Chrysler’s Pentastar-powered minivan is, truly, madly, deeply, one of my favorite vehicles. My first meeting was with the high-buck Town and Country, followed by a very long drive in a Caravan SXT. Great vehicles, both of them, and worth the money.
Unfortunately for Chrysler’s profit margins, however, the economic outlook in this country for actual working people continues to nose-dive. The company’s fighting back with a $20,000 (after incentives and discounts) “America Value Package” Caravan. That’s right: for the price of a Honda Civic EX, there’s a 283-horsepower, seven-seater van with keyless entry available. To get a sense of whether such a proposition holds any interest for those of us without five children and a slim budget, I rented a 2012 Caravan with slightly less equipment than what you’d find in the 2013 Value Package, and took a little thousand-mile Tennessee excursion.
My long-time readers know that any mention of the Volunteer State in my writing is usually accompanied by some lurid tale regarding a highly dramatic hairdresser in her very early thirties, but I am pleased to announce that we are killing her character off. Let’s do that right now, and since you guys all think I make this stuff up anyway I’m going to make it up the way I wanted it to happen rather than the slightly annoying way it actually happened. Plus, you can skip it if you like.
It was near midnight in the Hyatt Place down the street from the Mercedes-Benz dealer. Drama lay across the ottoman in a physically improbable but very sexy position and twirled her hair in her left index finger as I strummed the final chord of “Heartbreak Warfare” on my Martin D-41.
“It’s never going to happen, is it?” she cried. “You don’t want me enough.”
“I’m a father,” I said, “I won’t leave my son to be with you in Nashville. Still, the thought of you letting that fedora-wearing douchebag of a deadbeat dad you’re currently dating move in with you makes me want to projectile-vomit the outstanding steak I just had all the way across this room.”
“It’s okay, Jack. You don’t have to worry about me. I’m dying of a rare blood disease. In fact, by tomorrow morning I’ll be dead and you’ll never have to think of me again.”
“That’s very convenient for me.”
“Just promise me you’ll visit my grave every December 7th, to commemorate our grand romantic adventure at the Omphoy Resort in Palm Beach.”
“How about I visit your old roommate instead?”
Whew! Glad that’s over. Let’s get back to the Caravan. As with the American Value Package version, my rental base model had power locks, power windows, air conditioning, a CD player with 1/8″ auxiliary input, cruise control, anti-lock brakes, traction control, all that stuff. What don’t you get? Well, there are no LCD screens to be found. The instrument panel won’t tell you how many miles per gallon you’re getting. There is no power assistance for the sliding doors or rear liftgate. The seats are finished in a hardy-looking but non-luxurious cloth and the only “memory” function they have will reside within your own cerebrum.
In other words, the equipment’s about what you would get on a top-of-the-line minivan from 1990. So no bitching allowed.
The central excellence of the Caravan in all its forms comes down to this: it’s easy, pleasant, and effective to drive. The Pentastar makes it fast enough to handle anything from short freeway merges to cut-and-slice traffic. The transmission likes to swap between fifth and sixth a lot on the freeway but the payback is real-world fuel mileage in the 26-30mpg range over longer trips. Visibility is excellent with just a slice of bonnet visible for parking confidence. The wind noise is acceptable and it’s no worse than what you get in the current crop of mid-size sedans despite the resonance effect of the big interior space.
Even with the cheapo tires fitted to non-R/T Caravans, it’s possible to double most on-ramp speed limits and fast lane changes happen without too much roll or difficulty. I suspect that most of the driving dynamics are considerably less pleasant with seven passengers on board, but guess what? The same thing can be said of a Gallardo Superleggera.
I’ve come to believe that most car companies have a core product where their experiences, customer clinics, and engineering ability are most effectively utilized. With Ford, it’s the trucks and the Mustang. With GM, it’s the Corvette. With Toyota, it’s the Prius. For Chrysler, it’s the minivan. Intellectually, I know that the Sienna and Odyssey are of equal utility and are possibly more durable, but when I actually sit in the things it’s obvious that the competition just doesn’t understand minivans as well as Chrysler does. Everything in the Caravan works. Everything makes sense. The sole quibble I have about this vehicle, really, is that the power outlets are located at the bottom of the console. That works for most people but for those of us who want to slap our navigation-capable smartphones on the windshield it makes for a long cable run and a resultant high load on the Micro-USB connector.
