2019 Dodge Grand Caravan- Long Live, the Minivan King

Throughout the pages of automotive history, there’s a handful of icons that forever changed the driving landscape and society. The Ford Model T, for example, was the first vehicle that made car ownership obtainable for the masses; not just the elite. The Pontiac GTO spawned the muscle car craze over 50 years ago that continues to this day. The Toyota Prius became the first hybrid that was a household name and enlightened the public that hybrids were practical and not just science experiments. But what about the lowly minivan? We take them for granted today as the go-to, soul-sucking choice for parents who have given up on life. But at one time they were nothing short of revolutionary. The Dodge Caravan, when introduced in 1984, was a breakthrough in packaging and kickstarted the minivan craze. Now that the market and Caravan have matured over the years, let’s see how the Granddaddy of minivans stacks up.

One of your first questions may be “they still build the Caravan!?” You can be forgiven for the confusion. Like a zombie from the “The Walking Dead”, the Caravan keeps returning year-after-year despite this version debuting in 2008. Originally, Chrysler had intended for the Caravan to be killed off after 2017 when the next generation of its minivans, namely the Chrysler Pacifica, was introduced. Dodge’s new strategy was to strictly focus on performance cars after Ram split off as its own truck brand. The faithful Caravan doesn’t fit the sporty Dodge portfolio anymore. But not so fast, Chrysler! The Caravan, despite this generation being 11 years old, remains the best selling minivan in North America by a wide margin. It handily outsells the competition from Honda, Toyota, Kia, and even the Pacifica, with over 150,000 units finding homes in 2018 alone. The Caravan’s low price and name recognition are irresistible to buyers. and the sales are too good for Chrysler to walk away from. Chrysler even caved and threw the Caravan a birthday party, in the form of a 35th anniversary special edition. Whether the Caravan will hit middle age remains to be seen.

The first Caravan was the brainchild of CEO Lee Iacocca and was based on the mediocre Chrysler K-Car platform. Unlike traditional vans of the time, the Caravan (and its sister car, the Plymouth Voyager) was front-wheel drive allowing for better interior packaging, compact enough to fit in the traditional home garage, and was christened the “magic wagon” by Chrysler marketing. The minivans were an immediate hit and saved Chrysler from certain bankruptcy. The manufacturer has been defensive of holding the minivan title ever since.

Compared to the original minivan, this Grand Caravan is more than 27 inches longer, nine inches wider, and slams the scales with about 1,300 pounds more heft. “Mini” may not be the term anymore.

Aside from the cool factor, minivans never lose one thing; practicality. The Caravan, along with the Pacifica, remain the most flexible and versatile on the market. This Caravan sat seven, with two captain chairs in the second row and a bench seat in the third. With the third row up and all seats in place, there is still 31.1 cubic feet of usable space thanks to a deeply recessed cargo bay. Fold all of the seats down in both rows, and that volume increases to a mighty 140.3 cubic feet. Those numbers are average for the minivan class, but getting all of the seats out of the way is pure genious.

The star of the show is Chrysler’s innovative “Stow N’ Go” seating. The concept is simple; both the second and third row seats flip and fold away under the floor to provide enough space to load a couch, or anything else you want in the back of a van. In the past, hefty minivan seats needed to be unbolted with tools and gracelessly removed; causing scraped knuckles and visits to the chiropractor. Stow N’ Go debuted back in 2005 and rumour was that Chrysler engineers used Erector Sets to visualise the complex design and allow space for the exhaust systems and spare tyre. Toyota and Honda still require awkward latches and releases to remove their seats, and the Kia Sedona’s second row can’t be removed at all. The question of where to house those seats while they’re removed was always an issue.

With the Caravan, there’s no need for heavy lifting or planning ahead. The Stow N’ Go concept is quite simple and innovative. The floorboard is comprised of flaps that fold away to reveal secret, underfloor storage compartments. The second row seats, as hinted by the namesake, fold and stow easily into the compartments. The flaps then return to their original positions and *voila!* reveal a flat cargo floor. For the uninitiated, the system is a little confusing with the placement of the flaps and raising them does require the front seats to be moved forward . The Pacifica has a similar setup, yet includes dedicated pillar-mounted controls to move the front seats out of the way in preparation for the magic. The Caravan’s front seats do need to be manually moved out of the way. But the whole process is easy to master after a few attempts and becomes second nature.

