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New Car Review: 2005 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT

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SEE ALSO: New Car Buyer's Guide for Dodge

It's hard, now, to imagine life without minivans. Over twenty years and ten million of its own minivans ago, the then-Chrysler Corporation (now Chrysler Group of DaimlerChrysler) invented the genre, and full-size station wagons were history. Being number one makes one an inviting target, and soon all mass-market automakers had minivans. And some of them soon jumped ahead of Chrysler Group's offerings in useful features. Competition breeds evolution, and Chrysler has struck back for 2005 with its next generation of minivans from the Dodge and Chrysler brands. They match the competition and add their own unique and very useful features.

Even though the `05 Dodge Caravans and Chrysler Town & Countrys are built on a new platform, outside differences between them and last year's models are few. But exterior styling is not the main point of a minivan. The interior is. And inside, there are major improvements in usefulness and versatility that leapfrog the competition. Chief among these is the ``Stow `n Go'' seating system. In the Stow `n Go system, standard in all extended-wheelbase models of Chrysler Town & Country and the Dodge Grand Caravan SXT and SE Plus, both the second- and third-row seats fold quickly and easily into the floor when cargo it's time to carry cargo. No more wrestling with bulky, awkward seats that are ``easily removable'' only if you're the governor of California. Chrysler PR types claim 256 possible seating configurations, and the interior can be converted from seven-passenger seating to a cargo-friendly two-person configuration in as little as 30 seconds with practice. Without removing heavy seats and straining one's back.

In the Dodge lineup, the Caravans are regular wheelbase models and Grand Caravans have a longer wheelbase for greater interior space. There are numerous passenger and cargo models in both sizes, with a choice of 2.4-liter four-cylinder or 3.3-liter V6 engines in the Caravan and the 3.3-liter and a 3.8-liter V6 for the Grand Caravan. At the top of the lineup is the Grand Caravan SXT, with the 3.8 engine and just about every minivan goodie possible. That would be press fleet spec, and that's what I've been driving for the past week.

The Grand Caravan has been a satisfying and useful vehicle. Good power and ride comfort are expected; the interior versatility puts it at the head of its class. It's a minivan, not a sports car, so it doesn't score high in the ``fun to drive'' category, but if you're bored, or curious, spend some time seeing how many ways to reconfigure the seating. And how quickly that can be done. Minivans are the most useful things on four wheels, and the new Dodge Caravans and Chrysler Town & Countrys are the most useful minivans.

APPEARANCE: At a glance, or even upon lengthier inspection, it's hard to tell the 2005 Caravan or Grand Caravan from the 2004 models. They're a little more sculpted, and have slightly larger fender flares. They're typical modern minivans, one-and-a-half box shapes with rounded corners, a short, sloping hood, lots of window area for visibility (but tinted for privacy and heat reduction), and a prominent beltline. Being Dodges, the body-colored ``crosshair'' grille with the ram's-head logo in the center adorns the front. Flamboyant styling is not a minivan characteristic, but the pearl-coat ``Inferno Red'' of my test Grand Caravan made it highly visible.

COMFORT: If the difference between new and old Grand Caravans is not readily apparent outside, the exterior is not a minivan's most important part. That honor is reserved for the interior, and interior space and configurability are what sells minivans. And the new Chrysler minivans equipped with the Stow `n Go system, including the Grand Caravan SXT, make the best use of that space. They were, after all, ``designed from the inside out'' in Chrysler's words. The number of possible useful seating configurations and the ease in changing from one to another is amazing. In full seven-passenger mode, the well behind the rear seat, into which it can disappear, is a good place to put grocery bags. When (not if) anything falls out, it stays in the well and doesn't disappear into some hard-to-find space. This is not unusual in a minivan these days; the third row bench is. It's split 60/40, and each part may be folded separately, or flipped over to be rear-facing for tailgate parties or picnics. The second row seats also can each be folded into the floor quickly. When they are up, their stowage space becomes a six cubic foot covered compartment. There are tie-downs for securing heavy items in cargo mode. During a press preview a few months ago, one of the Chrysler representatives claimed to have gotten her motorcycle (a Harley-Davidson Sportster) inside - not through the back but through the side. Neat trick. Also handy is an overhead storage system consisting of dual rails with three movable storage compartments and the rear-seat entertainment system's DVD screen.

