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