Saying that the Chrysler half of the DaimlerChrysler combine owns the minivan market is no exaggeration. Chrysler did invent the minivan, after all. It seems that everything in the mall parking lot that isn't a sport-utility is a minivan, and most of the minivans are of the familiar Chrysler/Plymouth/Dodge variety.
The Dodge Caravan is the most popular version of that most popular line. Perhaps this has something to do with the variety of Caravans available. For starters, there are two sizes, the regular- wheelbase Caravan and long-wheelbase Grand Caravan. Three normal trim levels -- regular, SE, and LE -- of both Caravan and Grand Caravan are offered, with a fourth, premium, performance-oriented ES grade for the Grand Caravan only. Although the base engine in the Caravan is a 2.4-liter four-cylinder, a variety of vee-sixes power the uplevel Caravans and all Grand Caravans. All-wheel drive is available on Grand Caravan LE and ES models, for those folks who like its advantages on any roads in any weather. And, in the great American tradition, many option packages and standalone options allow a great degree custom tailoring. The Dodge Caravan line may not be quite as comprehensive as some full-sized pickup lines, but it does offer more choice than any other minivan.
My test vehicle this week is a mid-level Grand Caravan SE with the "Sport" option package. The Sport package is more for show than go, with body-colored side cladding and spoiler outside and a variety of interior comfort and convenience items, but it does include a firmer suspension that gives it good ride and handling qualities without any loss of comfort. It's hard to beat minivan packaging for efficient space utilization. The Grand Caravan has more useable interior space and goes farther on a gallon of gas than any sport-utility of similar interior or exterior size. Access is much easier, thanks to a low floor height and standard dual sliding doors. It feels like a car on the road, not a truck. Minivans don't seem to have much "cool vehicle" status these days, but they make a lot more sense than many of the four- wheeled status symbols.
APPEARANCE: No denying that the Grand Caravan is a minivan. It doesn't quite look like the box it came in, thanks to rounded contours, a short, well-sloped nose, and a large, well-raked windshield. But, none of its body panels are flat, and careful sculpting of the side and hood panels gives the Caravan a handsome look. The grille and front fascia are pure Dodge. Honeycomb trim behind the grille's two body- colored crossbars is new this year. The multiple openings and foglamps in the Sport package's lower front fascia give it an aggressive look. Privacy glass in the rear side windows aids interior comfort and security, and helps hide the sliding door tracks.
COMFORT: You want room? Step right inside...it's easy, thanks to a low step-in height and the dual sliding doors. The Grand Caravan at the large end of the minivan size scale, and that has its benefits in interior space. It has a six inch longer wheelbase and is just over a foot longer than the regular Caravan, but is considerably smaller than a jumbo-sized SUV. My test example has seven-passenger seating, with comfortably-contoured captains chairs for the first two rows and a third-row bench. Fine synthetic upholstery is the order of the day. The off-side second-row seat has an integrated child seat, which flips up for third-row access. Or, just step in -- from either side -- and walk down the central aisle. There is plenty of legroom for everyone, even with the front seats all the way back. And all seats, even the rear bench, recline. Second and third row seats fold forward, or can be removed. Cupholders abound -- a minivan standard -- and convenient storage areas can be found around the cabin. An optional climate control system has dual-zone front controls and separate controls for the rear passengers as well. Five dashboard vents and four more in back keep everyone cool or warm as necessary. Back up front, a removable cargo net between the front buckets is convenient, and augments door, instrument panel console, and glovebox storage. Instrumentation is complete and legible, with an auxiliary overhead console providing a driver information center and storage for sunglasses and a garage door opener. Good visibility and a high seating position aid the driver.
SAFETY: The 1999 Dodge Grand Caravan has standard antilock brakes, dual "Next Generation" airbags, and 3-point harnesses for all outboard occupants.
ROADABILITY: The Grand Caravan feels much like a large contemporary American sedan on the road. It's quiet and comfortable, and deals confidently with highways, byways, and city traffic. The "Sport" suspension isn't really a sport suspension. It's a little firmer than standard for better control, but biased for comfort.
PERFORMANCE: The 3.3-liter overhead-valve V6 in my test van is well-suited to any minivan task. With 158 horsepower and 203 lb-ft of torque, it's got plenty of low-speed torque for city and commute traffic and has good power reserves on the highway. The 4-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly and quietly, and has adaptive shift logic for more efficient operation. It doesn't hunt between gears on steep hills.
CONCLUSIONS: A week with a 1999 Dodge Grand Caravan shows why it's so popular.
SPECIFICATIONS Base Price $ 23,075 Price As Tested $ 29,595 Engine Type 12-valve, overhead valve V6 Engine Size 3.3 liters / 201 cu. in. Horsepower 158 @ 4850 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 203 @ 3250 rpm Transmission 4-speed electronically-controlled automatic with adaptive shift logic Wheelbase / Length 119.3 in. / 199.6 in. Curb Weight 3811 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 24.1 Fuel Capacity 20 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded regular (87 octane) or E85 ethanol Tires P215 / 65 TR16 Michelin MXV4 m+s Brakes, front/rear vented disc / drum, antilock standard on SE Suspension, front/rear independent Iso struts / tubular beam axle with single-leaf spring Drivetrain front engine, front-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 18 / 24 / 19 0 to 60 mph 11.3 sec 1/4 mile (E.T.) 18.2 sec Coefficient of Drag (cd) 0.35 OPTIONS AND CHARGES Candy Apple Red Metallic Clear Coat $ 200 Customer Preferred Package 25N (Sport) - includes: 7-passenger seating with quad buckets, 8-way power driver's seat, power windows & vents with driver's window 1-touch, speed-sensitive power locks, body-color side molding and spoiler, foglamps, leather-wrapped steering wheel, heavy-duty suspension with 215/65R16 touring tires, rear fascia scuff pad, front and rear floor mats, ignition, glovebox, ashtray, and second-row reading lights, illuminated visor vanity mirrors, deluxe insulation group $ 3,530 Climate group II - includes: Dual zone front AC tempcontrol, rear AC & heating $ 495 Convenience Group V - includes: security alarm, remote keyless entry, illuminated entry, headlamp off time delay $ 390 Trailer Tow Prep Group - full-size spare tire, heavy duty brakes, radiator, transmission and engine oil coolers, trailer tow wiring harness $ 285 Infinity AM/FM/cassette/CD 200W 10-speaker sound system $ 720 Smoker's Group -- ashtray & cigar lighter $ 20 7-passenger seating with child seat $ 125 Roof Rack $ 195 Load Leveling and Height Control $ 290 Alloy Wheels $ 265 Destination Charge $ 580 Dodge Discount -($ 675)