The third row seat is more conventional and similar to other minivan designs. The seatbacks flip forward, and the entire assembly tumbles backward into the deep cargo bay. Tethers and latches on the third row bench are numbered with instructions, and the whole procedure can be done with one hand.

After some practice runs, I timed myself being able fold all five seats out of the way and convert the Caravan into a cargo hauler in 1 minute and 4 seconds. No tools were required, and my chiropractor is feeling neglected.

With all seven seats in place, the Caravan is the brilliant people mover that it was intended to be. The captain’s chairs in the second row each have dual armrests, can slide rearward and also recline. There is an abundance of legroom and headroom and the sliding door opens wide for easy entry and exit.

Unlike most crossovers and other minivans, the third row is also a pleasant place to be. The bench seat is nicely contoured and there is still sufficient space for two adults and a child in-between. The seatback does recline for added comfort. The space between the wheelwells is narrow enough that squeezing in three adults is possible, but they may not to be talking terms by the end of the road trip.

Getting to the third row does not require any acrobatics. The second row seats flip and roll out of the way with the release of a lever, revealing a wide aperture to walk through and the step-in height is natural. The back side windows also pop open for ventilation; not always a guarantee but always appreciated on a minivan, The second row windows do roll all the way down, which some of our younger back seat riders were excited by. Both the sliding doors and liftgate are power-operated and worked seamlessly requiring little effort and were efficient in operation.

Up front, the seats are nicely bolstered and proved to be supportive on long trips. All of the seating surfaces in the cabin are finished tastefully with black leather and upscale suede insets. As with the other two rows, headroom is generous, but taller front passengers may find their knees pressed into the dash. With the interior packaging, it seems that there was an emphasis on the rear quarters and front legroom was an afterthought. The view from the driver’s cockpit is high and commanding, much like an SUV. Thanks to a generous glass area, thin pillars, and large, squared mirrors, visibility is nearly unobstructed in all directions.

To the front of the driver are two chrome-rimmed deep binnacles housing the instruments. All of the necessary information is easy to read at a glance, and the gauges have a simplistic, almost VW-like, approach with clear, no-nonsense fonts and pleasing, sporty red accents. The centre info display does give away the Caravan’s age. It’s a small screen and only one snippet of driving info can be displayed at a time in a pixelised text. Newer LCD screens can display multiple stats at a time in a crisper format.

The steering wheel will be very familiar to any one who has driven a Chrysler product in the last decade. Cruise control and Bluetooth buttons fall right at hand and I always love Dodge’s toggle switches hidden behind the steering wheel spokes for radio volume and tuning. The three spoke steering wheel feels natural and looks beefy, considering the Caravan’s target audience. Also out-of-place is the dash mounted shifter that has a manumatic mode. The location logically opens up more space. But in manual mode, it’s an unnaturally long reach to shift gears and seems gimmicky on a minivan.

As with the driver info display, the infotainment system gives away the Caravan’s senility. I am a huge fan of UConnect, Chrysler’s multimedia software and touchscreen system, and have praised it on a variety of Rams, Jeeps, and Chryslers for being responsive, attractive, and intuitive. The Caravan’s is the original 1.0 version (codenamed 430N) that debuted back in 2007. It holds its own and is not bad, but the graphics are dull and scanning through menus can be cumbersome compared to the updated version. Setting up Bluetooth is by voice command only, and is a maddening process. The system didn’t comprehend my Australian accent. It took some patience, several attempts, and a horrible attempt at an American (or maybe Cannuck) dialect for this Canadian-built van to set up a phone connection. Basic radio operation is straightforward enough with physical knobs and an easily accessible USB port, but there are better ways.

The rest of the interior is free of any ergonomic snafus. The ventilation controls are simple dials and the switches for windows, mirrors, and lights are all logical. Storage space is abundant with a deep centre console, generous door bins that are backlit with ambient LED lights, a floor-mounted, under-dash bin, dual glove boxes equipped with grippy rubber mats, and the second row is treated to a massive pull-out tray that runs the length of the two front seats. There’s no shortage of places to store toys and gear, plus each underfloor compartment offers 12 cubic feet of volume; about the space of an airline approved carry-on bag.

