Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
A leader in value, practicality and innovation.
You have to be doing something right when you sell 350,000 minivans every year, commanding 21 percent of the total minivan market in the U.S. Dodge sells more minivans every year than any other brand. Its continued success appears the result of sticking to the basics, focusing on value, packaging, and practicality.
Above all, the Dodge Caravan is family-friendly. It can carry half the little league team while delivering a smooth car-like ride and reasonable fuel mileage. It offers the features and flexibility most buyers want. A broad range of models means that nearly anyone who needs a minivan can find a Caravan that fits their budget.
For 2003, Dodge has added standard equipment to the top ES trim level, which means a lower bottom line in some cases. New options include a huge power sunroof, a DVD entertainment system, and power-adjustable pedals. Also available, is Sirius Satellite Radio. Installed by the dealer, the suggested retail price for the system is $299 plus labor; a Sirius Satellite Radio subscription is $12.95 per month.
Nine versions of the Dodge Caravan are offered for the 2003 model year. That includes two standard-wheelbase Caravans and seven extended-wheelbase Grand Caravans. Three different engines are available. Retail prices: Caravan SE ($19,875); Caravan Sport ($24,515); Grand Caravan SE ($22,280); Grand Caravan eL ($23,865); Grand Caravan eX ($25,840); Grand Caravan Sport ($27,430); Grand Caravan ES ($32,725); Grand Caravan Sport AWD ($31,230); Grand Caravan ES AWD ($34,625).
Grand refers to the length. Grand Caravan models are significantly longer (by 11 inches) than Caravan models. Grand Caravans are 200.5 inches long, stretched over a 119.3-inch wheelbase. Caravans measure 189.3 inches over a 113.3-inch wheelbase. That makes a big difference in cargo capacity when all three rows of seats are in place.
Caravan SE comes with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, hand-crank windows, and a limited list of options. It does come standard with air conditioning, variable intermittent wipers, and an AM/FM stereo cassette audio system. The bigger Grand Caravan SE is similarly equipped, but is powered by a 3.3-liter V6 engine. For 2003, Grand Caravan SE offers the option of three-zone climate control, which is not available on the shorter Caravan SE.
Caravan Sport and Grand Caravan Sport models come standard with the 3.3-liter V6, plus tilt steering, power door locks, power heated mirrors, speed control, a rear-window defroster and anti-lock brakes. The Grand-length Sport gets fancier seats with upgraded cloth, and a standard rear defroster, three-zone climate control, and a heavy-duty alternator. A 3.8-liter V6 is offered as an option.
Snowbelt residents will appreciate the superior all-wheel-drive traction of the Grand Caravan Sport AWD.
Next up the ladder is the Grand Caravan eL, which adds mid-row bucket seats and a 50/50 split rear bench. Again, the 3.3-liter V6 is standard, and the 3.8-liter V6 an option.
Grand Caravan eX comes loaded with popular features, such as the power up-and-down rear liftgate, a power sliding door on the passenger side, removable power center console, remote keyless entry, four-wheel disc brakes, low-back reclining front bucket seats with eight-way power for the driver, a storage drawer under the front passenger seat, and a CD player. The 3.8-liter V6 is standard, and leather upholstery an option.
Grand Caravan ES is the top of the line, available with front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. ES adds a power sliding door on the driver's side, an overhead trip computer, reading lamps, dual cargo floodlights, automatic dimming mirror, all-season touring tires, and an Infinity 10-speaker stereo. The list has been expanded for 2003 to include a power liftgate, Electronic Vehicle Information Center (EVIC), a roof rack, and steering-wheel-mounted audio controls.
ES also offers a long list of exclusive options, including leather seats with heat, adjustable lumbar support for the driver, four-way power for the passenger's seat, Auto-Stick transmission, and automatic climate control. You can spot an ES by its bright side molding insert, chromed aluminum wheels, and fog lamps.
Dodge redesigned the Caravan and Grand Caravan for 2001, improving their appearance, reinforcing their body structure, and refining them throughout. The Caravans look sleek by minivan standards. The styling is actually quite dramatic, with an aggressive grille and steeply raked windshield. They are very attractive vehicles, making the boxes of the past look bland.
The tracks for the sliding side doors are tucked under the rear side windows for a cleaner appearance. The D-pillars and rear window are steeply inclined for a sporty look, and a discrete spoiler rises from the trailing edge of the roof. Flared wheel openings add strength to the appearance. Headlamps and taillamps are big, the latter wrapping around to the sides. The roof rack is hunkered close to the roof, stylistically less obtrusive and perhaps less likely to generate wind noise, but also offering less clearance for the thicker hooks of some tie-downs.
At 200.5 inches long and less than 5-feet, 10-inches tall, the Caravan will fit just about anywhere a full-size sedan will fit.
Dodge Caravan's interior is comfortable and convenient. Both Caravan and Grand Caravan can accommodate seven passengers in a 2/2/3 arrangement.
Caravan and Grand Caravan offer a slightly higher seating position that enables even short drivers to see over traffic. But you won't need a rope to climb into the seats, as you do in some SUVs and some of the more truck-like minivans. The driver's seat could use more support in the seat bottom, however.
The gauges are straightforward: big, round analog displays, a great basic design. The instrument faces are light gray with black numerals, not quite as legible as white on black. They illuminate in green at night. The dash is canted slightly forward; the designers claim this provides better visibility. Indicators for the turn signals and high beams are cleverly located in a thin hooded display above the instrument panel where they are easy to see.
The steering wheel controls are among the best we've seen. Cruise controls are on the front of the steering wheel and allow precise regulation of speed; an indicator on the dash tells the driver the system is on. Behind the steering wheel are audio controls that let the driver easily adjust volume, switch among pre-set stations, activate the seek function and switch between AM and FM bands. It's a brilliant design.
