go grab them some banana suits." Banana suits?
It turns out that you can stay dry or look cool, but you can't do both at the same time. I'm grateful for the yellow plastic outerwear, but our group sartorial theme is now "Hazmat team does Baja."
Down at the starting line -- demarcated by some type of ungulate skull nailed to a post -- I cinch the five-point harness over my banana suit and push the start button. The rear-mounted Subaru flat four burps out a few lungfuls of crisp Pennsylvania air and settles into an idle familiar to anyone who's driven an Outback or a Forester. Only when I let out the clutch and bring the revs up beyond 3000 rpm does the humble Subaru engine start to crackle with enthusiasm for its new role.
With Ron's admonitions in the back of my head, I take it easy on the first lap. The Wide Open-built car doesn't drive like any street machine I've ever experienced -- its default handling modes are oversteer and more oversteer. Lift the throttle and the back end unloads and steps out. Get on the throttle and you're quickly into power oversteer. The Subaru engine makes only about 200 hp, but in a 2800-pound buggy on loose gravel and slick mud, you're going General Lee tail-out on every corner.
By the second lap I'm going a little bit faster, gaining confidence in the car and generally learning which way the corners go. By the third lap, I'm saying things like, "This thing just gets better the harder you drive it!" and glancing at the Garmin GPS on the dash to see if I can top 60 mph (I do). And that means I'm ready for a time-out. In fact, Legendary requires one, because they've realized that after too many consecutive laps, the twin devils of adrenaline and overconfidence climb onto your shoulder, followed soon thereafter by wrecked buggies and recriminations. So with my spirits high after three laps, I head to the sanctuary of the Dodge, fire up the seat heater, and contemplate our weekend chariot.
Sure, the Grand Caravan R/T is mostly a badge-and-trim job, but it's a badge-and-trim job on a van that has more horsepower than a 2004 Ford Mustang GT. The Grand Caravan R/T may not be a thing of beauty in and of itself, but when you can comfortably cover more than 1000 miles in a weekend while getting 25 mpg and watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail, then a lot of possibilities are in play. The minivan is the enabler that allows you to go on a bachelor party without the bachelor, a road trip just for the sake of it.
Except that, in a way, there is an occasion for this blowout. You might call this a going-away party for our fifth man, the Dodge Grand Caravan. As you might've heard, Chrysler is canceling the Grand Caravan for the 2013 model year, a circumstance that our particular R/T seems to protest via the Monty Python movie cued up on its DVD player. As we merge onto the highway for the long drive home, the speakers blare a defiant message, possibly in the general direction of corporate headquarters in Italy. The gravedigger might be knocking on the door, but the Man Van insists that it's not dead yet.