Interior quality is a mismatch of textures and materials. The dash top is a hard, grainy plastic that echoes some of Chrysler’s darkest days in the mid 2000’s. It’s devoid of any soul or warmth, and with its sharp edges, feels like it was carved by an axe. Glossy black piano insets break up the bleakness, as do chrome strips around the ventilation controls. The interior did go through a needed refresh in 2011 that softened the styling, but the basic bones are still here. The sunvisors return back to their original positions with a “snap” that is reminiscent of a chicken bone breaking and are a reminder that the Caravan isn’t the benchmark of quality. However, the door panels contradict the dash’s workmanship. They boast opulent stitching, soft touch materials, and tactile window controls. The seats, as aforementioned, have a tasteful leather and suede combination that is almost too classy for unappreciative children to be sitting in.

Noise within the cabin is well subdued. Engine noise is kept to a minimum in most conditions. Under hard acceleration, the motor does emit a rugged growl that finds its way through the firewall. Road and wind noise are about normal for a family hauler and not intrusive.

Despite the dowdy image that the Caravan carries, it is a joy to drive. There is one single engine offered on any Caravan, regardless of trim; the 3.6 litre, Pentastar V6. It’s is a proven motor offered since 2011 that has trickled its way into many Chrysler products including the 300, Charger, Wrangler, Grand Cherokee, and, of course, the Pacifica. Dodge was wise to drive down development costs by offering one sole powertrain, as this generation Caravan was originally offered with three engines in an assortment of packages that confused customers. The 3.6 litre is a modern all-aluminum unit with dual overhead cams and 24 valves. Output is down slightly from other Chryslers in an effort to shoehorn the 3.6 litre into the Caravan’s smaller engine bay but still provides a healthy 283 horsepower. The engine proved itself to be robust and gutsy in the Caravan. Acceleration times were about average for the class, but the van effortlessly took on steep grades and freeway merges with ease. Not once did it feel out of breath. At any speed, it came across as willing and eager to go faster. The 3.6 claims to be flex fuel and can burn E85 ethanol as well, but we never tested that.

Helping with the engine’s performance is a smart six-speed automatic, codenamed 62TE. It exhibits well-spaced gear ratios and smooth shifts in any environment. Although not the most advanced unit, it is proof that more gears does not always equate to a better transmission. Compared to the recent tests with the nine-speed unit in the Jeep Renegade and eight speed automatic in the Hyundai Santa Fe, the Caravan’s drivetrain was quick, decisive, and seamless with its shifts. It is the perfect companion to the potent engine. For hauling and towing duties in extreme conditions, Dodge includes a transmission oil cooler standard to prevent overheating.

Steering and handling were also average for the minivan class. Completely competent, but not thrilling. Steering effort was featherly light which didn’t inspire driver confidence on twisty roads, but was perfect for the Caravan’s natural habitat hauling kids and gear around suburban car parks. Parking maneuvers were a breeze thanks to the effortless steering feedback and usable turning circle.

The same goes for handling prowlness. Around town it does the job without drama. But push the Caravan around a sharp corner and understeer kicks in rapidly and the tyres quickly lose grip making the van skittish. Admittedly, we took the Caravan beyond what it’s designed to do and how most owners intend on driving. On the open highway and driven sanely, the van was stable on sweeping curves with no body lean and proved itself to be responsive in an unexpected emergency maneuver when another car from the adjacent lane decided to “come on over”. The Caravan performed admirably when having to swerve into the service lane. The results may not have been as good in some other tall vehicles.

The ride was another strong point, and felt European in a firm, but still absorbant fashion. With a full load of passengers onboard, the ride remained essentially unchanged and was still comfortable. The torsion beam rear setup was a wise choice for heavier loads.

Underneath the Caravan is the spare tyre, which is a typical arrangement for most vans. But it’s not at the traditional location adjacent to the rear suspension. To allow room for the Stow N’ Go packaging, Dodge moved the spare to the centre of vehicle underneath the front seats. In perhaps the strangest setup ever for accessing a spare tyre, the crank to lower the tyre is located below a rubber mat in the centre console cupholder. The jack and tools are located in the traditional spot in a storage bin in the trunk. Bizarre? Yes. Effective and clever? Absolutely! Those Erector sets paid off.

An oddity worth mentioning that gives away the Caravan’s age are two radio antennas. One is the old-school mast antenna attached to the front fender, much like the ones used since the 1950’s, but there is also the satellite radio “shark fin” antenna on the roof. As to why Dodge didn’t integrate both is a mystery, but if car antennas are your thing, then you’ll have double the fun in the Caravan.

