It may have given up some ground over the years to a host of ever-improving rivals, both foreign and domestic, but Dodge's Caravan and long-wheelbase Grand Caravan are still the 800-pound gorillas of the minivan world. They, and their upmarket cousin, the Chrysler Town & Country, are the highly evolved results of 20-plus years of family-hauling mastery from the company that coined the term "minivan." And though they're a bit long in the tooth on the mechanical side, their interiors are still near the top of their class, as little has escaped the consideration of the Chrysler engineering team in its obsessive quest for supreme space-efficiency, user-friendliness, and occupant protection.
The Chrysler Group made a daring decision when its Caravan and Town & Country minivans were due for a redesign: It invested its limited funds in a new platform that would accommodate a game-changing new seating feature called Stow 'N Go. This meant that much of the vehicle that's seen by consumers would remain little changed from when this iteration was introduced in 1996. They say familiarity breeds contempt, but robust sales have proven this strategy to be sound. A key to pulling it off is that both the short-wheelbase Caravan and the long-wheelbase Grand Caravan are nicely proportioned and cleanly detailed. An attractive monochromatic paint job is standard on all but the base Caravan SE, and top-trim SXT models get handsome 16-inch alloy wheels.
Both the Caravan and Grand Caravan feature three rows of seats that comfortably accommodate a maximum of seven passengers. Finding room for those passengers' luggage, however, is a different story: The standard Caravan has very little cargo space behind the third row, so it isn't the best choice for long road trips with the whole brood. The Grand Caravan, however, carries all of its extra length behind the third-row seats, so it can handily consume a week's worth of luggage for seven. Moreover, the Grand Caravan offers the Stow 'N Go seating system, which can transform the interior from a seven-passenger people-hauler to a two-passenger cargo-hauler with a completely flat load floor. Standard on SE Plus and SXT models, Stow 'N Go features a pair of second-row captain's chairs and a 60/40-split third-row bench that tumble forward and backward, respectively, into lidded wells under the floor--no more wrestling with removable seats. With second- and third-row seats in the upright position, these under-floor wells augment the Grand Caravan's storage space by a significant 12 cubic feet--the size of a compact-car trunk. And if that's not enough space, the Grand Caravan also can be had with a clever overhead rail system consisting of a trio of movable (and removable) hanging bins for small odds and ends.
The seats themselves are notable for their use of a NASA-developed super-high-density foam for comfort and packaging efficiency. However, astronauts may be more tolerant than we are, as we found the second-row seats too small and soft for sustained comfort. The second-row seats slide fore and aft, and their seatbacks recline up to 40 degrees. All in all, the Grand Caravan offers some 250 possible seating configurations.
From the driver's seat, it's tough to fault the Caravans' user-friendly dashboard layout; gauges are bright and legible, and controls are intelligently arrayed. Interior plastics, although too often of the hard-and-shiny variety, are certainly durable, and fit and finish are quite satisfactory, but not quite up to the level of some of the Caravan's rivals, notably Honda and Toyota.
In addition to having an admirably crashworthy structure, the Caravan and Grand Caravan boast standard multi-stage front airbags and a driver's-side inflatable knee-blocker. Full-length side-curtain airbags are available. All outboard passengers get three-point seatbelts, and front-seat occupants get seatbelt pretensioners. An anti-lock braking system is standard equipment on all Grand Caravan models, but is still an extra-cost option on the Caravan SXT--and not available at all on the four-cylinder Caravan SE (all the more reason to avoid it). All models feature an alert that notifies the driver when the sliding side doors (either manual or optional power-operated) are in motion. Electronic stability control is starkly absent from the list of options.