June 14, 2009
I will never forget the look on Lee Iacocca's face when the Chrysler chairman strolled into McCormick Place for the 1984 Chicago Auto Show, spotted the truck-like rear-wheel-drive Chevy Astro and Ford Aerostar rivals to his car-like front-wheel-drive Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager and broke a broad smile that lifted his glasses off his nose.
Iacocca knew his new "minivan" was going to be a success, though he never dreamed it would be around 25 years and 12 million sales later as a much-honored people hauler often described as the choice for soccer moms and dads alike.
Not sure when the final chapter will be written on Chrysler or its fabled minivan, but word is that the 2010 has gotten the go-ahead, barring President Barack Obama and Congress, who now run two-thirds of Detroit, ruling otherwise.
So we jumped at the chance to check out a 2009 Dodge Grand Caravan in sporty SXT trim.
The Grand Caravan is more enticing when gas prices lean closer to $2 than $3 for two reasons: The tank holds 20 gallons, for a $20 spread per fill, and at a rating of 17 m.p.g. city/25 m.p.g. highway you have to cover the spread a lot.
The test vehicle was powered by the optional ($630) 4-liter, 251-horsepower V-6, which had all the muscle needed to pass slowpoke sedans and SUVs trying to conserve fuel. Even with the van full of people and/or bags, the V-6 was fleet afoot.
Only trouble, other than watching the fuel gauge sprint, is that the Grand Caravan is a little slab-sided, so when the road is open or an 18-wheeler passes, the minivan gets pushed and shoved in the crosswinds.
Some vehicles, especially those of German descent, strive to convince folks that the more complicated the controls, the more sophisticated and gifted the machine.
Grand Caravan isn't complex, though it is not lacking whiz-bang, "what a great idea" innovations, such as bins in the second-row floor to store items out of sight and Swivel 'n Go second-row seats that turn to face the third, with a table that can be inserted so the kids can snack or play games on long trips. And child booster seats pop up from second-row buckets. Nice touch for $225.
The bins, however, would be better if the covers were easy to open without having to move the front seats forward, and if there was more legroom once second/third-row seats faced each other.
A 115-volt outlet along the second-row wall handles a computer. And a power-operated third-row seat folds flat into the floor to increase cargo space, or you can hide just one of the split seats if you don't need so much room. More nice touches. As a bonus, those third-row seat backs have grocery-bag hooks to keep things from rolling around.
Power sliding side doors on both sides help entry/exit, while the power tailgate makes for easy loading/unloading. The sliding doors have water-bottle holders and can be equipped with manual sun shades.
Screens over second- and third-row seats pull down from the roof for watching movies or Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network or the Disney Channel. When parked, you can watch the TV on a dash screen as well.
Since vans are designed to carry lots of people, mostly kids, there's a host of safety hardware, from stability and traction control plus side-curtain air bags to blind-spot and cross-path detection systems.
When a vehicle behind enters your blind spot, a yellow triangle lights in the sideview mirrors. When backing up, cross path activates a flashing yellow light in the mirrors, along with a beep, to warn that something's coming from either side.
Cross path also came in handy when a child on a bike passed on the sidewalk, beeping feverishly to prompt more immediate action than the backup camera would.
But the goodies come at a price. Options pushed the SXT nearly $42,000 from a $28,325 base. Technology is nice, but a $14,000 bump?
To save $700, skip the running boards, which are neither high enough nor extend far enough to offer one wit of help; instead they are more likely to trip you up. Hate to see soccer folks on crutches.
Read Jim Mateja Sunday in Rides. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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