2009 Dodge Grand Caravan Road Test Review

By:Trevor Hofmann
2008-12-18 02:45:09
 
The ultimate people mover? Chrysler would like it if you thought so. And in many ways I'd have to agree with you if you did.
2009 Chrysler Grand Caravan
A cool looking van... if cool and van can be used in the same sentence. (Photo: Canadian Auto Press)
No matter how creative automakers get with new crossover offerings, there's no way that conventional swinging rear-side doors will ever be more practical than side sliders, and no CUV has been created with the kind of interior room of a modern-day Grand Caravan. Add in tall, SUV-like visibility combined with car-like road manners and it's a wonder more people don't get over their vanity and just opt for the best vehicle for family hauling.

The Grand Caravan that was given to me for the last seven days wasn't all that different from the one I spent a week with last year or the one I enjoyed on the press launch event in San Diego, California before that. It still looks good, for a van (there's always that minivan caveat) and did everything I could have asked for it to do. Really. For example, we needed to pick up two extremely large Douglas Fir Christmas trees, and I can't think of too many other cars that could accommodate the size of trees I'm talking about. The smaller of the two stands eight feet high and the larger is above nine feet, so one went on top of the van and the other inside. Try that in your Highlander? Not likely. At least not with the liftback closed and sub-zero temperature kept outside.

My Grand Caravan tester came fairly basic despite being the top-line SXT model, at least when compared to the lavishly equipped previous iterations I've had. Still, new for 2009 is a three-zone temperature control system, replacing standard air conditioning on the base model, with separate heater and air conditioning controls in back, plus power-adjustable pedals, a leather-wrapped wheel with integrated audio controls, a trip computer, and a power window package with driver's side auto up and down, passenger auto down, power sliding-door windows and power rear vent windows. Also new for this model year, the UConnect hands-free system adds an iPod interface that gets
2009 Chrysler Grand Caravan
There's no other minivan that looks remotely like the Caravan... except for the Town and Country, of course. (Photo: Canadian Auto Press)
universal approval in our family, while the optional DVD entertainment system gets a one-inch larger screen, up to nine inches across from eight.

I should probably mention that all Grand Caravans come with power door locks and a nice premium-level remote key fob that came via its old relationship with Mercedes-Benz, a useful dual glovebox, heated mirrors, a CD/MP3 audio head unit with auxiliary input, an overhead console, a handy conversation mirror, cruise control, a tilt steering column, tire pressure monitor warning lamp, power front windows with driver's side one-touch down, variable intermittent wipers, a rear washer/wiper, and a total of five cupholders and four bottle holders. Moving up to the SE Stow 'n Go will get your four additional cupholders, body-colour door handles for a much more upscale look, a roof rack, special stain repellent seat material, easy-clean floor mats and a removable floor console.

On the
2009 Chrysler Grand Caravan
There's nothing subtle about the look. (Photo: Canadian Auto Press)
outside, the SXT model shown here gets body-coloured side mirrors that give it more visual flare, 16-inch aluminum wheels for a much better look than the standard steel wheels, plus fog lamps, while Marathon Blue and the unusual (for a minivan anyway) Sunburst Orange have been discontinued to make way for Melbourne Green and Deep Crimson. Our test car was neither, instead finished in Light Sandstone metallic, otherwise known as beige, ecru or possibly taupe, but nevertheless a colour that suits the van. After all, while the Grand Caravan is a good looking a minivan, I'm guessing that most who buy into this segment don't really want to draw loads of attention from what they're driving – hence why the orange metallic is discontinued.

