A little while ago, I was asked by a local radio station to choose a kind of Canadian Car Of The Year. In my professional (ahem) opinion, what was the most significant car on the market? Never mind whether it was brand new for 2013, or displayed the latest technology, what would I pick as a car of the year for Canada?
Lots to consider here, of course, but one of my choices was, believe it or not, the Dodge Grand Caravan. Not because it’s thrilling to drive, mind-blowing to look at, or represents cutting-edge design and engineering. Hardly. I chose it because, after – what? – 40 years on the Canadian market, it is still the most popular model in its segment and sells in vast numbers every year. People buy this vehicle….lots of people. It’s also made in Canada, with the plant in Windsor running three shifts, pumping one out every couple of minutes, 24/7. Not to mention the Chrysler Town and Country and Volkswagen Routan, which are essentially the same vehicles, with different badging.
There have been lots of changes along the way, of course, and one of the main reasons for the Grand Caravan’s popularity has to be because it’s also the cheapest offering in this segment of the market. For less than $20,000 before taxes and extras, you can take home an SE “Canada Value Package”, which has to be a pretty good deal any way you slice it. A full-size mini-van, with all the necessary modcons, and the most powerful V6 engine in this category. None of the other mini-vans out there can even come close to matching this. The Toyota Sienna, for example, starts at over $28,000 and the Odyssey is almost thirty large. Ditto with the Kia Sedona.
My tester this time around, was a “Crew Plus” version, and it differs from the base model mainly in equipment level. For example, it comes with leather seats, power adjustable pedals, second row power windows, a driver information centre and a climate control system. It also has the Stow And Go centre seats, which fold flat into the floor and open up the interior in no time flat. That said, it’s a bit of a wrestling match to tilt them up and fold back the floor panels, plus the front seat must be completely forward with the seat back tilted upright, before they’ll fit, but it’s still a great idea and also accounts for the Grand Caravan’s popularity, no doubt. The third row seats also fold flat into the floor, opening up a total of 4072 litres or cargo space.
My tester also had some other goodies in the form of heated front seats, power rear lift-gate, Sirius satellite radio, power folding third row seat, back-up camera, power side doors, blind spot and rear cross-path detection systems, and on and on. All of which bump the price up to well over $46,000, which changes everything. In this price range, the Grand Caravan now goes head-to-head against the Sienna, Odyssey, Sedona and so on, and frankly, doesn’t fare as well.
Power for all Grand Caravans is provided by the “Pentastar” V6, which displaces 3.6 litres and develops 283 horsepower. Transmission is a six-speed automatic only and the shifter is placed high up on the dash, rather than on the floor or steering column. I found this arrangement to be completely counter-intuitive and kind of off-putting….it needs to be relocated.
No gripes with the powertrain, however. This engine is willing, powerful, and has a nice linear power delivery. Before 2011, previous versions of the Grand Caravan were saddled with an anemic pushrod V6 that really started to wheeze with a full complement of passengers and cargo. The new V6 is used throughout Chrysler’s model line-up and can match most of its rivals, with the exception of the Odyssey, which gets my vote as having the most refined engine in this class.
There’s one other thing. The Grand Caravan seems to be one of those Monday/Friday cars. In other words, if it’s built on either of those two days, quality may not be up to par. Here’s the theory: on Monday, workers are slow and kind of sullen after a weekend off, and on Friday, they can’t wait to get home and may rush things.
Seriously, however; the Grand Caravan is low on the dependability scale as far as Consumer Reports is concerned. They reckon that its reliability will be some 70 per cent below average and they give it an overall score of 74 out of 100. Top score in this latter category is 83, garnered by the Odyssey. One of the main problem areas for the Grand Caravan seems to be its transmission, which C.R. describes as being “a generation behind”.
AT A GLANCE
Base Price: $34,495; as tested: $46,435
Engine: 3.6 litre V6
Horsepower: 283 hp @ 6400 rpm
Torque: 260 ft. lb @ 4400 rpm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel economy: (litres/100 km): 12.2 city; 7.9 hwy. Regular gas.
Alternatives: Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna, Kia Sedona, Nissan Quest, Volkswagen Routan, Chrysler Town An