Brian Moody, Road Test Editor
If you don't like the minivan, you just need to get over yourself. Today's minivan is as much a part of the American family as sibling rivalry and Pop-Tarts. It's practical, versatile and it's what your family wants. Plus, people buy them, just like Pop-Tarts.
Despite swirling rumors of the minivan segment collapsing under the threat of crossover utilities, one in every 15 new vehicles sold in the U.S. is a minivan and about 40 percent of these vans are sold by Chrysler and Dodge. Americans have consistently purchased about 1 million minivans each year since 1993.
Although both Ford and General Motors simply aren't going to build minivans anymore, Chrysler has no intention of walking away from the segment it created almost 25 years ago.
You may have seen pictures of the new van. You may have winced in horror. The truth is, both the 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan and 2008 Chrysler Town & Country are much better-looking up close. Dave Smith, manager of vehicle synthesis for the Chrysler Group, says, "The styling change from the old jellybean shape to the current, more chiseled look is intended to translate the low-roof look of the Dodge Magnum and Chrysler 300 into a minivan."
Two Grand Caravan trim levels are offered: base SE and midlevel SXT. The Chrysler Town & Country has all the same available features as the Caravan but adds an upscale, top-of-the-line Limited version that includes many of the SXT's options as standard equipment.
Every version of the new minivan comes with more standard safety features than the previous version, regardless of trim level. Side curtain airbags for all three rows, stability control and traction control are all standard. Safety options include an integrated child-booster seat, rear parking sensors and a rear parking camera.
The Grand Caravan SE comes standard with a flex-fuel (gasoline or an E85 blend), 175-horsepower 3.3-liter V6. It's distinguished by a decent amount of standard comfort features like keyless entry (Honey, are the keys in the diaper bag?), fold-away outside mirrors (if we park the bicycles over there, can we still get the van in the garage, you think?) and a flip-down kiddie mirror (Nicholas, stop that right now!).
The Grand Caravan SXT adds a 197-hp 3.8-liter V6, power driver seat and pedals, power outside mirrors and rear air-conditioning. (Dodge expects most people will opt for this version of the Caravan.) The SXT also has more available options than the SE. For example, there's a new 251-hp, all-aluminum 4.0-liter V6. The 3.8- and 4.0-liter V6s are hooked up to a new six-speed automatic transmission, while the 3.3-liter V6 gets a four-speed.
Overall, the new minivan has been stretched 2.5 inches in length, and its wheelbase is 1.9 inches longer. The body structure is more rigid, and the suspension has been recalibrated for better handling.
Take the Kids Tailgating This Fall
Interior storage space is up significantly. With no fewer than 13 cupholders and various mesh nets and cubbies, there's a place for every juice box and ground-up bag of Froot Loops you can pack.
The third-row seat splits 60/40 and folds flat into the floor. Almost every minivan has this, but the Grand Caravan offers an optional power-folding seat with one-touch operation. No other minivan has this feature.
The Grand Caravan's standard Stow 'n Go seats carry over from the previous minivan, although Dodge has added a few twists that make overall function even more family-friendly. Meanwhile, the new, optional Swivel 'n Go system lets you turn the second-row seats 180 degrees so they face the rear of the car. In this configuration, you can set up a small table that stows out of sight when not in use and create your own self-contained living area.
On the way home from our test-drive to Sea World, the real usefulness of Swivel 'n Go quickly became obvious. It's late, and Mommy, Daddy and the 5-year-old are hungry, while the toddler is sleeping like, well, like a baby. As any parent knows, if you wake the toddler, nothing good will come of it. The solution is drive-through In-N-Out burger. We then park and eat with both seats turned around and that special table installed while the toddler continues to dream of blankies and Barney. As an added bonus, the kid who's not sleeping thinks it's "so cool" that we get to eat in the car and he can continue to watch his Justice League DVD.
These swiveling seats aren't perfect, though. In order to swivel and provide seatbelt protection, each seat has an integrated seatbelt, something Chrysler learned from building convertibles. The problem is that the height of the shoulder belt retractor is not adjustable, so the belt rides too high on kids who require a booster seat. Parents will want to make sure they have a booster seat with a backrest, not just a seat bottom.
The real plus to Swivel 'n Go is that the seats are a little larger and more comfortable than the Stow 'n Go seats.
Now Showing in the Grand Caravan Cineplex
No other minivan offers an in-car entertainment system as elaborate as that of the Grand Caravan. Opt for Entertainment Group 1 and you'll get a second-row DVD player with remote, headphones, a one-year subscription to Sirius Satellite Radio and a MyGIG hard-drive-based audio system. Navigation is a separate option. Check a few more boxes on the options sheet and you can get the van outfitted with a third-row video screen and video input jacks.
This means you can play video games or watch a movie in the third row and watch a different movie or listen to music in the second row, while the front passengers listen to Sirius radio or their own CDs. Expect to pay about $2,300 for all these optional features.
Sirius Backseat TV adds another level of entertainment, and it's exclusive to the Dodge and Chrysler minivans for now. Backseat TV has three channels of programming: Cartoon Network, Disney Channel and Nickelodeon.
Quicker and Quieter
Thankfully, Chrysler engineers worked overtime to make the Grand Caravan equally competent on the road. In our last minivan comparison test the Chrysler van finished dead last. If we were to hold this test with the updated 2008 version, we suspect the results would be much different.
Thanks to the new six-speed automatic transmission and a new optional V6, the Grand Caravan actually feels light on its feet, with relatively brisk acceleration. With 259 pound-feet of torque from the 4.0-liter V6, there's more than enough power for getting up to highway speed, plus the six-speed transmission results in less cycling between gears.
Ride quality and interior noise levels have also been improved. Chris Alianz, Chrysler's chief minivan engineer, said, "We want the Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country to be quieter than the competition; one way we accomplished this is by using thicker glass and isolating the front suspension component from the body."
The improvement is instantly noticeable. The cabin remains quiet and conversation levels never have to raise much above normal, even at highway speeds.
Looking for a Bargain?
Base price for a 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan SE is just over $22,000, including destination. This MSRP is $1,950 lower than the previous model but includes more features.
The story is much the same for the nicely equipped 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT, which carries a sticker price of $27,535. That's about $1,000 less than the outgoing SXT, and with more features. A fully loaded Grand Caravan can easily hit nearly $40,000, and that's right in line with competitors from Honda, Nissan and Toyota. A fully loaded 2008 Chrysler Town & Country will hit $40,000.
If you have a family and looking cool is still one of your top criteria, maybe you need therapy. When you're done, consider getting a minivan. That's when the 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan with its 4.0-liter V6, six-speed transmission, improved safety features and impressive interior possibilities will get your respect.
Anyone with crushed Froot Loops stuck to the bottom of his shoes has no business thinking about what's cool anyway.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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