Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Dodge Grand Caravan Review (long post) – B+

So this last week I was part of this test drive program, and got to drive the 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan for a week. I really wanted to love this car. I was so excited to get it, and when it arrived it was so sparkly and cool and new. But I just didn’t love it. I didn’t hate it either. There were some things I really loved about it, and some things that were great in concept, but execution was somewhat lacking. Overall, I would say this new edition brings Dodge up to be competitive with the level of the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna. But it could have been better.

First, a few things you need to know. I have a 2004 Toyota Sienna and LOVE it. I have three kids – ages 1, 3, and 5. While we currently have an entertainment system in our minivan, it is only used for trips over 2 hours. However, for this test drive, we let the kids watch tv/videos when we were just driving around, to test it out.

The other big thing to know. The minivan they gave me had some problems. As they told me when they dropped it off – the doors were acting weird – automatic open not always working, although both could be done manually. The automatic stow and go was not working. Given that the car only had 3500 miles on it, this definitely gave me some pause. I mean, I know a lot of different people have driven it, but still, I’m surprised stuff was already going wrong. That said…

There were several things I loved about the car. However, they are features you can now get on many high-end cars. 1) backup camera. Anytime the car was in reverse the backup camera images popped up on the center console screen. VERY cool. Made parallel parking (even in a big minivan) easy. 2) Remote start. This was so cool. It was cold this week. I loved being able to turn the car on from inside the house and let it warm up. 3) Center console media center – on the center console there is a big video screen. It contains all the media/gps you could even need. Easy to use/easy to see. The car had satellite radio and satellite tv. Very cool features. Although I doubt I would ever pay the monthly fee – certainly not for the tv. But it was nice to not have to have videos with us. But I would hardly ever use that in real life. The GPS was great too, and the satellite radio included traffic updates which was great in our congested city.

There were several things I loved the idea of, but could use some more refining. 1) Swivel seats and table. Everyone I mentioned this car too asked about the table first. I was excited about it too. So when they delivered the van, I asked them to setup the table and swivel the seats, so as soon as I picked up the kids they’d see it. The marketing people said, “you have three kids? You can’t use the table. Not enough room.” I was like, “what??!! The commercial shows 4 kids around it.” I had them set it up. Sadly, she was mostly right. The table is a great idea. But with kids in car seats, and small backseat area, the table was pretty crowded. When the kids are just in boosters or less it will probably be better, but then there will be leg room issues. That said, my kids loved being able to color back there while I was driving. With about 3-5 more inches, it would have been perfect. Set up and removal of the table were pretty easy – but difficult with car seats in there. The table stows easily in floorboard storage. The swivel seats were cool. Even without the table, the kids like facing each other. Of course, the back-facing row couldn’t watch tv. 2) Automatic stow and go. Again, great idea, but it was not working in the car I got. We did get it to go once, and it was very cool. No more pulling and pushing on the seats. But if it is broken in a car with only 3500 miles, how reliable is it?

The trunk space is very big. In fact, I wish they would take a few inches out and put them in the backseat. But it is probably all needed for the stow and go. There are lots of great storage spaces in the car, and they use every bit. Lots of cup holders too and great in floor storage units. They have a backseat conversation mirror (I call it the bus driver mirror) that is great - even better than the one in my Sienna, and behind it you can stow your sunglasses. There is cool ambient lighting in the back that is nice. The car drives well. It handles as well, if not better than the Toyota due to a V6 engine - although the Sienna has a better turning radius.

Overall rating – B+ I wanted to really love this car. It was good. They thought of everything, at least in the fully loaded model I drove. The extras are great. The storage is great. If you take alot of road trips or have a very long commute with kids in tow, this is a great car for you.

DH will probably weigh in with his thoughts...


Mordermi said...

DH will probably weigh in with his thoughts...

Me? Comment? Never...so anyway, now for my $.02

3xMommy is right...the Dodge has caught up to the current front runners in terms of features. Toyota redesigned the Sienna in 2004, Honda did it in 2005, and Dodge just did it. All of these cars come with option packages that can include: power sliding doors, power rear hatches (think these are luxury items? Carry a kid in one arm, your groceries in the other and tell me which you put down on the parking lot surface to fetch keys and lug open the door?), DVD players, navagation systems, upwards of 12 cup holders, tons of storage compartments, lift out/fold down seating in the rear two rows, side windows that go down, rear windows that pop out for venting, and numerous other creature comforts. The cars also have decent performance that allows you to get from a standing start to merged-with-traffic in fairly short order. The Dodge had lower road noise than our Toyota, but more engine noise (I suspect it was also a slightly bigger engine, so it probably is about even over all) and maybe more pickup, but as she said, the turning radius isn't as sweet (useful for u-turning mid-block to get that parking space which just opened up). I agree with 3xMom that the table concept is really neat...and with just a bit more leg room would be fantastic. I disagree on the trunk space...I think it was about equal to the Sienna, not larger. Only thing we can do in the Sienna that didn't seem possible in the Dodage was to put 3 car seats across in the back row...there were anchors for 2 seats, but not 3.

Bottom Line: Features and comfortwise, the Dodge would be a contender if we were buying a minivan today. When we were looking 3+ years ago, it really wasn't. We knew we'd be spending a lot of time in the car each week and that we'd be using it for roadtrips...so we went for features that made day-to-day commuting more convenient and would be lifesavers when stuck in the car for 6 hours with 2+ kids. Many of those features were't available on a Dodge then...but they seem to be now. Of course, exactly which car is right for you will depending on which packages you select, at what price points, and personal preference, yaddayaddayadda. "Your mileage may vary" applies to more than just gas mileage. :)

The only real lingering question about the Dodge is the reliability. For years, many American manufacturers have struggled to match the quality/reliability of several import cars. Based on what we saw, I don't know if Dodge is there yet. We've had a Chrysler PT Cruiser for going on 6 years now and it's done very well (In today's market, Chrysler and Dodge are effectively the same manufacturer...so I'm saying we've got some point of comparison). Having said that, I was surprised the marketing company allowed us to try the car out with several known issues. I'd love to blame the marketing company (maybe some of the quirks were the result of safety features we weren't made aware of), but I also have to wonder why some things popped up after 3500 miles. Why did the side doors sometimes reopen after everything was all in and nothing in the doorway? Why did the rear folding seat work fine on one side, but didn't fold down on the other (except the last time we tried it)? Caveat: Maybe some of these things would have been answered if we had just RTFM (we did read a couple sections to figure out things like the DVD players, but most things worked intuitively which was good designing by Dodge), and we did only have the car for a week.

It was a fun experience all-in-all and I thank Dodge/the marketing company for the opportunity. (sorry for the wall of text there)

Amy W said...

Thanks for the very in depth review!!

Queen Mommy said...

Totally bummed out! This was my dream car, sadly my dreams have been dashed. I was so excited by the table thing and in fact, was just discussing with my co-workers yesterday. Such a disappointment! Thanks for the scoop. More importantly, how do I get to test drive one???

Happy Working Mom said...

We had a Chrysler Town and Country a couple years ago and the thing gave us NOTHING BUT PROBLEMS. So when you said there were things wrong with it at 3,500 miles, I wasn't at all surprised.

No matter how cool the features are, realiability has to be the number 1 factor when you have kids! And our van was in the shop more than I had it (or at least it felt that way :) ).