It’s time for minivans to rise up and claim their rightful place at the top of the family vehicle chain.
You’ve got to pity the poor minivan. Everybody who owns one appreciates it, to the point of wondering how their families could ever get along without it. But it is universally scorned, to the point of acting as though they’d never consider buying one, and even some of those who own them keep it hidden and only take it out when the kids need to haul a hockey or soccer team full of buddies to the next practice or game.
It wasn’t always that way. When the Dodge Caravan was at its peak, it seemed as though everybody had one and everybody who did loved to show them off. Essentially, minivans were the vehicles that drove station wagons to extinction. But after several decades of loyal, trustworthy, and efficient transportation, in all weather, minivans also led directly to the derision that might be called “Soccer mom syndrome.” Minivans didn’t seem all that macho, so men would always say they got the minivan for their wives, who had to haul kids to practices and games.
Meanwhile, sport utility vehicles became the vehicle that did to minivans what minivans had done to station wagons, and it although minivans kept selling, they almost had to be hidden over in the dark corner of the dealership, or left on the back lot, and delivered in a plain, brown wrapper.
If ever a vehicle needed to be driven out of the closet, the 2013 Dodge Grand Caravan is it. If you are looking for nitpicks, the Grand Caravan presents an enormous challenge, considering all the assets you get. Base price of the test Crew model is $28,595, and loaded with convenience and connectivity options, it totals $32,480. With nearly all SUVs you might consider as alternatives, there are a few compromises. But here are the Grand Caravan’s assets:
- It is remarkably stable, even on icy roads, with its dependable front-wheel drive and decent all-season tires. If you are still apprehensive, you can find one with all-wheel drive.
- It has plenty of zip, with the new Pentastar 3.5-liter V6 the perfect engine, with its dual overhead camshafts and variable valve timing. to replace all those pretty good engines that took previous Grand Caravans to 200,000 miles or so without flinching.
- It can even get up into the neighborhood of 25 miles per gallon on highway trips, thanks to Chrysler’s high-tech 6-speed automatic, which works so well with the Pentastar engine. Around town, in the winter, it might dip down to 17 or 18 mpg, but hey, it burns regular gasoline, which is a savings of about 20 cents a gallon right there.
- The interior has been revised again, and features supportive bucket seats in the first and second rows, unless you choose a second-row bench seat for more passengers. The second-row buckets in the Crew test vehicle were part of the Stow and Go feature, which is more than just convenient — it also makes it simple to put the loudest kids way back in the third row. With Stow and Go, you flip a switch and the backrest snaps down onto the seat cushion, and you give a gentle tug upward on the same switch and the whole seat somersaults forward to allow that rear seat access. Also, you can flip up the carpeted floor and expose a large cavernous opening, into which the whole folded seat disappears. Put the carpet back, and you’d never guess that a seat ever was placed there.
- The gearshift lever is mounted up on the dashboard, where it’s simple to operate and doesn’t require looking down at the floor to make sure what gear you’ve shifted into. Next to it is a large, 6.5-inch navigation screen, and the basic black decor of the Crew model is accented with brushed silver. The dash looks like that soft, pebbly stuff everybody uses on soft-touch dashes these days, but it fools you; it’s not as soft as it looks, even though it is made of that football-grain texture. There is pleasantly soft material on the door panels, where you can appreciate it more than if the top of your dashboard was soft, anyhow.
Sitting in the rear seat, you could be assured that the kids will never ask, “Are we there yet?” A video screen, with cordless headphones should take care of that, with video games, or movies, or whatever else you can put in there to make the miles roll by. The audio-video stuff is governed by a 40 gig hard drive with UConnect voice command with Bluetooth and Bluetooth streaming audio, and with Garmin navigation, and Sirius XM travel link, and of course satellite radio. Just try getting bored in this vehicle. If you really do get bored, you always could pull out the encyclopedic owner’s manual and figure out how to operate something you never imagined the vehicle had.
Naturally, a rear back-up camera fills that 6.5-inch screen when you engage reverse, and it also has auto-dimming rear view mirror, rain sensitive windshield wipers, blind spot and cross path detection, rear park assist, and automatic headlights. Other convenience items include a power liftgate and a remote start system, where you click the button on the key fob twice and the engine starts and warms up while you’re approaching the vehicle, or maybe still in the kitchen, getting ready to come out on a chilly morning. The roof rack has rails you can hide, within the frames. Air-conditioning and heat work front and rear, and there are front and rear heated seats.
Second-row windows open all the way down, and the rear quarter windows flip out, operable by the driver, from his or her 8-way seat. The steering wheel allows quick steering control, a surprisingly tight turning radius, and it has all sorts of remote switchgear to operate the audio system.
The sliding side doors, right and left, are power operated, and work at a light touch. You can open or close them with a switch from the driver’s seat, or in the rear seats, and if the door is open, you can just start to close it and it will mechanically close by itself. Manual sunshades on the rear side windows is another neat touch.
Child seat anchors, all the airbags front, side and knees, and a slick trailer sway damping system is a high-tech item. There’s even a rechargeable trouble light stashed right there in easy reach. Another feature I liked is that the console, mounted low on the floor between the front buckets, has an open area on its forward edge, where you can place small items, pretty much out of sight but secure.
Of course, if you’re driving off on vacation with a couple kids and a couple of their friends, you never know when you’ll need some refreshments up front. Do you prefer coffee? Maybe a bottle of iced tea? A soft drink? How about one of each? That’s right. There are two cupholders there on the console, and ahead a few inches another receptacle houses two more cupholders, and there in either door are another cupholder. I didn’t count all the ones in teh rear, but six of them for two front occupants are a good start.
Naturally, one of the big assets of a minivan compared to a large SUV is that you step into a minivan, without the need for Olympic high-jump agility. To aid in that venture, there are handgrips built into the front A-pillars, and they are neatly designed, form-fit to the pillars and yet positioned right where you can use them best.
The Dodge Caravan, which became the Grand Caravan, always has been a utilitarian vehicle, with plenty of storage room behind the seats, with a deep stowage well where grocery bags stand nicely. That space is discounting the asset of being able to fold down the seats and adding multiple increments to the space.
Driving the new Grand Caravan is a pleasurable task. No, it’s not a sports car, or even a sports sedan, but there are sedans that don’t handle as responsively as the Grand Caravan. And a whole lot of trucks and SUVs that don’t come close to the Grand Caravan’s agility and controllability. Women will still find it the best way to haul a family. And guys can hide it, pretend they hate it, say they bought it for their wife, but watch who will be looking for every opportunity to be driving it.