|1. With second row Stow ‘n Go seats that fold into the floor, all 148 cu-ft of cargo room is available without ever having to remove a seat.
2. Only one engine is available, a 283 hp V6 with a 17/25 mpg rating.
3. Bargain priced at $20,995 to start, the R/T model is $29,995.
4. The second row entertainment system costs just $750.
But it is. A lot of people know why you should buy one and respect the reason for doing so; they just can’t bring themselves to take that big step.
Both carry a stigma, with the minivans being seen by many as a surrender to the suburban reality of lawn mowing and taking the kids to soccer practice. Too proud, these many instead find themselves in a crossover, SUV, or worst of all, a sedan, suffering the inadequacies of these vehicles.
Automakers have recognized the unwillingness by many to make the move to a minivan, and are working to make the ultimate utilitarian machine an emotional buy. Dodge, for instance, has chosen to celebrate parenthood, in particular, the most manly of callings, fatherhood.
THE MAN VAN
Improving the Grand Caravan considerably for the 2012 model year, Dodge is hoping you’ll pass by the luxury appeal of the Sienna or Quest not to mention the goodies galore of the Odyssey and instead get in touch with your testosterone with its top trim R/T model. Called the ‘Man Van’ by the marketing division, it does look better with a monochromatic exterior and special 17-inch wheels. The same goes for the interior with black leather throughout with red stitching and a nine-speaker audio system with a subwoofer so you can relive your college days and blast some Green Day. (Remember when Green Day was cool? Yea, that was a long time ago).
Of course, the R/T badge is a bit misleading. Most R/T models get big horsepower bumps or a burly 5.7-liter V8 engine. Not here. Still, it’s hard to complain about the 3.6-liter V6 engine, which makes almost 300 hp – 283 to be exact. After all, it is the most powerful minivan you can buy… even if that’s not exactly a title worth bragging about.
Fuel economy is rated at 17 mpg city and 25 mpg highway and during our test we registered 19.5, which isn’t bad for such a massive vehicle, but it’s not exactly best-in-class.
For 2012 Dodge is tossing in a handy remote starter, an alarm and a power liftgate. A nice package, it could easily be branded as luxury, convenience or style. Apart from the powerful engine (standard across the model range), there’s little manly about it.
Still, if it keeps anyone from putting a baby seat in the back of a MINI Cooper or forcing your kids to ride in the open bed of a pickup, it’s hard not to approve of the Man Van gimmick.
VASTLY IMPROVED INTERIOR
Amidst the improved cabin, one of the notably absent features is the new 8-inch LCD screen found in numerous other Chrysler products from the Journey to the Jeep Grand Cherokee. In those cars it goes a long way to modernize the interior and add plenty of perceived value. Instead, in our Caravan there’s a new-ish 6.5-inch display screen for the optional navigation system and back-up camera, which already looks a few years behind the times.
The cabin itself is a huge leap forward from earlier in this car’s production cycle. Dash components are considerably higher grade and the switches and buttons, like those on the steering wheel and doors, have a great look and feel about them. A leap forward from the earlier iteration of the Grand Caravan, the only drawback is just how tough the competition is. Cost savings can be seen in areas like the leather used, which, let’s be honest, isn’t a top priority.
SOLID AND CONFIDENT RIDE
Even more impressive than the interior re-do is the ride quality. The “GC” as the kids call it (they don’t call it that), is now about a half inch lower to the ground and Dodge engineers completely reworked the suspension to give a ride quality that’s firmer but also smoother. The adjustments have also resulted in steering that’s less prone to correction and a car with more stability and confidence.
The ride quality might not be a smooth as the Sienna, but it’s not as wallowy either. The down side is that larger bumps still come with a thump out back that you can hear. You’d probably have to be in the third row to feel them though.
Third row space is solid, though not quite what you’ll get in the Odyssey. The second row captain’s chairs feature the Chrysler brand’s unique Stow ‘n Go seating arrangement and fold completely into the floor. As a result, the Grand Caravan has a total of 143.8 cu-ft of cargo room, which is slightly less than the Sienna, but you also don’t have to physically remove heavy and cumbersome seats.
Space behind the third row is a solid 33 cu-ft, while behind the second row you’ll find 83.3 cu-ft, enough to easily fit a couple of high chairs, should you so require.
PLENTY OF TOYS
Passengers will be able to enjoy the ceiling-mounted 9-inch LCD screen for watching videos, as a part of the Entertainment Package. Also included are wireless headphones plus a remote control that, ingeniously, clicks into the ceiling, meaning that if you remember to put it away when not in use, you won’t be hunting through the dozens of onboard storage compartments for it every time.
Getting access to that rear space is extra convenient on the Man Van thanks to the power rear liftgate. Its operation, like the sliding side doors, is a bit less fluid when compared to its Japanese rivals. In fact, apart from the new first-rate switchgear, the Caravan is overall a half step less refined than its competitors – even if it does have the same goodies.
It also has a few extra toys you won’t find in rival minivans, like the rear cross path alert system that doesn’t just let you know if there’s something directly behind the car, but to the side of it. Other much-appreciated goodies include the optional heated steering wheel and blind spot monitoring (a safety must on any vehicle of this size).
Despite all the updates, pricing for the Grand Caravan might remain its best feature. Entry models do start at an ultra-low $20,995 but the R/T is vastly more expensive at $29,995. Thankfully it comes well equipped and options are more than reasonable, including that rear entertainment system at a cost of just $795. The same goes for the driver convenience package that includes heated seats, that heated steering wheel and the Uconnect voice activation system. Beyond that, add on the $1,300 safety package and your price is a still-reasonable $32,850. For comparison’s sake, a top-trim Honda Odyssey Touring Elite will run over $43,000.
Compared to its Japanese rivals, it’s lacking slightly in overall refinement while reliability and durability have never been the van’s best feature. We experienced this first hand when the car’s power window motors couldn’t cope with some mild ice and refused to open.
Dodge has considerably upped the Grand Caravan’s value equation by continuing to offer solid pricing with a better quality interior, much improved ride quality and a solid powertrain. With this family hauler, price is the main factor in getting customers in dealerships. Perhaps then, that’s why it’s called the Man Van, because when it comes to shopping, even for cars, men are always looking for the inexpensive way out.
It might not live up to the lofty bar set by Honda, Toyota and Nissan, but it’s no longer far behind and any family man (or woman) needs to take a look. We guarantee you’ll be more impressed than you expect.