Controls for the sound system and HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) are intuitive and easy to use. However, the audio system's on-off/volume knob is obscured by the gearshift lever when in Drive, and the separate button on the radio for setting a preset seems less convenient than the traditional method of holding the button down. Our test vehicle had the six-CD in-dash changer, a nice feature even though it is separated from the AM/FM/cassette unit by the HVAC controls. Three-zone temperature controls allow the driver and front-seat passenger to set their own comfort levels. There's a separate control for the rear of the cabin for the kids to fight over, though the driver has veto power.
Access to the middle and rear seats is easy, much easier than in a sport-utility. Power sliding doors, available for one or both sides, work very well. The driver can operate them by pressing buttons on the dash or on the keyless remote. Second-row passengers can operate them by pressing a switch on the B-pillar, but that function can be locked out for children's safety. Also for safety, the doors (and liftgate) will reverse if they strike an object when opening or closing.
Our Grand Caravan ES came equipped with bucket seats in the second row and a 50/50 split rear bench seat. The second-row buckets make the second-row passengers as comfortable as the front-seat passenger.
The third-row bench provides room for two adults, but is a bit short of shoulder room for three adult males. The split rear seat is easier to lift out individually than one big, heavy bench seat.
All of the seats are easy to remove. They come loose in three steps and roll out on sturdy wheels, facilitating the conversion of the van from people mover to cargo hauler. One person can lift the seats from the van to the garage floor, but they are heavy enough that it's easier on the back to have a little help. With both rows of seats removed, the Grand Caravan can haul 4x8-foot sheets of plywood. It offers 158.5 cubic feet of cargo space. That's 16 cubic feet more than the shorter Caravan.
Cup holders are everywhere. In the third row, there are even multiple holders for drinks of different shapes. Seatbacks can also be folded flat to make tables, complete with molded-in cup holders, just the thing for taking friends to the football game.
Our Grand Caravan was equipped with the optional power liftgate. The power doors may seem like an extravagance until your arms are full and it's raining. The power liftgate also keeps you from having to touch the outside of the van when it's covered with road sludge.
Optional pop-up grocery bag holders.
Dodge Caravan and Grand Caravan ride smoothly. They handle well with responsive steering and are stable at speed. The Grand Caravan offers strong acceleration when equipped with the big 3.8-liter V6.
By minivan standards, the Grand Caravan is relatively quiet. Dodge has worked to reduce wind noise by adding underhood padding, using better gaskets between the outside mirrors and the body and around outside and inside door handles. Roof rack crossbows were designed in a wind tunnel to reduce wind noise, but they do not eliminate it entirely.
For most minivan owners, handling means how well the vehicle maneuvers in a parking lot and tracks down the highway, rather than how fast it can slalom through a line of traffic pylons. So we tested our Grand Caravan in parking lots and discovered that it had a small enough turning radius to get into parking spaces easily. However, with the front corners of the van blocked by the cowl, it wasn't always easy to tell exactly where the front was located. It was easy to tell where the rear was, on the other hand, but the height of the windows blocked the view of cars or other low objects.
The 3.8-liter V6 delivers strong power, useful for merging into fast freeway traffic, accelerating from intersections, and passing on two-lane roads. The 3.8-liter engine is rated at 215 horsepower and 245 pound-feet of torque. We recommended it for anyone regularly carrying a heavy load of passengers or towing a trailer. An optional towing package is available with the 3.8-liter engine that raises the Caravan's trailer towing rating to a 3800 pounds. The big engine is also required when you order all-wheel drive.
When equipped with the 3.3-liter V6, the Grand Caravan has enough power to climb hills without breathing hard, and merging onto the freeway doesn't give you visions of your life insurance salesman.
The optional AutoStick transmission is useful for skilled drivers, particularly for shifting between third and fourth in traffic. You need to slow down to 20-25 mph to downshift into second gear without a lurch. First gear is occasionally useful in very low-speed situations.
Ride quality is supple and well-controlled highway ride, in spite of the basic nature of the suspension. Rack-and-pinion steering responds nicely and provides feedback through the steering wheel, enhancing confidence on winding roads. Grand Caravan tracks true on the interstate. Within its performance envelope, the Grand Caravan offers superb driving dynamics.
The brakes offer good feel, performance and durability. Standard brakes are discs in front with heavy-duty rotors and drums at the rear. ABS is standard on all models except the Caravan SE, allowing the driver to brake and steer in a panic stop. Four-wheel disc brakes are available on selected models. Disc brakes generally offer more resistance to brake fade (the tendency of the brakes to lose performance when heated by repeated use) than drum brakes.
Dodge continues to show why it is the leading brand in minivans. The Dodge Caravan's roomy interior offers convenient, carefree motoring. The driving experience is controlled and enjoyable. And there's lots of V6 power available in the lineup. A wide selection of models means there's a Dodge Caravan or Grand Caravan to fit any minivan budget.
Caravan SE ($19,875); Caravan Sport ($24,515); Grand Caravan SE ($22,280); Grand Caravan eL ($23,865); Grand Caravan eX ($25,840); Grand Caravan Sport ($27,430); Grand Caravan ES ($32,725); Grand Caravan Sport AWD ($31,230); Grand Caravan ES AWD ($34,625).
Windsor, Ontario; St. Louis, Missouri.
Options As Tested
side-impact airbags ($390); Customer Preferred Package 29S ($2000) includes AutoStick transmission, traction control, removable center console, Infinity speaker system, AM/FM/CD/cassette w equalizer, steering wheel audio controls, touring suspension, full-size spare.
Dodge Grand Caravan ES ($32,725).
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