Chrysler's 'Man Van' Is Like A Man Cave On Wheels

We take a spin with Ralph Gilles, designer of the Dodge Caravan R/T

Dads of the world, listen up: Chrysler feels your pain. They don't want you to feel all emasculated, driving around in a soft, fat minivan meant for girls.

They know you need a man cave on wheels to keep your masculinity in check. Something dark and fast, and maybe kind of blingy.

So that's why they're offering the Dodge Caravan R/T: Decked out inside in black, it comes with a 3.6 liter V6 engine, a set of 17-inch painted aluminum wheels, a performance suspension, and a 9-speaker premium soundsystem with subwoofers. They've replaced the woodgrain on the dashboard with brushed aluminum, put the brakes from the Dodge Viper on the vehicle, and lowered it a little.

Ralph Gilles, Chrysler's head designer, had to sell his sports car when his first baby was born 12 years ago. He and his wife bought a minivan, and he did what any self-respecting car designer would do: He customized it.

"I was astonished at how well you can make that thing handle," he said. The R/T version of the Caravan is designed to "appeal to a father that has responsibilities, but still has a sporty side deep down in his heart."

Minivan sales have dropped off a cliff in the past five years. They hit 1.1 million in 2005, and fell to just over 500,000 in 2010. With the economy suffering, car sales as a whole have been down dramatically in the past few years. But minivan sales are suffering from a lack of popularity. Automakers like General Motors and Ford dropped out of the market entirely a few years ago.

Minivans are simply unpopular with a lot of people, who don't love the fact that they need to trade in their cool cars for something more boxy and practical. But a lot of parents have found there is no substitute for the cargo room, sliding doors and fuel efficiency of the minivan.

Brad Powell, chief operating officer of DadLabs, a website dedicated to fathers, says minivans aren't the problem. They are functional, easy to get kids in and out of, and act as a gasoline-powered pack mule.

View Gallery: 2011 Dodge Grand Caravan R/T

"Minivans aren't real testosterone laden," he said. "It's kind of tough to go from the beefy sports car and truck to something a little milder ... Once you do, it makes life much easier."

Toyota has tried to play up on the minivan's inherent dorkiness with a line of commercials called "Swagger Wagon," in which a mom and dad love their minivan with unbridled passion.

Gilles hopes more men will embrace the minivan if they realize they can have more fun while driving one.

"I always had that in the back of my mind, that there has to be more guys like myself who want to have fun," he says. "A lot of moms would like it, too."

Powell says he thinks Dodge's man van could have appeal with some men. But no amount of souping up will overcome the fact that it's still a boxy vehicle designed to carry around a lot of kids.

"Ultimately, a minivan is a minivan," he said. "You can soup it up as much as you want, but it's still a minivan."

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