None of the Stow `n Go features would be all that great if the ergonomic design and seat comfort were sub-par. They are first-rate. Super High Density (SHD) foam, originally developed by NASA for astronaut seat comfort, is used for the seats, and it works just as well in a minivan as it does in space. Both first- and second-row seats recline up to 60 degrees for naps, and the second-row seats are adjustable fore-and-aft for legroom. Good visibility and instrument and control design help the driver, as do available power-adjustable pedals. Power doors and liftgate, part of the ``Leather Interior Group,'' ease access, especially with hands full - if you remember to get the key fob before you need that third hand!

SAFETY: The new Grand Caravan's structure is designed for maximum occupant protection, and safety is enhanced by standard front multistage advanced airbags, a driver-side knee blocker, the Occupant Classification System, which determines passenger-side airbag force depending on passenger weight, and available three-row side curtain airbags. A rear parking assistance system is offered.

ROADABILITY: A Dodge Grand Caravan is a large passenger vehicle, over 16 feet long, with a ten-foot wheelbase and a curb weight of more than 4200 lbs. Its independent strut front, leaf-sprung beam axle rear suspension is designed and calibrated for passenger comfort and cargo-carrying ability. New sound-proofing technologies used in its construction make it quieter than any earlier Chrysler Group minivans. Add it all up, pack it full of people and their stuff, and the new Grand Caravan is, well, a grand vehicle on the highway and around town, and comfortable on the backroads as well. The SXT features four-wheel antilock disc brakes for sure stopping ability.

PERFORMANCE: With 215 horsepower at 5000 rpm and 245 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm, the Grand Caravan SXT's 3.8-liter V6 has plenty of power to move the minivan's mass, and it returns reasonable fuel economy as a bonus. An EPA rating of 18 city, 25 highway, with around 20 mpg average may not be in hybrid territory, but is considerably better than any SUV with a similar passenger capacity. Although minivans are not usually thought of as tow vehicles, the SXT can tow up to 2,000 lbs in standard trim, or up to 3,800 lbs with the tow package.

CONCLUSIONS: Chrysler Group stays at the forefront of the minivan class with its new and improved 2005 models.

2005 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT

Base Price			$ 26,315
Price As Tested		        $ 33,705
Engine Type			pushrod overhead valve 12-valve V6
Engine Size			3.8 liters / 231 cu. in.
Horsepower			215 @ 5000 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			245 @ 4000 rpm
Transmission			4-speed automatic with adaptive 
				  electronic control
Wheelbase / Length		119.3 in. / 200.5 in.
Curb Weight			4252 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		19.8
Fuel Capacity			20 gal.
Fuel Requirement		87 octane unleaded regular gasoline
Tires				P215/65 TR16 Bridgestone Turanza EL42
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / solid disc,
				 antilock standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent strut /
				  beam axle with single-leaf springs
Drivetrain			front engine, front-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		18 / 25 / 20
Towing capacity			2000 lbs. standard, 3800 opt.
0 to 60 mph				est. 11 sec

Inferno Red Tinted Pearl Coat Paint 		$   225
Leather Interior Group - includes:
  Power liftgate, Infinity(r) Acoustic
  speaker system, leather low-back
  bucket seats, heated front seats,
  power front seats (driver's adjustable
  lumbar support), air conditioning with
  3-zone auto temp control, cabin air
  filtering system, vehicle information
  center, removable front center console	$ 2,930
Premium Group - includes:
  power-adjustable pedals, rear park assist
  system, vehicle security system, 3 overhead
  storage bins, touring suspension		$   985
3-Row Side Curtain Air Bags			$   605
Low Tire Pressure Warning Monitor		$    70
In-Dash 6-Disc CD/DVD Changer		        $   555
UConnect Hands-Free Communication	        $   360
Rear-Seat Video System - includes:
  2nd row overhead 7-inch video screen,
  wireless headphones, remote control	        $    990
Destination Charge				$    680
Assist Handle Delete			       -($   10)