Since the demise of the value-leading Chrysler (ne Plymouth) Voyager, the base Caravan SE has assumed the role as the Chrysler Group's entry-level minivan. As such, it features a 2.4-liter DOHC inline four-cylinder engine (also the base powerplant in Dodge's Stratus). Woefully unsuited for minivan duty, the overworked four meets a four-speed automatic transmission and coughs out 150 horsepower and 165 lb-ft of torque. Adding insult to injury, it returns just 20 mpg in town and 26 on the highway, only marginally better than the optional V-6. That engine, an overhead-valve unit displacing 3.3 liters, motivates the uplevel Caravan SXT and the Grand Caravan SE and SE Plus. Also matched to a four-speed automatic, the 3.3 is a cast-iron antique next to the state-of-the-art multi-valve sixes in several of the Caravan's Japanese rivals. Nonetheless, Dodge's six-cylinder workhorse is reasonably quiet, reasonably willing, and undeniably easy to live with, producing 180 horsepower and 210 lb-ft of torque and returning 19-city/26-highway mpg. The top-trim Grand Caravan SXT upgrades to a somewhat larger, but no more sophisticated, 3.8-liter OHV V-6. Through its four-speed automatic, the 3.8 delivers 207 horsepower and 238 lb-ft of torque--adequate, but significantly short of the standard sixes in such prime rivals as the Toyota Sienna (230 hp), Nissan Quest (240 hp), and Honda Odyssey (255 hp). It's worth noting that all Caravans and Grand Caravans are front-wheel-driven; the all-wheel-drive option disappeared with last year's wave of revisions to make room under the floor for Stow 'N Go.
Behind The Wheel
Although hardly the standard-bearers of the class, both the Caravan and Grand Caravan, among minivans, are thoroughly effective on the road. At highway speeds, they're both quiet and composed, though the longer, heavier Grand Caravan has the edge in straight-line stability. Steering is accurate, albeit typically overboosted, and body control, while hardly sporty, is at least predictable. The vans' around-town maneuverability pleasantly masks their considerable bulk, and the four-speed automatic's short gearing affords a degree of off-the-line alertness that belies the V-6 engines' general gutlessness.
The Caravan starts well under $20,000 and the Grand Caravan at less than $24,000. For such relatively modest cash, Dodge's duo is surprisingly well appointed. Standard equipment includes air conditioning, a four-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo, and a lockable storage bin under the front-passenger seat. All Caravans are protected by Dodge's generous warranty coverage, including three-year/36,000-mile bumper-to-bumper and seven-year/70,000-mile powertrain. The Caravans' massively reconfigurable passenger compartments and raft of innovative features help them standout in the crowded segment. While the IntelliChoice Ownership Cost Value Rating may be Average, there are often factory and dealer incentives to sweeten the deal, ensuring that the minivan that started it all still has what it takes to hold its own in this fiercely competitive segment of the market.
The Caravan and Grand Caravan continue to hone the minivan formula they created over two decades ago, offering comfortable, safe family transport with innovations to enhance the journey and adapt to daily transportation needs.