The major players in the minivan segment are re-doubling their efforts for 2011. Honda, Nissan and Toyota have brand-new offerings in the Odyssey, Quest and Sienna, and Dodge couldn’t let that go unchallenged.
1. For 2011 the Grand Caravan gets a modernized exterior and a vastly improved interior with a new center console, revised dash and upgraded materials.
2. A new 3.6L V6 replaces all three engines from last year making 283-hp and 260 ft-lbs of torque. A six-speed automatic is also standard.
3. For 2011, the Grand Caravan will be offered in four trim levels: Express, Mainstreet, Crew and the “Man Van” R/T.
4. Cargo volume is unchanged with 33 cu-ft behind the 3rd row, 83.3 cu-ft behind the second row and a total of 143.8 cu-ft.
Coinciding with the largest model update in recent memory – six all-new or heavily revised vehicles introduced at the same time – the 2011 Dodge Grand Caravan gets significant updates to make it more competitive. And not just on a price-tag basis either. The company says it’s committed to making its products as desirable as the Japanese, but still priced the way customers expect – i.e. inexpensive.
Dodge started with essentially the same box as before, but spent time tweaking the nose, headlights, lower fascia and fog lights to better mimic the cross-hair grille migrating to the rest of the line. The rear has a reshaped tailgate with new taillights, bumper and tailgate. It also gets a roof rack that hides the crossbars (like the Subaru Outback) to cut down on wind resistance if you don’t need them, while fresh 16- and 17-inch wheels add a little aggression.
VASTLY IMPROVED INTERIOR
If the exterior reflects Dodge’s attempt at beefing up its brand, the interior is where you might be fooled into thinking you’re driving something significantly more expensive. The efforts taken to improve the cabin quality are striking, and the level of detail should be applauded. To cut down on future squeaks, the dashboard is a one-piece mould, not seven or nine parts bolted together as before. The overall design and individual controls have been seriously improved, both in their appearance and feel. Buttons click precisely. Trays move in and out on high-quality ball bearings. In some cases, this isn’t just matching the Japanese, this is moving beyond them.
Moving farther back, the exclusive second-row Stow ‘n Go seats that fold into the floor have been improved too, being larger and more comfortable for heavier people, and now only need one hand to operate. The third-row is essentially unchanged, but there wasn’t much wrong with it anyway.
Keeping kids busy and occupied can be done with all of the usual video and audio options. The Swivel ‘n Go option – with rotating second-row chairs and a stowable card table – was euthanized for 2011 with only a 20 per cent take rate since introduced in 2008.
One gripe comes from the optional uConnect Bluetooth handsfree system, which has a difficult time matching the names in your phonebook to the one you’re asking to dial. And the Garmin-based navigation system looks dated compared to others. It doesn’t offer a significant upgrade to justify the added expense compared to an aftermarket Garmin unit.
NEW V6 SHARED ACROSS ALL MODELS
Under the hood, Dodge has made its most significant effort at winning over the buying public by replacing its tired 3.3-, 3.5- and 4.0-liter V6 motors with a modern 3.6-liter Pentastar V6. The first in a new family of engines, it produces 283-hp and 260 ft-lbs of torque. That’s a significant boost, especially over the wheezy 3.3. The lone transmission is a six-speed automatic, and drive is strictly to the front wheels. Acceleration is strong and unstressed, although that was only with two people aboard. No official fuel economy numbers have been announced yet.
Thankfully, Dodge paid attention to how the Grand Caravan handles too. The motion-sickness inducing bounce and jounce is gone, and what’s left is a seriously capable vehicle for its size. Roll is reduced, shock rates are increased, and the whole geometry is adjusted for better response, especially through the steering rack. Much more composed.
The brakes do an adequate job of slowing down the 4,500-lb box, with no drama when emergency stops are called for. And the GC comes with tons of standard safety systems if you do manage to overcook it, from ABS with brake assist, to traction and stability control. Should the worst happen, there are front, side and side-curtain airbags to lessen the chances of injury. Other passive systems include blind-spot monitoring and rear-cross-path detection to alert drivers to objects or vehicles when backing out of a parking spot.
NEW TRIM LEVELS AND PRICING
Dodge has reshuffled its models for 2011, with the $24,995 Express replacing the old SE. It comes standard with tri-zone climate control, power windows/mirrors/locks, and other usual amenities. Upgrade to the $26,830 Mainstreet, and you get a bunch of upgraded convenience features, 16-inch aluminum wheels and body-colored accents. The $29,530 Crew steps on the Chrysler Town & Country’s toes with leather steering wheel, power everything, and enlarged center console, an upgraded radio with a 30GB hard drive, extra chrome and 17-inch wheels.
Finally, the $31,430 R/T is the enthusiast’s choice. It adds even tighter suspension, more aggressive body addenda and unique 17-inch wheels. The interior is black-on-black leather with red stitching and details. While it’s not terribly affordable, kudos to Dodge for at least offering an opportunity for men to take some enjoyment schlepping the kids to school.
The new trim levels don’t match up exactly to the old ones meaning it’s hard to compare pricing directly, but you’re looking at spending roughly $1,500 compared to a 2010 model. Regardless of the content offered, that’s a reasonable jump considering the extensive level of improvements and the powerful V6 that’s standard on even base models.
If Dodge is able to turn around its image as quickly as it turned around these improvements, they’ll do very nicely. There’s finally a reason to consider a Grand Caravan besides the best dollar-to-pound ratio.