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Friday, May 31, 2013

Dodge Grand Caravan

The Dodge Grand Caravan is the longest-running minivan currently offered in the U.S.–with more than three decades of models to its name. While neither short-wheelbase Caravan models nor all-wheel-drive versions are any longer part of the mix, and Chrysler's narrowed the focus of its vans, they continue as an important family vehicle both for the brand and the market. Today the Grand Caravan...

The Dodge Grand Caravan is the longest-running minivan currently offered in the U.S.–with more than three decades of models to its name. While neither short-wheelbase Caravan models nor all-wheel-drive versions are any longer part of the mix, and Chrysler's narrowed the focus of its vans, they continue as an important family vehicle both for the brand and the market.

Today the Grand Caravan doesn't have a lot of rivals; the Toyota Sienna, Nissan Quest, and Honda Odyssey are the closest, while the Ford Flex comes close to offering that kind of flexibility, albeit with hinged rear doors. Then there's the Mazda5, which is a sporty-driving minivan, and essentially the size that U.S. minivans used to be.

Read our full review of the 2013 Dodge Grand Caravan for more information, including pricing with options

The current Grand Caravan is the direct descendant of the original minivan, a new kind of vehicle thought up in the early 1980s and at first, shopped around at Ford Motor Company. The Dodge Caravan was launched by Chrysler in the 1984 model year, after then-CEO Lee Iacocca had brought the idea and execs responsible for it from Ford to an ailing Chrysler. In retrospect, Ford's pass on it was one of the greater misjudgments in the auto industry.

First conceived for Ford as early as the 1970s, the original Voyager and Caravan were moved across town to Chrysler and unveiled as 1984 models. Those two short-wheelbase vans would be considered compact cars today, based as they were on front-wheel-drive K-Car underpinnings, but a car-sized vehicle with the practicality and volume of a traditional van proved an instant hit with consumers--especially families. Early models were powered by four-cylinder engines, soon expanded to turbo fours and V-6 engines as well. They came mostly with three- and four-speed automatic transmissions, though some Caravans were built with four- and five-speed manual gearboxes.

Despite what now seems incredibly primitive equipment--no airbags, no anti-lock brake systems--the first minivans offered three rows of seating for up to seven occupants, and a single sliding door on the passenger side that made access easier for parents in parking lots with kids. A long-wheelbase Grand Caravan variant joined the range in 1987, and a small number of cargo-panel bodies were sold as commercial vans as well. A left-hand sliding door was offered first as an option, and then became standard some years later, as well.

The second-generation Dodge Caravan, sold from 1991 through 1995, added many safety features, though it still ran on updated K-Car running gear from a decade earlier. All-wheel drive appeared as an option for snow-belt buyers, anti-lock brakes were added, and safety features came to include dual front airbags and integrated child safety seats. Too few mourned the end of artificial woodgrain, an option on more luxurious versions of the minivan, which was finally killed off by Chrysler's younger, hipper designers--and its customers.

With the all-new 1996-2000 minivans, Chrysler hit its engineering and design stride in the segment. The third-generation minivans had a totally new architecture underpinning them, and a handsome, rounded shape to complement numerous innovations under the skin-with hidden tracks for the side doors' sliding action. In this era, Chrysler added standard anti-lock brakes, and a driver-side sliding door became available.

A range of V-6 engines and automatic transmissions dominated most order sheets, though Chrysler still offered a four-cylinder engine for the most frugal buyers. The middle and rear rows of seats gained rollers for easier removal. These minivans had better crash-test performance than previous versions, but reliability became a concern for the early model years, as the automatic transmissions were cited for frequent failure by various consumer groups.

In the 2001 model year, a reskin of the previous generation minivan added more distinct grilles for the Chrysler and Dodge versions. The Plymouth version left the lineup as the brand was shuttered. The Dodge Caravan and Grand Caravan gained a crosshair grille that would find its way across the brand lineup. Wider and longer, the new minivans added features like power operation for the sliding side doors. A cargo version reappeared in 2003, and for 2005, the company revamped the vans with a new feature: Stow 'N Go seating, which allowed drivers to hide the second and third-row seats under the floor, or to use the allotted space for storage. The feature was planned in as Chrysler spun a new crossover, the Pacifica, from the same architecture. The seating flexibility remains among the best in the class, five years later. Side airbags also were added as an option.

In 2008, Chrysler updated the minivans with more upright styling, which seemed to be more appropriate for the Dodge Grand Caravan. A flex-fuel version that could run on E85 fuel was added, and a new Swivel 'N Go option added a picnic table and rotating seats to the popular minivan--though that option proved unpopular and was later dropped. The short-wheelbase Caravan disappeared with the new generation--replaced by the crossover-like Dodge Journey instead--and the new vans were saddled with a plasticky, inexpensive-looking interior as Chrysler struggled to avoid bankruptcy. Stability control became standard, along with curtain airbags; options included satellite radio and TV, provided by Sirius. Three V-6 engines made up the engine lineup, and a new six-speed automatic joined the powertrain roster.

For the 2011 model year, the Dodge Grand Caravan continued to resonate with families on the go, more than 25 years after the minivan first rolled out of showrooms. Chrysler's new owner Fiat gave it a new interior with much nicer finishes than that of the 2008-2010 models, plus a new 283-horsepower V-6 coupled to a six-speed automatic--which became the only powertrain. Safety features and flexible seating continued to lead the class of minivans, and it was awarded almost perfect crash-test scores. Mild handling and sheetmetal updates were less dramatic. Fuel economy approached best in class, at 17/25 mpg.

Through the 2012 model year, Chrysler built a version of the Dodge minivan for VW, which sold it as the Routan. It's since been discontinued.

For 2013, the Grand Caravan offers an optional entertainment system that offers Blu-Ray compatibility--an industry-exclusive, Chrysler says--with two separate screens that let rear-seat passengers watch two different video programs. The 2012 models, however, were carried over largely unchanged from the revised 2011 version, and the same held true for the 2013 model year.

In the 2015 model year Chrysler is expected to replace its minivans with a new vehicle, but the Dodge Grand Caravan may not make it to the new platform. It's possible the name could be applied to a new crossover vehicle, or dropped entirely, as Chrysler tries to split the images of its brands more finely.

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