First Drive: 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT

click above image to view high-res gallery of the 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan

The minivan is dead, so says GM and Ford. They've all but given up on the sliding-door people movers. But where two-thirds of the Big Three see a dead end, Dodge sees an opportunity. And so do Toyota, Honda, Kia and Hyundai, which means it takes more than a smooth ride and a full set of cup holders to compete in this tricky segment. Chrysler has therefore packed its latest Grand Caravan with a family-sized list of innovations.

Relying on a laundry list of features is a good thing, because if the Grand Caravan depended only on its looks for sales, then the minivan might be dead meat. The last time we saw sheet metal this flat and unadorned was on a UPS truck. Surely it wouldn't have cost that much more to put in a curve or character line here and there. And is that the same grille as on last year's Dakota? But as my wife points out, "It's a van. You don't buy a van for the aesthetics." True. It's what is inside that counts, and the Caravan has interior goodies galore.

Continue reading about the 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT after the jump.

Live Photos Copyright ©2007 Chris Tutor / Weblogs, Inc.

At the top of the Caravan's options list for 2008 is, of course, the Swivel 'N Go seating seen first at the Detroit Auto Show in January. The van's second row captain's chairs can turn 180 degrees to face both the third row bench and a small table on which passengers can play games or eat or do homework. The table and swiveling seats are certainly attractive features that will probably get quite a few families looking at minivans again.

The second row seats can also be stopped halfway in their turn to face either of the two sliding rear doors, making rear-seat entry much easier for elderly passengers. Grandmother opens the door, swivels the seat to face her, sits down and swivels it to the front of the car. We see it as a bonus feature for parents of infants and toddlers, too. Swivel the seat halfway for super-easy child-seat access.

The center table, however, has its drawbacks. When removed, it and its pedestal conveniently stow beneath the center row seats. Removing the table ain't all fun and games, though. Dodge's people even had a little trouble getting the table top off of the metal pole. Maybe with practice it gets easier, but try it out yourself before taking one home. One other drawback to the Swivel 'N Go system is leg room. With the second-row seats turned backwards and the table installed, there's not really any good place to put your feet. Put four twitchy kids back there and a calm game of Go Fish can soon turn into a familiar match of "He Kicked Me!" But with only two rear passengers, those swiveled seats make great ottomans. Daddy could learn to like this.

The third row has a double personality, too. Open the rear hatch and use a series of numbered pulls on the seatbacks to fold the split bench into the floor. Pull them in another order, and the bench flips backwards for tailgate seating that's more comfortable than any bare-metal pickup truck bed.

All seats can be ordered covered in leather and, even with standard cloth, can be heated. The unheated cloth surfaces in our van looked like they'd be easy to keep clean and Dodge says they're stain and odor resistant, which all parents know is always good with kids. Rear passengers can also get optional rear climate controls and vents for each row.

But enough about tables and spinning seats – let's talk electronics. The Caravan's got that covered, too. There's an LCD screen for both sets of rear seats, and each can display different entertainment. The teenagers can sit in the way back and watch "High School Musical" while the toddlers can enjoy "Dora" on the other LCD thanks to dual DVD players in the dash, each with their own remote control. Through the magic of wireless headphones, Mom and Dad don't have to listen to any of it.

If the trip lasts longer than it takes for Dora to find whatever the heck she's looking for, two sets of A/V plugs let the little ones bring along their favorite video games. There's even an AC plug right there, so no transformer is needed. Mobile satellite television is also an option that our van didn't have.

Up front, parents have their own entertainment options. Our tester was equipped with a touchscreen satellite radio interface that also had the currently-fashionable in-dash digital storage. Put in a CD or plug in a USB device and the system rips the songs to build your personal in-car 20 gigabyte jukebox. The touch screen is one of the easiest we've seen, allowing listeners to not only tune the satellite stations by genre or by number, but also by seeking within genres or even groups of genres. Another cool feature sure to appeal to families is the ability to transfer photos into the system from USB devices like digital cameras or hard drives and then display them as either screen-saver-type slideshows or as the dash-screen's wallpaper.

Our van was equipped with the backup camera that engaged anytime reverse was chosen, but using it was worse than trying to watch football on one of those 6-inch TVs sold at drug stores. We could vaguely distinguish the outline of objects, but weren't sure if we were about to hit the curb or make a touchdown. Maybe the camera lens was dirty, or maybe it was aimed badly, but it wasn't all that much help in guiding our back-up operations. It would have helped us avoid toys, animals or kids in the way, but didn't do much for navigation. Oddly enough, our van's enjoyable touch-screen interface did not come with navigation, an option that costs an additional $1,500.

Other gadgets include a removable, cordless, rechargeable flashlight in the cargo area, power sliding doors and rear hatch, adjustable pedals and overhead LED reading lights for all three rows of seating. Multitudes of cup holders have rubber, dishwasher-safe liners and it seems no interior surface goes without some sort of storage bin – a huge bonus for our toy-loving family.

Caravan buyers can choose an optional 4.0L V6 combined witt the first ever 6-speed transmission in a minivan or the standard engine with which our tester was equipped, a 3.8L engine mated to a 6-speed auto. While it drove alright for a vehicle that weighs around 4,300 pounds, it's no tire-smoker, that's for sure. But if you're shopping minivans, you better come to terms with that already. It's a smooth rider, and will accelerate well enough to merge with highway traffic, but don't try to take on the Volvo V70 in the next lane.

The Inferno Red Grand Caravan SXT we drove through the hills of southern Georgia had a total sticker price of almost $33,000. Considering it can carry seven passengers comfortably and keep them all entertained for miles before the first squabble breaks out, that seems like a pretty good deal. But we need to spend more time with it to see exactly how well that engine does carrying more than a couple of adults and what kind of real-world fuel economy numbers it achieves. We're holding a place in the Autoblog Garage for one and will have a full review as soon as possible.

Chrysler provided the vehicle and SEAMO the location for testing. Autoblog does not accept travel or lodging from automakers when attending media events.

Photos Copyright ©2007 Chris Tutor / Weblogs, Inc.

Autoblog accepts vehicle loans from auto manufacturers with a tank of gas and sometimes insurance for the purpose of evaluation and editorial content. Like most of the auto news industry, we also sometimes accept travel, lodging and event access for vehicle drive and news coverage opportunities. Our opinions and criticism remain our own — we do not accept sponsored editorial.

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