During the three days I drove the Dodge Durango and Chrysler Aspen Hybrids along the coast of Maine, I distinctly remember asking one marketing executive what the exact differences were between the two SUVs. "Nothing," he candidly replied. "Some folks prefer the Chrysler name or fascia, while others are partial to the Dodge" - and hence the two coexist in what most would perceive as a blatant conflict of interest.
Which brings me to this 2009 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT. From an equipment perspective, it's a dead ringer for our Four Seasons Chrysler Town & Country (Swivel 'N Go, UConnect navigation, leather seats, DVD player, power sliding doors, remote start; you name it, it's got it), yet it's devoid only of the ornate trim details our T&C sports. Personally, I can live without the extra detail, as even without the Chrysler's grille, dash clock, and chrome rolling stock, the Grand Caravan is reasonably attractive.
I do spot a few equipment changes between the two, although I think this is merely a matter of comparing the 2008 model with the '09. This Dodge is equipped with both an iPod connector in the upper glove box and an improved UConnect Phone system that - shock and awe! - automatically downloaded my phone's contact list via Bluetooth. I've used UConnect with the same phone in multiple vehicles (our Town & Country the night before, even), and I've never before experienced that. Are these features enough to point to the Dodge as the better sibling? Certainly not, as they're also offered in the 2009 T&C. Chrysler, in fact, made a host of improvements to its UConnect system in many of its 2009 vehicles, from Dodge, Jeep, and Chrysler.
What I do prefer is the Dodge's suspension tuning. I'm told it's new and exclusive to the 2009 SXT model, and I'm also told it's supposed to be "European." I'm not exactly sure what that entails, but I do notice that the van isn't as prone to float over crests and dips in the road surface as the Town & Country is. I certainly wouldn't call it sporty - it still leans like a Citroë n 2CV when you pitch it into a corner, and the steering is still overboosted and quite numb - but at the same time, it no longer prompts your passengers to pass around the Dramamine, either. I'm also noting a much firmer brake pedal feel, although I could just be used to the worn pads on our Four Seasons Town & Country, which has nearly 30,000 miles on it.
I like this new generation of Chrysler vans - and I like the SXT better yet - but I'm still not quite sold. There's a fair amount of wind noise at highway speeds, and I did hear a few small squeaks coming from somewhere in the back. If only this van were just a bit more refined in these areas, it'd have my outright seal of approval.
Evan McCausland,Web Producer
I don't feel any huge improvement in the suspension of this 2009 Caravan compared with our Four Seasons 2008 Town & Country. Sure, it is slightly more buttoned-down over crests and cambers in the road, but it still lacks body control. I also find the lack of traction strange. Even the slightest squeeze of the throttle results in the stability control working hard to control wheel spin. Torque steer regularly rears its ugly head, too.
I still love the functionality and features of the Chrysler minivans. The option of two different types of second-row seating is nice. I'm also impressed that Chrysler added the blind-spot detection system. Still, the chassis and the driving experience need a full rethink before I can recommend the Chrysler products over a Honda Odyssey.
Marc Noordeloos, Road Test Editor
Yeah, Marc is right: the Caravan SXT's suspension is only marginally improved over that of our 2008 Chrysler Town & Country's. His description that it is slightly more buttoned-down but still lacks body control is exactly right. Overall, the Caravan does feel a tad bit crisper than our T&C, but I think that has a lot to do with the fact that it's brand-new and our T&C has ten hard months of use under its belt.
Still, there is so much to love about the Chrysler and Dodge minivans in the way they are packaged and designed. Anyone who's shopping for a minivan would be remiss not to check them out. And as for our test vehicle's $41K sticker price? I'd be shocked if any Dodge dealer doesn't cut thousands off that in this sales slump. These days, if you're shopping for a minivan and you have either good credit or a pile of cash, you'd be a fool to pay anywhere near sticker price.
Joe DeMatio, Executive Editor
Base Price (with destination): $28,595Price as tested: $41,455 (including 4.0L Engine Discount)
Options: Inferno Red Exterior Paint - $225 Customer Preferred Package - $2365 Swivel `n Go Seats - $495 Trailer Tow Prep Group - $600 Security Group - $1030 Premium Group - $1995 Dual Screen DVD Entertainment - $2200 Family Value Group - $695 2nd Row Swiveling Seats with Child Booster - $225 4.0L V-6 SOHC Engine - $630 Power Sunroof - $895 Body-Color Running Boards by Mopar - $700 Engine Block Heater - $35 Uconnect GPS - $905 Uconnect Studios - Sirius Backseat TV - $495
Fuel Economy: 17 / 25 / 20 mpg* (city/hwy/combined) *Highest in class (Special Purpose Minivans)
Engine: Size: 4.0L V-6 SOHC Engine Horsepower: 251 hp @ 6000 rpm Torque: 259 lb-ft. @ 4100 rpm
Transmission: 6-Speed Automatic
Weight: 4514 lb
Wheel/Tire Info: - 16" x 6.5" Aluminum Wheels (size) - 225/65R16 BSW All Season Tires