New Caravan rides like a dream

Friday, October 1, 2004

srobertson

If you are like a lot of us who need to haul a lot of people and stuff, I've got just the vehicle for you. And the best part is, it handles like a dream and provides a quiet, plush ride. It's the latest incarnation of Dodge's famous Caravan minivan, which for the past 20 years has been hauling everything from soccer kids to sacks of cement for more than 10 million owners worldwide.

Dodge's parent, Daimler-Chrysler, controls a whopping 40 percent of the minivan market, and its former chairman, Lee Iacocca, and his engineering sidekick, Hal Sperlich, are credited with inventing the minivan. Both men worked at Ford Motor Co. and promoted the idea to chairman Henry Ford II, who rejected it. Later, while working together at Chrysler, the two men resurrected the idea, and the successful front-wheel-drive people-hauler started rolling off the assembly line just as the soccer craze took hold.

Today's version makes the original minivan seem crude in comparison. To begin with, my test vehicle had Dodge's famous dual power sliding side doors and a power liftgate with obstacle detection -- an industry first. But now every manufacturer has those features, so the Dodge boys offer one of the coolest features ever seen on a minivan -- disappearing passenger seats! Both rows of rear seats can be folded into the floor, or the in-floor stowage area can be used for stashing all the stuff that you just can't leave at home!

Initial impression

The Dodge Caravan and its twin, the Chrysler Town and Country, are two of the better-looking vans on the market. Their lines are about as aggressive-looking as a van can be and still be a seven-passenger van. Entry and exit is a breeze, and a nice change from the climb required to get into the typical SUV. Seating is comfortable, as the front row buckets are nicely contoured, fully adjustable, and very supportive, thanks to the fold-down armrests. The driver's pedals are power adjustable and the steering wheel tilts. Push buttons on the overhead console control the sliding power passenger doors and the power liftgate. There are cup holders everywhere, and thanks to the triple climate-control system, everyone -- even the rear passengers -- should be able to find their comfort level.

Fit and finish was excellent, and the evidence of quality materials gave an upscale appearance to the interior of this vehicle. Windowsills are low, but this design provides an outstanding view of the outdoors and traffic, which should make long trips with the family more enjoyable.

I marveled at the third row seat, which is now split 60/40, and not only folds completely out of the way into the floor, but can flip backwards to face the tailgate! Talk about a great way to watch your child's soccer game!

Power, performance, ride

The basic Caravan is motivated by a 2.4-liter inline four, rated at 150 hp, but my test vehicle, an SXT, had the 3.3-liter, 180-horse V-6, which comes standard on this model. In addition to adequate muscle it provided quiet, smooth performance. A four-speed automatic transmission is the sole gearbox, and it shifted smoothly and was quick on downshifts for good passing performance. In terms of fuel economy, you can expect 19 mpg in the city, and 26 on the highway.

The Caravan's most endearing qualities are its agile handling and supple ride characteristics. If you've become accustomed to the ride of an SUV or pickup, you'll love the Caravan!

All Caravans include a new driver knee airbag. Antilock brakes are optional, as are side curtain airbags. The Caravan has posted good crash test scores in government crash testing, netting four out of five stars for driver and front-passenger protection in frontal impacts. In side impacts, it earned four stars for front-occupant protection and a perfect five stars for rear-occupant protection. So I highly recommend all the optional safety features.

The exemplary Dodge powertrain warranty is yet another noteworthy feature, and it continues for 2005 with its 84-month and 70,000 mile limits. The basic bumper-to-bumper warranty is like that of the other majors -- 36 months and 36,000 miles. Both warranties are fully transferable to subsequent owners. My test vehicle carried a suggested retail price of $28,945, and a search of the Internet revealed several manufacturer rebate and financing incentives.

Steve Robertson of Robertson's Creative Photography is a car enthusiast and former staff writer/photographer for the Southeast Missourian. Contact him at sjr1@robertsonsphotography.com.

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