Posted: May 04, 2012

Executive wheels: A very van frame of mind

One's spiffy; the other, not so much

Jeff Rundles

I happen to be a van fan. I own one – a Toyota Previa – and if I were to buy a new vehicle, vans would be on my shopping list.

Lately, I tried out two minivans – both of which I have driven and reviewed in previous years – so I’ve had my fix and offer up my views.

2012 MAZDA 5 GRAND TOURING

When I drove a Mazda 5 for the first time a few years back, I found it to be a very cute, very zippy and very versatile minivan with great gas mileage. When I got this new one, I was impressed with the looks – it’s a very handsome vehicle, although with the new size not nearly as cute as the old one – and in driving around town, picking up kids and running errands, I found it to be all that I ever wanted and more. It’s very comfortable, and had a lot of nice features standard that make it a pretty good buy. I was impressed.

Then on the Saturday of my test drive, we drove down to Pueblo for some sloppers at the Coors Tavern (a slopper is a hamburger and bun in a bowl, smothered with wonderfully hot green chili). I was not impressed by the Mazda. It had plenty of power for passing even loaded with four people, the comfort and visibility were great and the gas mileage superb (its rate at 21 mpg city/28 mpg highway). But it handled poorly. At the higher speeds, it felt very tippy in lane changes or on curves. I often got the feeling that I was going too fast to maintain comfortable control despite staying within the speed limit.

Around town, the Mazda 5 was a dream – good city driving handling, quite quiet, plenty of space, seating for 6 – but its road-worthiness is suspect. Having had that experience, I can’t recommend it.

The Mazda 5 comes in three trims, each featuring a peppy 2.5-liter I4 engine, so the price difference had to do with the extras. The Grand Touring comes standard with such things as Xenon headlamps, Bluetooth, power windows, doors and mirrors, ABS brakes, stability control, heated front seats and satellite radio. With $50 for a rear bumper guard and $795 in destination charges, the bottom line was $24,720.

I think that’s a little high for a vehicle like this, given the competition, but most of all I can’t recommend it for road trips.

RATING 1 WHEEL (OUT OF FOUR)   

2012 DODGE GRAND CARAVAN SXT

I had the absolute opposite experience with the Dodge Caravan. I drove one – it was either a Caravan or a Chrysler Town & Country, which are basically the same – a year and a half ago. I was impressed with the cargo space, the Stow-n-Go seats and storage places, the size, the operation and everything really, but the van rattled and made so much noise that I was convinced it wasn’t made well and would fall apart at an early age. Besides, all the noise drove me nuts.

I wasn’t expecting much from the 2012 model, but I was very impressed. No noise, smooth operation, great handling and just plain fun to drive. They fixed all the issue I had with the earlier version, and I can honestly say that if I were in the market for a minivan, I would consider the Dodge Caravan.

The Caravan – which was the pioneer of minivans back in the 1980s – comes in four  trims. My SXT test-drive model carried a base price of $26,495 and was well equipped. Each model features a very smooth, powerful 3.6-liter V6. Driving it around town was a pleasure in that it is pretty quick off the line (unusual for a minivan) and on the highway it can handle any conditions, flatlands and mountains, with ease.

The overall handling was great. Minivans used to tend to drift and bob because they were essentially trucks mounted on a passenger car frame and suspension, but here that has been fixed. The ride is stiff and smooth, the cornering even with no lean, and the maneuverability way above average. It’s a pleasure to drive.

My complaint list is relatively small and insignificant. First, while there are vanity mirrors on both the visors for the front-seat passengers, only the driver’s mirror had a sliding cover. Second, the switches for the headlights and outside power mirrors are not backlit. I had to turn the cabin light on to locate these important controls.

On the plus side, the sliding side doors and the rear liftgate are power open/power close right from the key fob; very easy and convenient. The second and third-rows of seating in this seven-passenger vehicle both fold into the floor, leaving a huge cargo space – and they are quite easy to fold and go. When the seats are in place, the spaces for the seats act as covered storage spaces for whatever, and they come in handy. The vehicle had A/C and heat controls in all three seat levels, which is nice, and the seats had built-in child seat latches which is highly convenient for those with young children.

My vehicle had a rear-seat entertainment system with a 40 GB hard drive, great for road trips. The sound system included Bluetooth hands-free connectivity, of course, and all of the modern iPod hookups, satellite radio, back-up camera displayed on the 6.5-inch touchscreen controller in the dash.

The bottom line: $29,970.  For what you get here that’s a great price.

RATING: 4 WHEELS (OUT OF FOUR).  

 

Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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