Summer in America typically means that families all across the country pack up and head out on road trips. Mine is no different – we have been avid road trippers for a couple decades now, traveling as many as 4,000 miles in a week. This summer, we decided to fly out to Chicago and road trip across the Midwest – St. Louis, Memphis, Nashville and Indianapolis. While I was preparing for the trip, all I could think of was what van we would be picking up at the airport. I’ll admit that I had been hoping for a Toyota Sienna or perhaps a Nissan Quest, so I was a little dismayed when faced with the choice of a Chrysler or a Dodge. Nonetheless, I was still excited to see what improvements had been made to the 2012 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT.
My last encounter with a Grand Caravan was 2008, when we took a copper-colored 2008 Grand Caravan 3.8L across the deep South. I remembered that it had been a good passenger transportation device, with a quiet and composed ride. However, it also never failed to rouse the driver – with its lack of power and fuel-economy-minded transmission shift logic, it was sure to get your blood pressure up. The 2012 model’s 3.6L DOHC V6 had an 86HP advantage over the 2008′s engine, and the newfound power was much appreciated. When in the right gear, merging and passing were no longer scary propositions. Highway cruising became much more relaxed as the extra torque resulted in less downshifting.
Did you notice the caveat? The confused and often inappropriate shift logic was the downfall of an otherwise capable powertrain. The extra power was hardly ever available because the transmission was constantly letting the engine down, literally. It would eagerly shift up into as high a gear as possible, at times forcing the engine to accelerate the van from 1000RPM. The transmission was mind numbingly slow to downshift, inspiring no confidence when merging onto the highway. Random bangs and shudders during both upshifts and downshifts are an oddity in a world of buttery smooth new cars. All of this meant that I used the tiptronic feature more often than not, if for nothing other than peace of mind on unfamiliar roads.
The complaints continued inside, where the interior has some ridiculous trade-offs. The interior design and material choices drew harsh reviews from my entire family. That’s pretty bad, considering our 2000 Honda Odyssey is not exactly dressed in a high-class outfit. The Stow-N-Go seating was a good idea, but the seats are positioned too low for average adults to be truly comfortable. The Sienna LE comes with a standard rear-view camera, whereas the Grand Caravan came with a standard power rear hatch – I would prefer the camera. But the worst trade-off is the interior lighting. The 2008 Grand Caravan had LED map lights throughout the cabin, with ambiance lighting on the overhead console. For 2012, Chrysler decide to remove all the lights behind the first row, except for one that lit up when a door opened. There are no map lights for the 2nd and 3rd row, and the sole cabin light cannot be turned on independently. For this transgression, Chrysler has decided to put mood lighting in the front row cupholders instead. Oh my, how the inventor of the minivan has lost its way.
Still, once out on the open highway, it is a very pleasant vehicle to drive and be ferried in. It is perhaps one of the quietest and smoothest riding vans in the industry, yet handles well in crosswinds. The brakes are slightly mushy but still scrub speed with confidence. Sharp steering meant less sawing of the wheel to stay in lane. The beautiful set of gauges are easy to read, and the steering wheel controls are well laid out. The controls will bring up the average MPG display, which will tell you what phenomenal mileage this van is capable of. Two full tanks at 70-75MPH cruise turned out 25MPG averages, while even heavy-footed city driving resulted in a decent 18.6MPG.
Overall, the Dodge Grand Caravan is a decent transport vehicle for the right person. That person either needs to be non-discerning in their vehicular tastes, or truly value a smooth and quiet ride. Of course, there is always the cash-strapped family: the SXT model retails for ~$27K very well equipped (including the power rear hatch!), and there are usually deep discounts on top of that. A similarly equipped Odyssey or Sienna would run over the $30K mark, giving the Caravan a pricing advantage at the expense of refinement. It shows in the execution of the interior, but for someone who isn’t picky, this is the van to buy.