Driven: 2012 Dodge Grand Caravan R/T

With the new-for-2012 R/T, which Dodge has characterized as the "man van," the Dodge Grand Caravan is not exactly transformed, but there is reason to take another look at this minivan mainstay. Outside, we find a body-colored grille and fascias and polished aluminum wheels. Inside, the black interior (the only color to get when kids are involved), in standard leather, is enlivened a bit by red contrast stitching and aluminum-look trim. I also liked the thick-rim leather-wrapped steering wheel with Chrysler's underappreciated audio controls on the back of the spokes.

With 285 hp, Chrysler's Pentastar V-6 is the most muscular offering in minivan land, which certainly sounds promising. Although this engine is far smoother and more potent than the passel of lame V-6s that Chrysler offered previously, the balky six-speed automatic transmission pretty much ruins the fun. It stubbornly hangs on to top gear even as you climb a grade, all but refusing to downshift until you've lost 10 mph and decided to give it more gas, at which point it drops two gears and sends the tach to 4500 rpm. Switching off the Eco mode mitigates, but does not eliminate, the reluctant downshifting tendencies.

That's a shame, because the Grand Caravan is otherwise more pleasant to drive than most of its ilk. For starters, it seems much less huge from behind the wheel than the Toyota and Nissan entries (even though it's actually about the same size). Generously sized side glass and a relatively upright windshield help prevent the I'm-lost-in-the-minivan feeling. Even better, the steering actually has some heft to it, as does the throttle. Also, the suspension has been firmed up and yet ride quality is still good.

The R/T sits at the top of the Grand Caravan pecking order, and my test example didn't lack for much. DVD player? Check. Heated seats and steering wheel? Check. Power doors and tailgate? Check. Back-up camera? Check. Some of those are standard and those that are extras are all reasonably priced, perfect for indulging the male buy-more-just-in-case mentality.

Dodge is obviously playing to the guys by advertising the Grand Caravan as "the right tool for the job." Of course, often times that job is ferrying a passel of whiny toddlers to Chuck E. Cheese. But when that job is something more macho -- say, picking up a new giant-screen TV at Best Buy, bringing home a ten-burner barbeque grill from Home Depot, the Grand Caravan would be the right tool for that too. And with Stow-n-Go seating, this minivan is ready at a moment's notice to ditch the child seats and do some serious cargo haulin'.

(That said, I must take a moment to mourn the loss of the Swivel 'n Go option, which was introduced for 2008 and quietly dropped three years later. While grown-ups may have been unimpressed with that innovation, in my experience, kids loved it.)

Speaking of loss, the Grand Caravan itself will be heading out onto that long, lonesome highway after 2012. Apparently, even in R/T form, the Grand Caravan isn't aggressive enough to be a part of the Dodge future lineup. Starting next year, all Mopar minivans will be Chrysler Town & Countrys. Somehow, I don't see them even trying to make a Man Van out of that.

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