Colours aren't the only things to be discontinued with the 2009 Grand Caravan, however, as Dodge has dropped an entire engine and replaced it with a
2009 Dodge Grand Caravan
Alloy rims help dress things up. (Photo: Canadian Auto Press)
much better one. Gone is the old 12-valve, SOHC, 3.8-litre V6 that made a reasonably responsive 197-horsepower and 230 lb-ft of torque, now replaced by the 4.0-litre unit only available in Canada with the Town & Country when the most recent version of the van initially launched; it could be had in the US, mind you. And while miles better than the 3.8, the 4.0-litre engine is an option well worth upgrading to from the standard 3.3-litre V6 as well. Not only is the engine far more capable with 251-horsepower on tap at 6,000 rpm and 259 lb-ft of torque at 4,200 rpm, compared to 175-horsepower at 5,000 rpm and 205 at 4,000 rpm, but it comes with a modern six-speed automatic transmission boasting AutoStick manual mode, rather than an outdated four-speed unit. For this reason it makes significant gains in fuel economy with an EnerGuide rating of 12.2 L/100 km in the city and 7.9 on the highway compared to the smaller engine's 12.6 L/100
2009 Chrysler Grand Caravan
The six-speed automatic features AutoStick manual mode, one of few vans in the segment that offer a hands-on driving experience. (Photo: Canadian Auto Press)
km city and 8.4 highway rating. That's an eight-percent improvement over the outgoing 3.8 as well, which was rated at 13.3 L/100 km in the city and 8.7 on the highway. As important if not more so when factoring in fuel consumption is that EnerGuide ratings are about as real to life as WWE wrestling. If you're planning on loading your van down often or if you live amid hills the larger engine and two extra gears might save you more at the pump than the ratings infer due to the drivetrain's ability to work at a more leisurely pace. And with only $1,325 needed for the engine upgrade and $275 for the six-speed transmission (why Chrysler separates the two options is anyone's guess as you can't get one without the other), it's really not a major decision to make on a vehicle that starts at $23,445 (not including the $21,921 cargo van).

The six-speed, by the way, isn't merely a carryover from last year but according to Chrysler has been re-tuned with a "higher numerical first gear" to allow for a quicker takeoff, plus having more gears to choose from allows for shorter intervals between gear changes for improved performance throughout the range.

And the engine really pulls, making the van feel almost sporty at full throttle. Compared to Chrysler's V6-powered minivans of the past (my old '96 has a 3.0-litre Mitsubishi-sourced V6) the 4.0-litre is wonderfully refined, relatively quiet in the upper realms of the rev range and almost completely vibration free. Chrysler has further reduced noise pollution and improves emissions and fuel economy by giving the GC a 0.33 coefficient of drag for best-in-class aerodynamics, so what could have otherwise been a big drum of reverberation is instead a great place for conversation even if riding in the very back.

I
2009 Chrysler Grand Caravan
Tons of space for the family... (Photo: Canadian Auto Press)
suppose the van's superb ride quality has something to do with its tranquil nature too, with the suspension setup obviously designed for comfort over any sporting pretensions. My '96 short wheelbase was a hot hatch in comparison, but then again I wouldn't buy a minivan with the expectation of out-handling sport wagon drivers on the way to the ski hill. The Caravan does a good job of managing curves as long as you're not overly optimistic, in the same way that its brakes will stop you from high-speed in short order, but not after continual panic stops; i.e. they're not Brembos so take care when  driving. And in case the unthinkable occurs, Chrysler vans have achieved a Five Star crash test rating for front and side impacts from the U.S. government.

As far as equipment goes, two option packages are now available, the first being the Popular Equipment Group only for the SE Stow n' Go model not shown
2009 Chrysler Grand Caravan
....or gear. (Photo: Canadian Auto Press)
here, with power sliding doors, a power liftgate, remote starter, power-adjustable foot pedals and four wheel disc brakes (yes, it's hard to believe that rear drums are offered on the base van). SE Stow 'n Go and SXT buyers can also add on the Safe and Sound Group which includes second- and third-row window shades, important if you have infants or small children, the aforementioned rear DVD system, a rear backup camera, and a middle bench seat with integrated child safety seats.

