Among the most famous advertising slogans of all time is the Avis classic: "We try harder." Conceived of in the early '60s, when Avis was the number two rental car company behind Hertz, the tagline made a virtue out of second place. With its mid-lifecycle refresh of its minivan line, including both the Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country, Chrysler is making a similar case.
But wait a minute here, isn't Chrysler the long-time industry leader in minivans? Well, that depends. The Honda Odyssey took the minivan sales crown in 2008 and 2009, while the Town & Country triumphed last year. Honda would contend that's only because its rival sells so many minivans to fleets, while Chrysler might point out that if you add sales of its nearly identical Grand Caravan to the numbers, it's the minivan leader by a Reagan-esque landslide.
No matter which side of this argument you're inclined to believe, the fact remains that Chrysler no longer has a lock on minivan mindshare. In fact, among a certain slice of the status-conscious, import-loving populace, Chrysler minivans don't even rate second – more like a distant third or even fourth, behind the Odyssey, the recently redesigned Toyota Sienna and the brand-new Nissan Quest.
Chrysler finally seems to have adjusted to this reality, making some major upgrades to its minivan lineup for 2011, including a complete overhaul of the engine, suspension and interior. After a week behind the wheel, we can enthusiastically endorse the new engine and suspension, and we liked the new interior a lot. The end result might not be quite as polished as the all-new models from its three main competitors, but the Grand Caravan has been changed dramatically since its 2007 debut, receiving as close to a complete overhaul as you'll see in this business without starting from scratch.
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Photos copyright ©2011 Drew Phillips / AOL
The Grand Caravan's reasonable price only makes it more inviting. To further differentiate the Dodge and Chrysler models, Grand Caravan trim levels have been revamped for 2011, dumping the familiar and long-running SE and SXT models in favor of four new designations: Express ($24,995), Mainstreet ($25,995), Crew ($28,695), and a forthcoming R/T ($30,595).
The Express is your basic, no-frills minivan, with a much-restricted options list, while the Mainstreet adds a few upgrades like alloy wheels and allows you to order more expensive optional equipment. The Crew (the model we tested) is the so-called "well-equipped" version configured much like the old SXT model, with power sliding doors and automatic climate control, among other options. The R/T "man van" is slated to hit the market this spring, and will feature a full leather interior, a higher-grade sound system and a performance-tuned suspension.
The Grand Caravan does see some cosmetic "enhancements" for 2011, with a new front fascia incorporating an updated Dodge cross-hair grille and different headlights, as well as a new rear fascia and hatch with LED taillamps. This is the sort of mundane stuff that usually accompanies a refresh, and if Chrysler had stopped there, we would have been entirely unimpressed. Thankfully, it didn't.
Inside, the first thing you'll notice is that most of the old Grand Caravan's hard plastic interior parts have been almost entirely excised and replaced by much nicer, softer stuff. The transformation is perhaps more dramatic than the one achieved by the powertrain and handling improvements, especially considering what most minivan buyers care about. Chrysler probably could have gotten away with a simple substitution of materials, but it also completely redesigned the instrument panel and center console. The new look is stylish, with a scheme seemingly inspired by the Volkswagen Routan, the minivan Chrysler builds for the German automaker. Gauges in the Grand Caravan now glow blue and red (a VW hallmark), and the satin metallic trim looks like it was plucked from a German luxury car.
Chrysler made some changes in the Grand Caravan's seating as well, wrapping them in a new fabric and enlarging the second-row "Stow 'n Go" seats that fold into the floor. These are standard across all trim levels, but they're still not as comfortable as the removable second-row seats found in other minivans, particularly their strange rubbery armrests. Still, there are plenty of customers who appreciate their convenience, which has been improved with a single-button collapse mechanism.
The one glaring weakness of the Grand Caravan's cabin is an unfortunate holdover from the old model: Chrysler's Uconnect Media Center, the infotainment system that bundles navigation and audio/video. The problems start with the dinky 6.5-inch front display and continue from there: A cluttered user interface, counterintuitive controls, and a Garmin-branded navigation system bundled into this package that is among the worst we've tried in any new vehicle. We'll admit that once you figure it out, Uconnect is functional and capable of keeping the family entertained, but dads won't be dragging their buddies out of the man cave to show off this tech.
They will, however, be able to proudly pop the hood. Chrysler's extensive hardware upgrades start with a new engine, a 3.6-liter "Pentastar" V6. That's right, the venerable 3.3- and 3.8-liter V6 engines that dated back to the '90s are history, as is the newer 4.0-liter V6 Chrysler had offered for the past three model years. They've all been replaced by one modern, powerful, all-aluminum, dual-overhead-cam engine mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. Chrysler can claim bragging rights that its V6 offers class-leading horsepower and torque: 283 horsepower and 260 lb-ft, respectively.
Chrysler should boast too, as this is a great engine. But even though it makes the Grand Caravan feel brawny, it's not quite in the same league as Honda's 250-hp V6, which also uses cylinder deactivation to boost fuel economy. The Grand Caravan doesn't have this technology, but it does feature a new "econ" button on the dashboard to change the transmission shift schedule in an attempt to improve fuel economy. We couldn't really tell any difference between driving with the button depressed or not. Chrysler told us that using the button should be good for an extra mile per gallon, but it seems like in real world driving, it would lead us to just press the gas pedal harder.
Regardless, the Grand Caravan still manages a combined 20 miles per gallon in EPA testing, the same as the V6 version of Toyota's Sienna, but behind the Odyssey's 21 or 22 mpg's (depending on whether the Honda has a five- or six-speed transmission). Of particular note is that Chrysler recommends midgrade unleaded, though using regular unleaded gasoline is also allowed.
Where Detroit outdoes its Japanese foes is in the ride and handling department, surprisingly enough. Last year's Chrysler minivans floated along in a way that kept lattes and juice boxes upright but could make even the most disciplined driver feel distracted. The redesigned Grand Caravan, however, delivers a firmer, yet still comfortable ride, with a carlike steering feel that's a pleasure to find in this most unlikely of segments. These improvements have been accomplished by lowering the Grand Caravan's ride height by about half an inch, revising the shock and spring tuning and some suspension bushings, and switching to a quicker hydraulic power steering rack. Given that Honda's new Odyssey has gone in the opposite direction, driving bigger and less like a car than it used to, this is a crucial competitive advantage for the Grand Caravan.
If there's anything untoward in the Grand Caravan's handling, it would be an occasional bout of torque steer, one of the downsides to routing all that power through the front wheels. But the Grand Caravan's body motions are well controlled while cornering, and despite its 4,500-pound curb weight, there's no crashing over bumps or feeling of top-heaviness. The steering is taut and responsive, and the Grand Caravan feels firmly planted at all times.
Chrysler would like to see its revamped minivans planted firmly atop the sales charts, and the reworked 2011 Dodge Grand Caravan is certainly worthy of that fight. But for all the effectiveness of these upgrades, Chrysler is still saddled with an older design than its competitors, and in some areas that dated base shows through. Close inspection reveals a few of those hard plastic parts from the old Grand Caravan still surfacing, particularly on the headliner and as you move to the rear of the passenger compartment.
The styling is what it is, and while it may be preferable to those who reject the new Odyssey as the product of crazed designers, the bottom line is that the market is full of fresh takes on the minivan idiom. But Chrysler is sticking to its traditional minivan values – the very ones that made it the industry leader, a position it's clearly trying very hard to convince the world that it still owns.
Photos copyright ©2011 Drew Phillips / AOL