Dodge makes a good thing better

The Canadian-made Dodge Grand Caravan isn’t just the best-selling minivan in the country — it is the third best-selling vehicle overall behind the Ford F-150 pickup truck and Honda Civic. Dodge has been an innovator over the years in the minivan segment with features like Stow ’n Go seating.

This, along with the strong value equation that Dodge delivers is the reason Canadians have embraced this product. For 2011, Dodge continues to evolve into a more mature and refined auto company as they‘ve turned their attention not just to value, but also refinement — something that has been missing in their products for some time.

That special attention to detail is now evident in interior design, plus an entirely new powertrain places the Grand Caravan in the enviable position of having value and substance.The exterior changes to this updated minivan are hard to spot unless you have the older model close by for reference.

The front and rear have been updated, but it is change to the grille that are easiest to notice. The split grille no longer has the Dodge Ram in the centre, left off probably to not confuse things now that Chrysler has re-branded their full-sized pickup as simply “Ram.”

The rear has a new spoiler, liftgate and scuff pad, in addition to LED lights that surround the tail lamps. Styling is rather boxy, but this was done to make the Grand Caravan look more substantial and aggressive for people who don’t particularly want to drive a van. The Grand Caravan has an impressive starting price of $22,995, which includes 16-inch wheels with covers. The SXT starts at $25,995 and includes 16-inch alloys, while the $28,995 Crew model features 17-inch alloy wheels.The exterior styling really is just window dressing, since the real redesign work went into updating the interior. Chrysler knew they had overlooked their interiors over the last decade, and so have committed to rectifying the problem.

Touch-points such as the arm rests, steering wheel and centre console all have soft-touch materials and the attention to detail is light years ahead of the 2010 model. The dash is made from hard plastic, but it doesn’t look like it, and is a better effort than in Toyota’s Sienna. New standard features include tilt and telescopic steering wheel with audio controls, duel temperature controls and knee airbag. On the SXT model there is a new “Super Stow ’n Go” seat for easier access to the third row.

The Crew model receives a new “Super Console” between the front seats that mimics the type of console found in an SUV, resulting in a more intimate cabin experience.Dodge has eliminated the option of choosing several engine and transmission configurations. For 2011, there is only one powertrain available in the Grand Caravan. The same 3.6-litre V6 found in most of the Dodge lineup has been adapted to the new Grand Caravan along with a standard six-speed automatic transmission.

The 3.6-litre engine was recently named one of “Ward’s 10 best engines” and for good reason. It has 283 horsepower, which is 108 more than the outgoing base engine yet achieves better fuel consumption. Placing a six-speed automatic across the entire lineup moves the Grand Caravan ahead of the base five-speed in the Honda Odyssey and is one of the reasons for the improved fuel efficiency. Complementing the wonderful new engine is a re-tuned suspension for better ride and handling. The cornering ability is much more precise and controlled yet Dodge was still able to retain the comfort and quietness that this van is known for.Good: The Grand Caravan isn’t just about value any more; it is now the full package.

Bad: The Stow ’n Go seats could use a bit more padding.There are some very nice vans on the market.

In fact, the Toyota Sienna has recently been updated along with the Honda Odyssey and Nissan Quest. What Dodge brings to the table is value. These import vans start very close to the $30,000 range, while the Grand Caravan top model starts at just under $28,995.

Value isn’t the whole story — for 2011 Dodge has caught up to many of the imports in terms of fit and finish, and in some respects has surpassed the vehicles that are perceived to be premium offerings. The only question mark still surrounding this new Dodge product is quality. In recent JD Power and associates studies, the Chrysler Group has been lagging well behind the auto industry average for initial quality and three-year dependability. Lets hope that the major steps forward in terms of design, fit, power and handling found in this Grand Caravan can transfer into better quality scores.

Power: 3.6-litre V6 with 283hp
Fill-up: 12.3L/7.9L/100km (city/highway)
Backup: 3-year/60,000km
Sticker price: $22,995-$28,995

Photograph by: Zack Spencer