And in case you're new to the world of minivans and therefore don't know what I'm talking about when mentioning Stow 'n Go seating, it's easily the most innovative automotive seating/cargo system ever offered. Above the Canada Value Package that comes with a removable middle row bench seat, all SE and SXT models come standard with Stow n' Go, allowing the 60/40 split-folding rear bench to tumble into the floor for a completely flat loading area,
2009 Chrysler Grand Caravan
Plus in this Swivel 'n Go version, a table gets stowed underneath the cargo floor. (Photo: Canadian Auto Press)
which truly is nothing unusual nowadays, plus the second row captain's chairs to do likewise, turning passenger van into cargo hauler in a matter of minutes. When not holding the seats (which will be most of the time for the majority of owners) the compartments transform into handy concealed "bins" for stowing the normal clutter that can collect during life with kids. Our test van came with another seating option that brings memories of VW Westfalia campers, in that the second row captain's chairs can be swiveled around to face the third row, and a table that's normally stowed under the rear floor set up in between. A great idea for families that do a lot of camping, only opt for Swivel 'n Go if you really think you're going to use it a lot because the second row seats, while capable of being fully removed, are more difficult to work around than the amazingly flexible Stow 'n Go system.

So where could Chrysler improve its van lineup? Interior quality has come a long way in
2009 Chrysler Grand Caravan
A great van in ever respect. (Photo: Canadian Auto Press)
most respects, but I still wouldn't go so far to say that the tactile feel of all plastics used is at the top of the class, but that' s the only complaint I can come up with. After all, this van was good enough for Volkswagen to use as the basis for its new Routan, and while VW did a little work on the interior most of what is there comes from Auburn Hills, including the undercarriage, drivetrain and pretty well every electrical bit under the skin. The Caravan is also good enough to have won over 45-per cent of the Canadian market and has sold more than 12 million since Chrysler invented the segment in 1983. During its 25-year tenure Chrysler has introduced more than 65 minivan-first features, plus more than 40 improvements from previous generation vans.

Today's Grand Caravan is easily the best in its long lineage, and worthy of a closer look even if you're an import buyer looking at stepping up to the minivan segment for your growing family. While the imports do a fine job, nothing offered comes close to delivering the level of seating and cargo flexibility of the Grand Caravan and Town & Country twins, and when combined with its many other attributes, including aggressive pricing, it's easy to see why Chrysler has such a hold on the market.

Specifications (2009 Dodge Grand Caravan):
  • Price Range (SE – SXT MSRP): $23,445 – $28,245 (not including all options)
  • Destination: $1,350
  • Body Type: minivan
  • Layout: front engine, FWD
  • Base Engine: 175-hp, 205 lb-ft of torque, 3.3L, 12-valve, DOHC V6
  • Opt. Engine: 251 hp, 259 lb-ft of torque, 4.0L, 24-valve SOHC V6
  • Transmission: 4-spd auto (opt. 6-spd auto)
  • Brakes (front/rear): disc/drum, ABS, EBD (opt. rear disc)
  • Safety Equipment: front and side-curtain airbags, traction control, stability control
  • Exterior Dimensions (L/W/H/WB): 5,144 / 1,953 / 1,750 / 3,078 mm (202.5 / 76.9 / 68.9 / 121.2 in)
  • Track (f/r): 1,664 / 1,646 mm (65.5 / 64.8 in)
  • Tires: P225/65R16 all-season
  • Turning Radius: 11.6 m (38.0 ft)
  • Curb Weight (est.): 2,033 kg (4,483 lbs)
  • Seating Capacity: 7
  • Cargo Volume (3rd row/2nd row/1st row): 915 / 2,339 / 4,072 L (32.3 / 82.6 / 143.8 cu ft)
  • Towing Capacity (stock – w/ tow package): 816 – 1,588 kg (1,800 – 3,500 lbs)
  • Fuel Economy (est. city/hwy): 12.6 / 8.4 L/100 km (12.2 / 7.9 L/100 km w/ 4.0L)
  • Fuel Type: regular unleaded
  • Warranty (mo/km): 36/60,000 comprehensive - 60/100,000 powertrain
  • Competitors: Chevrolet Uplander, Chrysler Town & Country, Honda Odyssey, Hyundai Entourage, Kia Sedona, Nissan Quest, Pontiac Montana SV6, Toyota Sienna
  • Web Site: www.dodge.ca


(Copyright Canadian Auto Press)]]>

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