Posted: September 20, 2011

Executive wheels: A minivan that needs a new plan

Imported from Detroit with a lot of city noise

Jeff Rundles

2012 DODGE GRAND CARAVAN

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News over the past couple of years that the American automobile companies - General Motors, Ford and Chrysler - are rebounding is to me welcome news. I grew up in Car Country, Michigan, and I truly believe the American auto industry is an extremely important part of our economy and society.

I'm also a realist: there were reasons the American makes fell on hard times, and in the end it had nothing to do with American labor being uncompetitive, or pension and medical expenses being out of line, as the companies' executives have long maintained. It was the cars they produced from the early 1970s to, really, fairly recently. Bad cars.

I have said on more than one occasion that if the Americans had simply produced the Toyota Corolla or Camry, or the Honda Accord, instead of the Ford Taurus or the Chevy Corsica, none of this would ever have happened.

So there are now some exciting things coming out of Detroit - "Imported from Detroit," as Chrysler has put it recently. Cadillac from GM is a shining example of excellence, and from what I have seen both GM and Ford have a slew of very appealing and desirable vehicles rolling off the line.

Chrysler is the enigma. Probably the company that came the closest to actual bankruptcy and closure, the history of Chrysler over the past several years has been interesting, to say the least. Its marriage to Mercedes lasted for about nine years and it was always a weird arrangement that probably helped the company survive, but it never really led to its brands (Dodge, Chrysler) distinguishing themselves (Jeep is also a Chrysler brand, and is distinguished).

At first it was called a "Merger of Equals," but nobody bought that then or later and, unfortunately, too few bought Chryslers in any case. Now the majority owner is the Italian company Fiat, a car brand reemerging in the American market after a nearly 30-year hiatus, and it remains to be seen whether the New Chrysler, as it is known, will broaden its appeal with the American car-buying public.

With the possible exception of Jeep (which Chrysler acquired through the acquisition of American Motors in 1987), probably its most famous contribution to the automotive business in the past 50 years was the introduction, in the 1984 model year, of the Dodge Caravan. This vehicle, which was also sold as a Plymouth Voyager and, later, the Chrysler Town & Country, virtually created the so-called minivan market in the United States and until very recently it was the top-selling minivan year after year (the Honda Odyssey has overtaken it).

The minivan, obviously, has been an automotive and cultural phenomenon - and it could have happened sooner. 1980s Chrysler Chairman Lee Iaccoca and another executive, Hal Sperlich, had dreamed up the idea when they both worked for Ford in the early 1970s, but Henry the Deuce (Henry Ford II) rejected the concept. So the men brought it to Chrysler and made history.

The minivan quickly become the vehicle of choice for American families - the station wagon of a new era, for all intents and purposes - and it got to be so ubiquitous that it got all mixed up in the pejorative Soccer Mom description and became an object of derision. However, in spite of the bad image - many young women just refuse to drive a minivan because of the connotation - the minivan remains one of the most robust vehicle segments in the automotive marketplace. Almost all of the foreign brands have popular minivans (little know is that the VW Routan is a Chrysler). Curiously, General Motors, with its remaining Buick, Chevrolet, GMC and Cadillac brands, and Ford are now out of the minivan market.

From the very beginning I have liked minivans. I like the size, the versatility, the extra seating and cargo capacities, the sliding door(s), and the vision afforded from sitting up high than a car. Plus, for the most part, I have liked the way they drive, especially on road trips. I own a minivan (an old Toyota Previa), and I can attest that it came in very handy when all of our kids were living at home and needed carting, along with their friends, all over town. It would have been impossible in a sedan and difficult at best in a SUV.

So I was pretty excited when I heard I was going to drive, for review purposes, a brand new 2011 Dodge Grand Caravan (as they are now called), because I had seen all the press reports and advertising about the stow-and-go seating, the new designs, and, frankly, the seemingly all new attitude from Chrysler that combines appealing bravado with a whole new marketing sense. (The 2012 model is exactly the same and just now showing up in show rooms).This has to be good, I said to myself.

