Women and minivans, women and minivans. They don’t quite go together like a horse and carriage, but it’s possible to be just a little more romantic about either when the location is right. I fell in love with the revise-and-retouch 2011 Chrysler minivans during an epic Northern California trip, as detailed in my first-drive review, but sometimes the girl who bewitched you in that far-away hotel room turns out to be a completely damaged headcase in daily living, and sometimes a manufacturer-prepped van in a gorgeous setting doesn’t hold up in that cold, no-makeup morning.
To find out, I requested (meaning “rented”) a Grand Caravan from my local PR flack (meaning “Enterprise counter agent”) and I set out on a trip designed to test the not-so-minivan to its limits (meaning “I had a trip I was going to take anyway and I want to get paid for doing it.”) Only by driving nearly two thousand miles in under three days could I determine if Chrysler was ready to compete against the leaders in the segment. Translation: “I will submit my fuel receipts for this trip, and they will not be paid because there was no reason to cover this kind of distance.”
My initial review of the Town & Country was so enthusiastic that Michael Karesh promptly contributed a counterpoint where he provided detailed statistical comparisons to other minivans, as well as a link to a site called “TrueDelta”. I’ve never been to “TrueDelta”, but based on the name I expect it has something to do with either maximizing acceleration or evaluating photos of the mons veneris. I’m interested in both of those things, both separately and together, so I’m saving my first trip to the site for a day when I really need a pick-me-up of hot, nasty, bad-ass speed.
The van I drove would cost a buyer $27,425 MSRP less rebates as of this writing. Frankly, it seems like a hell of a bargain and then some. It’s missing a lot of the goodies — heated seats, a moonroof, navigation, remote start, the super-duper Infinity sound system, leather interior, et al — but it has all the critical pieces of equipment for a middle-class family, from power doors to a rear-view camera. The stereo is pretty good, although the Caravan’s oddly hushed interior goes a long way towards flattering it.
My route was like so: from sunny Powell, Ohio, drive to Mt. Pico in Vermont, Mt. Kearsarge in New Hampshire, and then up the Maine coast so my partner in crime, Vodka McBigbra, could put on her favorite bikini and scandalize entire vacationing families while I played “Little Wing” on the hotel balcony. Follow a similar route, with less mountain-road driving and more freeway drone, on the way back.
I resolved to drive the entire trip in the Caravan’s “Econ” mode, which is selected by pressing a small button on the center console. That button is right next to the hazard button and it’s twice as big as said hazard button. I took this as a cheerful indicator that Chrysler didn’t expect the van to break down, and they didn’t expect me to misuse the hazard button for long-term parking in airport loading zones, but they did expect me to be economical and whatnot.
The dash readout doesn’t lie. Well, it may lie, but the (in)frequency of my fuel stops indicated that it wasn’t lying by much. That’s the overall readout for 1500 miles, much of it up and down some pretty curvy roads in Vermont. Yes, I did leave the transmission in “Econ” mode, which makes the Caravan a little sluggish in everyday driving, but when I needed to grab a gear or two I did it with the convenient dashboard tip-shifter, and once, during a particularly determined rush up an on-ramp, I looked down and realized I was doing a solid buck-oh-five. At that speed, the Caravan is quiet and controllable. Don’t give this to your teenaged son and think he’s going to slow down as a result. This is a quick vehicle and the engine absolutely encourages abuse in the same way that Ford’s Duratec really doesn’t.
Stow-N-Go: priceless if you have children and need quick space. Lame otherwise, although when I returned the vehicle to Enterprise I told the cutie behind the counter that “somebody stole the seats, I think” and then watched in complete satisfaction as she looked for them in the van.
The Grand Caravan is rated for 3600lbs towing capacity. That’s perilously close to what a Plymouth Neon race car weighs on a Featherlite trailer. I thought about that particular combination a lot during my trip. Why not enjoy a reasonably-sized vehicle with a massive amount of reconfigurable, weather-proofed interior space and outstanding fuel mileage for all the times when I’m not towing?
Let’s take a minute to talk about (in)famous auto writer LJK Setright and his “hundred-mile rule”. Setright said that legitimate automotive testing could consist of no more than one hundred miles. By the time the hundred-mile mark rolls around, you see, the faults of the vehicle would have receded in the tester’s consciousness, the same way a constant noise or smell tends to fade into the background of our awareness after some time has passed. I think he’s at least half-right, but it’s only well past the 100-mile mark that the fitness of the vehicle for long trips is truly apparent. Some minor faults in seating position or control effort aren’t too bothersome in a short trip, but they become all-conqueringly miserable while crossing a continent. Michael and I have already given you the 100-mile review.
Past one hundred miles, when the nine hundredth mile without any kind of meaningful rest stop appears, the Caravan reveals some unexpected strengths and weaknesses. Strength: unlike many vans, the seat position doesn’t put stress on the knees and ankles. Weakness: the seats need more back support, perhaps adjustable. Strength: it’s quiet, it tracks hands-off, and it’s relatively impervious to wind. Weakness: the armest on the right side is hard and the left side armrest is poorly positioned on the door. Strength: visibility is outstanding all the way around. Weakness: the center console makes it difficult to get into the back area for
making out helping a child who needs help.
The bottom line? Over the course of some long, annoying drives, the Caravan is as good, or better, than any midsize sedan you can buy for this kind of money. Forget the space, forget the van-centric virtues. If you drive this vehicle a thousand miles out, all by your lonesome, and then drive a LaCrosse a thousand miles back, you’ll prefer the Caravan. I’m not kidding. Why buy a sedan? The Caravan matches most of them for economy, is priced within shouting distance of them, and then you turn around and OMFG FIVE MORE PEOPLE AND A BUNCH OF STUFF GOES BACK THERE TOO. Down a backroad, the G/C will bitchslap a lot of fairly recent mid-sizers, it will beat them up the ramp to the freeway, and you can just happen to PUT A ZILLION CUBIC FEET OF RARE CAGED BIRDS FROM MEXICO IN THE BACK.
It turns out this is one California romance that holds up in the cold light of a Maine sunrise. The Grand Caravan is simply a great car. It isn’t a Great Little Car — the spiritual successor to that is a Mazda 2 — but it’s a Nice Big Van. Money well spent, as a rental, and I suspect it would be money well spent as a purchase, too. The word will spread. The Caravan wasn’t the original minivan — that was a bit of Iacocca marketing magic — but it’s one of the best.