Styling a distinctive two-box shaped minivan is a challenge. The Caravan’s lead designer was Ralph Gilles, who is known for some masculine products such as the Dodge Challenger and Chrysler 300. Those beefed-up designs translate over to the Caravan. Compared to its competition, including the stablemate Pacifica, the Caravan did away with feminine curves. It has a more chiseled, masculine, square-edged style and sports pronounced wheel arches and Dodge’s corporate “crosshair grille” lifted from the intimidating Charger. Dodge even promoted the Caravan, several years ago, as “The Man Van” to break away from the dull image and attract more male buyers. But a minivan is still a minivan, and despite the aggressive touches, there’s no getting away that form follows function. The Caravan is such a common sight on North American roads that it’ll unlikely turn any heads and is invisible, even in the attractive Indigo Blue paint of our tester.

The EPA rates the Grand Caravan at covering 17 miles per gallon in the city, and earning 25mpg on the highway. We scored slightly above that, with a pinnacle of 30mpg during a 200 mile freeway run, and an average of about 24mpg in a mix of straight stretches, mountains, and city over 600 miles.

Our Caravan only had 1,300 miles at the time of testing. Despite some of the earlier workmanship grumbles, everything held together well. There were no loose pieces or rattles. Mechanically, the powertrain didn’t have any problems either. The Caravan, at least as an almost-new vehicle, came across as being solidly constructed.

Prices for the Grand Caravan in base SE start at $26,790. For that cost, the standard equipment includes 17-inch steel wheels, heated mirrors, tri-zone climate control (with rear air-conditioning), rearview camera, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, a conversation mirror, a second-row bench seat, auto-dimming rearview mirror, a 6.5-inch touchscreen, and a six-speaker audio system with a CD player and an auxiliary audio jack. Our tester was the high-end SXT trim that increases the price of entry to $32,290 and adds chrome exterior trim, roof rails, power-sliding rear doors, a power liftgate, a larger floor console, dual-zone air conditioning, leather upholstery with suede inserts, and an eight-way power driver seat (with two-way power lumbar adjustment). Add destination and the final tally on our Caravan was $33,785. That may sound like a lot, and it is. But keep in mind that this top-of-the-line Caravan maxes out in price where the base Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey start. Kia’s less practical Sedona’s pricing is more aligned with the Caravan. Worth noting is that Dodge is constantly motivated to move Caravans and is offering $4,000 off these prices at the time of writing.

So it’s not the flashiest. Nor the newest. Or the most refined. But there’s a purpose for the Caravan in this world, even if Chrysler may not have known it. A lot of minivans are inching toward the $50k range. That’s a lot to splurge on a vehicle that will be neglected and abused by kids. The idea of spending thousands, sometimes over ten thousand dollars less, on an equally competent hauler is too tempting to resist for young families and value shoppers. Plus the Caravan remains among the head of the class where it really counts in the minivan realm; practicality. The Caravan can be likened to a buffet; sure, some of the flavours are a bit off, but it’s fulfilling, a bit of fun, and excellent value. The Caravan has a place in history as well as the current automotive landscape. It’s easy to pick on its age, yet it does its intended job flawlessly and deserves 3.5/5.0 boomerangs.

The Dodge Caravan revolutionised in 1996 by introducing dual sliding doors
It’s not usually a compliment for anyone, but the chunkiness on the Caravan looks good.
Will 2019 be the twilight of the Caravan’s life?
It’s the classic two-box minivan shape
The blockish rear end did away with the typical minivan soft curves.
The Indigo Blue on our Caravan looked great in any light
The sporty Dodge crosshair grill is prominent
The flared wheelarches make themselves known under certain light
The Caravan is perfect for a Sunday drive
Many Caravans will find themselves hauling families to the beach
The most popular and original minivan in America? It doesn’t get more patriotic
Clean, unfussy lines echo a simpler time
The interior is an example of simplicity, aside from the odd dash-mounted shifter.
Storage abounds with dual gloveboxes and deep door bins
Middle row passengers won’t miss out on the storage action
Thanks to expansive glass and thin pillars, visibility is great
With Stow N’ Go, it’s possible to convert the Caravan into a cargo van within two minutes. Excuse the mess left behind by prior renters.

One Response

  1. Many haters of the Dodge Caravan all over the internet, but this review isn’t all that negative, You gave it a just review. I rode in a ’19 Caravan just the other day as a JUNO customer and I must admit I was impressed with both its ride quality and its look. If only Dodge added a sunroof option to the top of the line Caravan it would be a winner, speaking for myself, and I would definitely consider purchasing it. Peace!

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