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Unfortunately, it isn't. It's a handsome vehicle and it has many nice features - it even drives very nicely. But the noise. Right from the start, after I drove two feet and all of the many miles I put on the minivan over the week of my test drive, the Dodge Grand Caravan rattled incessantly, noises that seem to come from the doors, particularly the van sliding doors.

As these doors are moving you can see a kind of long, thick rubber band with grippers on it - it looks kind of like the track on a tank - and there appears to be many moving parts in there. When you are driving, all these parts jiggle and rattle. Constantly. It's awful.

Another negative are seats in the back, in the second row and the third row. The driver's and passenger seat up front are excellent captain's chairs, here clad in cloth, and they provide great support and are very comfortable. But my rear-seating research assistant, my 13-year-old son, said the seats in the second row, two captains, were "very narrow" and uncomfortable, and that the third row bench, meant for three people, were very small and uncomfortable. Only very small people could sit for any length of time in the third row.

I believe the problem for the back rows seats is weight: since they are all stow-and-go, meaning they fold up and disappear into the floor, leaving a huge, flat cargo area, the seats need to be easily handled. Therefore, they are very light-weight, and being narrow also lessens weight. The stow-and-go feature, which I love, is also a bit tough to get used to as the folding and stowing isn't quite as easy as it appears in television ads, and the owner's manual is only marginally helpful. It took me a while to figure it out.

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Frankly, the noise and the seating issues would be, for me, deal breakers. And that's too bad because I loved nearly everything else about the vehicle. There are four trims in the Dodge Grand Caravan - for 2011 the Express, the Mainstreet, the Crew, and the R/T, with the Express renamed to SE and the Mainstreet renamed SXT for 2012; for 2012 they have upped the base price about $500 or so for each model.

I drove the Mainstreet, base price $25,995 on the sticker, and it included a ton of very nice features. My favorites are the automatic sliding doors on each side of the vehicle and the automatic lift-gate on the rear. They can be activated by buttons on the doors inside, on the overhead console up front, and of course on the key fob. They work beautifully and make coming and going and stowing very easy.

As I said earlier, I loved the way it drove. This is a fairly nimble and easy-to-park vehicle for something of this size - minivan is a misnomer - and it has great visibility - out the front, and with the mirrors all around. It also has a back-up camera with visual guides on the LCD screen that aid a great deal in parking in tight spaces.

The interior is quite handsome - they have moved the gear shift level to the dashboard just to the right of the steering column, which frees up a lot of space between the seats and on the floor for cup holders, storage bins and just space for stuff. Minivans are nothing if not handy vehicles for stuff.

All models of the Grand Caravan are powered by a 3.6-liter V6 engine with 283 hp, and it has plenty of get-up-and-go. In the old days minivans were underpowered and had soft shocks that made the vehicles sluggish and feel like they were floating; this new one is plenty powerful and a nice, stiff ride. The engine is rated at 17mpg city/25 highway, which is pretty good, and it had an Eco button on the dash that seemed to change the gearing and the torque; in Eco, the pickup was lessened but it cruised on the highway in style.

My test-drive model had a lot of extras as standard: all the power equipment, like windows and door locks, keyless entry, power outlets throughout, the stuff that used cost extra but now comes with the base price. For options, they added, for $600, hands-free communications with Bluetooth, and leather-wrapped steering wheel, and for another $1,325 they put in anti-lock brakes (great brakes), power adjustable pedals, and the power automatic doors I mentioned.

For another nearly $2,00, they put in an entertainment group package that included a DVD player for the rear seat people, a 30GB hard drive with 6,700 song capacity, Sirius satellite radio - and I should note that the sound system was wonderful and would have sound better if the car didn't rattle. Add in a $835 destination charge and the bottom line was $30,840.

That's a pretty good price for all that's included here - if the vehicle didn't seem compromised by all of the rattles and the skinny rear seats. Almost good enough, but not quite. A disappointment and Chrysler should - must - do better if it is going to stay competitive.

RATING: TWO WHEELS (OUT OF FOUR)
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Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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