Transmission’s frequent downshifting is annoying
Facing an 800-mile round trip in the next test car, we had visions of something sporty yet luxurious – perhaps something European, with interlocking rings on the grille or a jungle cat design on the trunk lid; or maybe even something Japanese, with a fuel-sipping hybrid system. But test-driving seldom works out that way. The car of the week was a 2013 Dodge Grand Caravan R/T, perfect for half a baseball team, but a little on the cavernous side for a seven-hour solo cruise.
The Grand Caravan is loaded with history and tradition, reaching back 29 years. The minivan, an innovation Americans loved despite the soccer-mom image it came to exemplify, may have been the car that saved Chrysler from its blunders and excesses of the 1970s. Other U.S. automakers built their own minivans but never matched the appeal of the Caravan and Plymouth Voyager.
The Caravan remains popular, though most critics prefer the Toyota Sienna, Nissan Quest or Honda Odyssey these days. (We’re with the herd on the Quest but prefer the Caravan to the Odyssey. We haven’t test-driven the current version of the Sienna.)
For 2013, Dodge introduced a bargain-priced model called the American Value Package, which starts at a remarkably low price of under $20,000. Its major deficiency is its lack of standard Super Stow ‘N Go seats, which fold effortlessly into the floor on higher-end models. Our test car was a loaded, top-of-the-line R/T that sported a sticker price of $36,865.
Our Grand Caravan was a showcase of safety and luxury features, including power sliding side doors, three-zone automatic climate control, rear-view camera and power front seats. Several thousand dollars’ worth of options endowed the black minivan with a power liftgate, heated front and second-row seats, heated steering wheel, second- and third-row window shades, blind-spot and cross-path detection, video screens for second- and third-row passengers, navigation system and satellite radio. For parents with energetic kids who grow restive during long car trips, it doesn’t get much better than this.
The Grand Caravan has been rated a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
All Grand Caravans come with a 263-horsepower V-6 engine, 6-speed automatic transmission and front-wheel drive. Ride, handling and braking inspire confidence despite the minivan’s large size. The major weak spot is the transmission. During a drive through mountainous sections of New York State and Pennsylvania, the transmission downshifted frequently, even though the minivan was lightly loaded. Not only was this trait distracting, but it had a discernible effect on fuel economy. After averaging nearly 27 mpg in Connecticut, we saw fuel economy drop to about 24 in the mountains.
Built in Ontario, Canada, the Grand Caravan averages 17 mpg in the city, 25 highway. The major competitors from Japan do somewhat better. Dodge provides a five-year, 100,000-mile power-train warranty, but owner surveys by Consumer Reports magazine show the Grand Caravan to be less reliable than average.
Steven Macoy (email@example.com) is a longtime car enthusiast and full-time editor who lives in Bethel, Conn.
Engine: 3.6-liter V-6, 263 horsepower, 260 lb.-ft. torque
Transmission: 6-speed shiftable automatic
Weight: 4,510 lb.
Ground clearance: 5.6 in.
Suspension: MacPherson strut front, torsion beam rear
Wheels: 17×6.5-in. Painted alloy
Tires: P225/65R17 all-season
Seating capacity: 7
Luggage capacity: 33 cu. ft.
Maximum cargo capacity: 144 cu. ft.
Fuel capacity: 20 gallons
Fuel economy: 17 mpg city, 25 mpg highway
Fuel type: Flex-fuel