April 1, 2008
To pinch a bit of wisdom from Voltaire, that frizzy-haired Frenchy from long ago: If minivans didn't exist, it would be necessary to invent them. Seriously, judging by the portraits we've seen, the guy could have used the mother of all cream rinses.
But he's got a point. We mean: People have kids. Heck, we have kids. And kids need stuff. And we need to transport kids and their stuff. And there simply isn't a better way of doing that than in a minivan. We even proved it recently in a comparison involving a crossover, a minivan and an SUV.
So it was with an air of inevitability that upon the delivery of the newest of the Inside Line spawn at our house (a daughter, so that makes two now), we also took delivery of a loaded 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT — the newest version of the quintessential minivan.
Chrysler invented the modern minivan, so it should come as no surprise that the company would soldier on with passenger vans, even as the other U.S.-based automakers have given up on vans in favor of less stigmatized but also less practical crossover non-vans. Yes, we've spent years telling anyone who would listen that much of the usability of a van could be had in a more attractive, more fuel-efficient and all-around-cooler station wagon. But minivans will not be denied. Instead, we have surrendered to the remotely operated doors, the ability to strap kids into child safety seats without pulling a muscle, and the space to easily carry a double stroller with a wheelbase nearly as long as that of a Chevy Tahoe.
What We Bought
Chrysler has narrowed its minivan offerings with this newest generation. Gone is the short-wheelbase model. Turns out, people didn't really want their minivans to be, you know, mini. And all-wheel drive? Cancelled for lack of interest. That leaves us with either the Chrysler Town & Country minivan or the workaday Dodge Grand Caravan. We chose the Dodge because all of the meaningful features available on the luxury Town & Country are also available on the unpretentious Dodge.
And because minivans are really just big boxes full of gadgets, cupholders and tricky seats, we loaded our Dodge up with every single one of them that we could. Most of those items came in one huge package, enticingly named Customer Preferred Package 28N.
This $7,290 collection of goodies includes the newest wrinkle in clever minivan seats, Swivel 'n Go. With Swivel 'n Go, you can't fold the second-row captain's chairs into the floor as on the standard van, but you can spin them 180 degrees so they face the third row. This reduces the chances of a kid in the third row launching a surprise attack on a kid in the second row. It also comes with a stowable table on which your children can bone up on their Texas Hold-'Em poker skills.
Package 28N also brings heated front- and second-row seats, three-zone A/C, a dual-screen DVD entertainment system, a hard drive built into the audio system, power liftgate, ambient overhead lighting with a cool green tint, hands-free communication and 17-inch aluminum wheels. And with the manually operated second- and third-row sunshades, parents will never again have to buy those hideous suction-cup solar shades from Pep Boys.
Further we checked the box for the leather-upholstered power front seats ($1,130), navigation system ($1,300), trailer towing package ($600), power-folding third-row seat ($595) and power sunroof ($895).
To pull around all of these hefty items we opted for the 251-horsepower 4.0-liter SOHC V6, which is mated to a six-speed transaxle. The other options are the base 175-horse 3.3-liter V6, which comes with a four-speed auto. No thanks. One step up gets you a 197-hp 3.8-liter V6. Again, no thanks. A big ol' minivan with less than 200 hp is simply something to which we refuse to subject ourselves. The 4.0-liter costs an extra $630 and comes with what Dodge calls a "Sport Handling Package."
All of this, plus the $225 Inferno Red paint job and $730 destination charge, brings our SXT up from a base price of $26,805 to $40,200. It's not cheap, but we're ready to go toe to toe with any Honda Odyssey in our neighborhood — at least in terms of gee-whiz items.
Why We Bought It
We got the 2008 Dodge Caravan for the same reason that you might get one: utility, and hold the sport. Can a dowdy minivan win over those trained to regard such a thing with the same passion as they do a washing machine? Will a minivan's conveniences outweigh the stigma of driving it? How much will the (so-far miserable) fuel economy improve once the engine is broken in? Will we ever use the removable table? How many songs from The Wiggles can we fit on a 20-gigabyte hard drive? And what variety of gunk will accumulate in the in-floor storage containers?
To give the 2008 Dodge Caravan an extra-tough life, we've decided to begin its stay with us on the abusive streets of Detroit — the world's capital of freezing rain and chuckholes. If it survives, we'll send it out to the Santa Monica mothership to live out the remainder of its year in the benign climate of Southern California.
So join us on our yearlong automotive assignation. We've now got plenty of room.
Current Odometer: 980
Best Fuel Economy: 14.8 mpg
Worst Fuel Economy: 14.2 mpg
Average Fuel Economy (over the life of the vehicle): 14.5 mpg
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.