Dodge Grand Caravan 2011: Quick, overhauled, carlike

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Some thought Sport Utility Vehicles and the newer car-based crossovers would eliminate minivans, but they remain too handy to die.

While the minivan market isn’t as big as it once was, Dodge’s redone 2011 Grand Caravan minivan and redesigned minivans from Toyota, Honda and Nissan show automakers have confidence folks will continue to be drawn to minivans that provide much-needed room and a carlike driving experience.

Dodge’s entries long led minivan sales, and this automaker has made major improvements to its 2011 front-drive Grand Caravan model to stay competitive with large Japanese rivals.

List prices for the roomy Grand Caravan range from $24,995 to $30,995. It  comes as the Express, Mainstreet, Crew and R/T models. I tested the well-equipped $28,695 Crew version.

Standard for the Express are a three-zone manual climate control, power heated mirrors,  industry exclusive “Stow n/ Go” seating, remote keyless entry, tilt/telescoping steering column and a CD radio with six speakers.Dodge Grand Caravan 2011: Quick, overhauled, carlike 7

Mainstreet features include power second-row windows and power third-row vents, besides one-touch driver/passenger windows.

The Crew has power sliding doors, power driver seat, power adjustable pedals,  three-zone automatic temperature control and upgraded sound system with a touchscreen, along with a ParkView rear backup camera and new 17-inch aluminum wheels.

The R/T is for those who want superior handling and agility. It has “exclusive” 17-inch wheels and a body color grille. The all-black interior has black leather seats with red stitching, leather-wrapped wheel and shift knob and a killer sound system with nine speakers. It also has a performance-tuned suspension — but no extra power.

Safety features for all include front side air bags, a new driver-side knee blocker air bag, three-row side curtain air bags and remote keyless entry.

Optional are a bunch of items including a DVD entertainment system, heated front and second-row seats, power hatch, remote start, ParkSense rear park assist system, ParkView rear backup camera, Blind-Spot monitoring and Rear Cross Path detection system.Dodge Grand Caravan 2011: Quick, overhauled, carlike 8

All Grand Caravans have a new direct-injection 3.6-liter dual-overhead-camshaft V-6 with variable-valve timing. It  replaces the 2010 model’s 3.3, 3.8 and 4-liter V-6s.

The new engine has 283 horsepower and more torque than the previous 197-horsepower 3.8-liter V-6 without sacrificing fuel economy, although the minivan’s approximately 4,500-pound weight can be felt during fast acceleration. The engine is smoother than the 4-liter 251-horsepower V-6. (The 3.3 was weak on highways with 175 horsepower.)

The hood is held open by an old-fashioned prop rod, but fluid filler areas can be easily reached.

Estimated fuel economy of the Crew model I tested was 17 mpg in the city and 25 on highways. While 89 octane gasoline is recommended, 87 octane fuel is “acceptable.” Fuel tank capacity is 20 gallons.Dodge Grand Caravan 2011: Quick, overhauled, carlike 9

The new engine works with an improved six-speed automatic transmission with a new fuel economizer mode and an easily used manual-shift feature. The short shift lever juts from the dashboard to save space. The transmission is generally smooth but downshifts abruptly when the gas pedal is floored. That’s fine for sudden passing or fast merging but gives a jerk to occupants.

The Grand Caravan is quick because nearly every major system in the  suspension has been overhauled. The steering, although a heavy, is quicker and more precise. And there are returned front and rear springs and shocks and an increased rate rear torsion beam axle and track bar bushing. There’s also a lowered ride height with 16-inch tires.

Handling is carlike, and electronic stability and all-speed traction control are standard. The ride is supple — thanks partly to a long 121.2-inch wheelbase. The brake pedal has a nice, firm feel and brakes have an anti-lock feature.

A new front fascia, new hood and quad headlights give a more aggressive look, although the low front end is susceptible to damage. A new, more sculpted rear fascia and tailgate accompany new “ring of fire” LED taillights. This minivan is pretty aerodynamic and offers a new “Stow n’ Place” roof rack system to allow roof bows to be stowed when not in use, resulting in better aerodynamics.

A revamped commendably quiet interior has a much-needed more upscale look, with better materials. A new one-piece instrument panel has larger gauges and easily worked controls. And a new steering wheel with integrated controls for audio, navigation and speed control offers a minivan-first heated steering wheel option.

It takes a little extra effort to get in and out, but occupants sit high with a good view of surroundings. However, the driver’s seat should slide back more for long-legged motorists. Both front seats could use more lateral support for spirited driving

The two console cupholders are conveniently placed and two large sliding cover console storage areas in front of, and behind, the cupholders in my test Grand Caravan were useful. Also, the two-tier glove compartment has a larger upper storage area. Doors have pockets to store items and beverage containers.

The two center seats of the Grand Caravan I tested were hard. The two third-row seats were mainly for children, although shorter adults fit with reasonable comfort — at least for shorter trips.

The Grand Caravan I tested had surprisingly good cargo room, even with the third-row seats in place, and there was a lot more cargo room when seatbacks were folded forward. Two interior indented areas help to manually close the hatch, although I’d opt for the $425 power-operated hatch.

Volkswagen had a rear-drive minivan in the early 1950s, but the Chrysler Group’s Dodge division offered the first modern front-drive minivan 27 years ago. It’s thus an old hand at the minivan game, having, for instance, introduced 75 minivan-first features over the past two decades.

As might be expected, the new Grand Caravan keeps improving Dodge’s competitive position in the minivan field.

Dan Jedlicka has been an automotive journalist for more than 40 years. To read more of his new and vintage car reviews, visit: www.danjedlicka.com.

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