Chrysler popularized the idea of a minivan when it introduced the original Dodge Caravan almost 30 years ago, and for a very long time the automaker dominated the segment, one that Ford and General Motors ultimately abandoned, one that Nissan has continually struggled in, and one that most other car companies ignore. Long the innovators, the Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan today find themselves languishing behind the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna in terms of consumer perceptions about quality, refinement, sophistication, utility, and technology, the vans’ sales artificially propped up by rental and corporate fleet purchases.
Part of the problem is that Chrysler, on average, redesigns its minivans less frequently than its key competitors, which means rivals improve at a faster pace. Another part of the problem is that when researching quality and reliability, the Chrysler and Dodge minivans present a less compelling case for purchase than the Honda and Toyota. The Town & Country and Grand Caravan have also never appeared on a Top Safety Pick list from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety like the Honda and Toyota have, and the Odyssey boasts a more impressive crash-test record with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Finally, the Chrysler minivans haven’t employed the most sophisticated, powerful or fuel-efficient powertrains, and the most recent overhaul of the T&C and DGC for the 2008 model year was executed by a parent company that cared about two of its most talented children.
These failings and challenges are recognized and understood by the current crew of designers, engineers, and accountants running Chrysler today, plainly evident in the surprisingly effective styling, engineering, and packaging update to the 2012 Dodge Grand Caravan (view photos). Basically, everything that needed fixing received attention, and the result is almost as dramatic as a complete redesign.
About Our Test Car
For 2012, Dodge Grand Caravan trim levels are Express, Mainstreet, Crew and R/T. The Grand Caravan Express is the entry-level model, starting at $25,830. Mainstreet models are a grand more and add body-color side mirrors, 16-inch alloy wheels, power sliding door windows and power rear vent windows. Mainstreet trim is also the pathway to appealing options such as power sliding side doors, a power liftgate, power adjustable pedals, remote engine starting, a hard-disc Media Center, and a rear entertainment system.
Our Grand Caravan Crew ($29,500) came with standard 17-inch alloy wheels, fog lights, chrome roof rack rails, a power rear liftgate, and power sliding side doors. Inside, the Crew model features triple-zone automatic climate control, an eight-way power driver’s seat with two-way power lumbar support, power adjustable pedals, and a super console between the front seats. There’s also an overhead console system with ambient and LED map lighting, Homelink, a 115-volt power outlet, a hard-disc 30GB Media Center, and Sirius satellite radio. Options available for the Crew but not the Express or Mainstreet include the Safety Sphere Group (automatic headlights, rain-sensing headlights, blind-spot monitoring, cross-path detection, Parksense parking assist), a Driver Convenience Group (heated steering wheel, heated front seats, Uconnect phone), a Passenger’s Convenience Group (heated second-row seats, second- and third-row window shades, portable rechargeable trouble light), touch-screen navigation (Sirius Traffic and Travel Link services, iPod control, Bluetooth streaming audio), a Trailer Tow Group (heavy-duty engine cooling, suspension load-leveling and height control), and an Infinity premium sound system.
Introduced at the Chicago Auto Show in February of 2012, the Grand Caravan R/T is what Dodge refers to as a “Man Van.” Evidently intended to counter the “Swagger Wagon” from Toyota, the Sienna SE, the Grand Caravan R/T comes with a body-color grille, polished aluminum wheels, all-season touring tires, a performance-tuned suspension, leather, an 8-way power front passenger’s seat, and Infinity sound. We think it ought to have unique-design 18-inch wheels at a minimum, with all-season performance rubber and a few subtle visual cues before it gets to carry its Man Card…or wear an R/T badge. The R/T starts at $31,400 and options mirror the Crew.
Safety Reliability and Value
Looking over the 2012 Dodge Grand Caravan’s (view photos) spec sheet, it looks like this minivan is equipped with all the right safety equipment to keep a family secure. Four-wheel-disc antilock brakes with brake assist also include a brake override feature, which makes it impossible for the engine to accelerate the minivan when the brake pedal is firmly depressed. Dual front airbags, dual side-impact airbags for the front seats, and side curtain airbags are standard, along with a knee airbags for the driver. Traction and stability control are included, and an Enhanced Accident Response System automatically unlocks the Grand Caravan’s doors, activates the hazard flashers, turns on the interior lights, and shuts fuel flow to the engine in the event of a crash. Options include Parksense rear parking sensors, a Parkview reversing camera, a blind-spot information system, and rear cross-path detection.
How the updated 2012 Dodge Grand Caravan performs in crash tests is yet to be determined. As this test drive article is written in mid-February of 2012, data is unavailable from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Data is thin for quality, reliability, and resale value, too. J.D. Power and Associates predicts the new Grand Caravan will return average reliability based on the measured performance of previous models, and the market research firm has not revealed results from its annual Initial Quality Study at this writing. Consumer Reports is not offering a reliability prediction at this time, and the organization also does not attempt to estimate how well the new Grand Caravan will retain its value over time. Similarly, Automotive Lease Guide is taking a wait-and-see approach to predicting the minivan’s ability to retain its value.
As for the Grand Caravan’s warranty, Dodge attempts to provide buyers with peace-of-mind by offering a three-year/36,000-mile basic warranty with a roadside assistance plan, a five-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty, and a five-year/100,000-mile rust perforation warranty. Compared to Honda and Toyota, the Dodge offers 40,000 extra miles for the powertrain warranty and free roadside assistance for the duration of the basic warranty, but limits rust protection to 100,000 miles where the competitors allow unlimited mileage. Toyota is also offering free maintenance for the first two years or 25,000 miles.