What's New for 1997
Traction control is a new option, so long as you get LE or ES trim, and an enhanced accident response system will automatically unlock the doors and illuminate the interior when an airbag deploys. Appearance and equipment refinements complete the modest changes to this best-in-class minivan.
If there is a perfect family vehicle in existence, it is the Dodge Caravan. What's the data say? The average American has two kids and spends a little more than $20,000 on a new car or truck. The Dodge Caravan fits into this scenario better than Velveeta in a grilled cheese sandwich.
We like the Caravan SE, because it is the most flexible trim level and upgrades seating positions from five to seven. You can go with the bare-bones $20,000 edition, or add luxury items like remote keyless entry, CD player with premium sound, and a security alarm. A third way to spec an SE model is with a Sport Option Package, which includes a firmer suspension, alloy wheels, fog lights, and monochromatic trim. Oddly, the 3.8-liter V6 engine cannot be purchased on an SE model, which means the most sport your Sport can attain uses the 158 horsepower churned out by the 3.3-liter V6 that comes with the package. Still, a Caravan Sport is the raciest minivan you can buy, short of popping an extra four grand for the ES model and its 3.8-liter V6.
Step up to LE and ES trim levels, and you buy your ticket to a stronger engine, traction control, trip computer, snazzy trim, and leather seating. Just for fun, let's see what a loaded ES runs...Whoa! $30,000 for a packed Caravan ES! Not much value here, folks. Stick with the SE.
Caravan offers several thoughtful details, but the most important are the easy-out rolling seats and the innovative driver-side sliding door--a feature that makes so much sense, it's amazing that no one tried this before. Easy-out seats are a snap to release and remove, though lifting the seat from the rear of the van may still require two sets of biceps. Optional on base and SE, and standard on LE and ES, the driver's side sliding door offers the convenience of loading kids and cargo from either side of the Caravan. Also intriguing is the windshield-wiper de-icer, which comes standard on the LE and ES.
Cupholders not only are numerous, they "ratchet down" to a smaller size. Except for an overabundance of climate controls, and an oddly-shaped column gearshift, the attractively curved dashboard is a pleasure to consult. Seats are soft but reasonably supportive, with moderate side bolstering.
Light steering response gives the Caravan an undeniably car-like feel, with an exceptionally smooth ride. Highly maneuverable and easy to control, the minivan delivers just a hint that you could exceed its capabilities, as when rounding a sharp curve. A 150-horsepower 16-valve dual-cam four serves as the base engine, with a 3.0-, 3.3-, or 3.8-liter V6 optional. The Sport and ES Caravans feature specially tuned shocks and springs.
New for 1997 is the aforementioned traction control system for LE and ES models, and an enhanced accident response system that will automatically unlock the doors and illuminate the interior when an airbag deploys. Other new stuff includes fresh paint colors, new wheel covers for base models, enhanced interior quietness, and liftgate flood lamps. The basic cassette stereo sports refinement, and new software helps the transmission shift more smoothly.
Chrysler notes that the Caravan is 3.6 inches shorter than a Mercury Villager and nearly 15 inches shorter than a Ford Windstar, but offers more cargo space than either rival. The Caravan doesn't feel nearly so massive from the driver's seat, which is one of its many charms. Definitely investigate the Dodge Caravan if a smaller minivan meets your needs.