Finished in basic white, the Caravan was invisible to cops and in the raise-the-black-flag-and-start-slitting-throats mood which characterized my entire run from Nashville back to Ohio I skated by the highway patrol at least twice in excess of 90mph. When a couple of inbred lot-lizard-collectors decided to race their semi-trucks up a long Kentucky hill at fifty miles per hour and block most of the freeway, I forced the Caravan into the kind of highly offensive high-speed run down the far-right lane I used to pull in my Phaetons all the time. It responded with alacrity to both the request for acceleration and the full-tilt braking I needed to sneak back in line when the lane ran out.
Having made the same trip in an Altima just four days previously, I tried to determine which vehicle I’d rather make the run in should my client decide I needed to visit Nashville once a week for the rest of my life. Although the Altima was comfortable and competent, it literally didn’t do a single useful thing any better than the Caravan did.
Acceleration? The Caravan beats it.
Handling? About the same in most circumstances.
Comfort? The Caravan is less fatiguing.
Economy? About the same.
Cargo capacity? Come on.
Features? They were equal, once you consider that the 2013 Caravan has keyless entry standard.
If you price out 2013 models, you’ll find that the Caravan has a slight advantage over the four-cylinder Altima, Accord, and even the Camry. For the same kind of money, you get a bigger engine and a bigger box to carry your stuff. While it’s hard to argue against the resale value of the Japanese-brand midsizers, nor would you be wise to discount what a family-carrying minivan will be worth used as the middle class continues its flyover-country vanishing act.
And yet, a lot of people will crunch all the numbers, do all the test drives, and still walk away from the Caravan. They’ll do it because they’ve been burned before by minivans foreign or domestic, particularly with regards to transmission durability. They’ll do it because they don’t need the extra capacity and it feels wasteful to have it even if there’s no penalty. But mostly they’ll do it because they don’t want to be seen in a minivan. Minivans are what station wagons used to be: deeply and terminally uncool. Driving a minivan feels like an abject surrender to all the things our increasingly schizophrenic society despises. Family. Commitment. Modest income. Church. Soccer teams. The old American dream, that stupid knuckle-dragging Ozzie and Harriet crap that was supposed to vanish in a single bright bicoastal flash of Chris Brown, Slow Food, and Hannah Horvath. Who wants to be associated with it?
And yet there’s freedom in that groove. Rolling up Interstate 65, listening to the Ronald Isley and Burt Bacharach album I bought ironically a few years ago and have been listening to with sincerity ever since, I saw some dumb-ass in a matte-white GT-R swerving through traffic in the most unnecessarily race-y way humanly possible. I studied his trajectory, made a few predictions, and managed to put the big white Dodge right in his windshield as he went for a fast-and-furious pass on a tractor-trailer. He backed off and tried a few lanes over, only to find me in front of him again. Five times he full-throttled his way back and forth across 65’s considerable girth, and each time somehow I just happened to be in his way. Took maybe twenty minutes. I judged the excellence of my ricer-retarding work by how much I could increase the gap between us and an Impala that had remained in the same lane for the whole time. When we started, the GT-R was about to pass the Impala; when I finished, we could barely see the Chevy’s generic chrome trunk strip ahead.
Finally I gave up the game and this time he sped up next to me, hit the brakes, and waved his heavily tattooed arms at me widly, swearing in a language I couldn’t hear but guessed to be Russian. I waved back and smiled in utterly guileless fashion. He threw his hands up. I could guess what he was thinking Stupid old bastard. All over the road. Doesn’t know what he’s doing. The big Nissan gathered speed and shrank to a distant dot ahead. I waved again. Not the brilliant hero of my own imagination. Not the cold-hearted, bloodlessly manipulative monster of Drama’s nightmares. Just a harmless guy in a minivan. Going nowhere fast. Like everyone else.