2005 Dodge Grand Caravan car review

Review Notes: 2005 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT (3.8 V6)
Personality Drives like a luxury car, stores luggage like a Suburban, enough amenities to shame a family room
Unusual features Best-in-class folding seats; power rear hatch; comfy last row; legroom
EPA gas mileage 18 city, 25 highway (3.8 V6)
Above Average Flexibility, convenience, cornering, transmission responsiveness, interior conveniences
Needs Work Emergency brake handle feels unfinished - yes, we had to look that far.
Price Grand Caravan starts at $22,000 with destination; ours was $33,690.
Notes Passed driveway scrape test; review by David Zatz, acarplace.com

Chrysler was the first company to build modern minivans in the United States, and for years they sold more than everyone else combined. After 20 years, the Dodge Caravan is still the best-selling minivan in America, partly because they respond quickly to competitors - in this case, GM, Ford, and Honda. We have no doubt that responses to Nissan's moonroof and Toyota's lowering rear windows will come in a year or two (more likely two).

The sheer number of gadgets in the Grand Caravan - both standard and optional - creates a stunning list that rivals anything GM can offer. From the de rigeur navigation systems to three power open/close doors to seats that easily fold into the floor, the Grand Caravan easily matches the feature list of any competing minivan (lacking only a full-length sunroof), even as its general convenience and design present advantages over competitors. Even without the fancy gadgets and features, the Caravan is still a good buy, with surprisingly good cornerning and feel, and a convenient size and height which provides visibility to the driver as well as access.

Most people are interested in the features, so we should cover the basics first, to make sure you realize there's more to a Caravan than fancy seats and overhead racks. The base (on Grands) 3.3 liter engine has racked up an impressive history of reliability over the years, with periodic horsepower boosts from improvements to its airflow, fuel injection, and computer programming. Short-wheelbase Caravans have a 2.4 liter four-cylinder standard, which lowers the price a bit without adding much to fuel economy; on the lighter side, the 2.4 produces as much power as the original V6, so it's no laggard. The 3.3 V6, while a bit short in horsepower specifications, is by no means slow, providing adequate power for the vast majority of buyers; it's the engine in nearly every Chrysler minivan we've tested so far. This time, though, Dodge provided us with the top-of-the-line 3.8 liter V6, which is similar in design to the 3.3 but with a longer stroke. The result is slightly lower mileage, but more low-end torque and a higher horsepower rating. We'd love to have this engine with a manual transmission, but that's not going to happen. With an automatic, it provides good acceleration in just about every range, aided by the automatic's quick but gentle downshifting.  The 3.8 is quiet at idle and under hard acceleration alike, providing an unusual level of refinement. The smooth, responsive transmission helps to keep things mellow. 

Our experience in this van was somewhat unusual in that we received it with under 500 miles, before the engine had fully broken in, and kept it for about 700 miles. In that time, highway mileage climbed from a decent 23 mpg (keep in mind this is a vehicle roughly the size of a Chevy Suburban) to a surprisingly good 26 mpg, and power seemed to be climbing too. Indeed, after a gentle break-in following owner's manual recommendations, we took the van down Skyline Drive in Virginia, and found that it always had more than enough power to make the ride enjoyable. Passing uphill with a moderately heavy load (two adults, two children, and a surprising amount of baggage) was easy and quick, a testament to the 3.8's torque and the transmission's quick and smooth downshifting. We never seemed to be straining. When you consider that the original, much smaller, four-cylinder minis didn't get this kind of mileage or acceleration, and that even mid-sized SUVs without anywhere near the same space would find it hard to match, the Grand Caravan seems like even more of a bargain. It sells for far less than comparable SUVs, is more convenient, and provides a more enjoyable driving experience as well.

Cornering is better than in many cars, and better than most SUVs. The massive minivan can be thrown through sharp turns without losing its composure, yet the driver has a commanding view of the road, and there's plenty of headroom. The tires on our test vehicle sometimes emitted a sharp squeal, but we never felt any loss of traction. The ride on our Grand Caravan was moderately stiff - it had the sport suspension, and Dodges are already tuned more tightly than the equivalent Chrysler models - but never uncomfortable. Road feel and steering responsiveness were both at the level of a good car. Indeed, you can toss around a pickup truck without losing control or squealing tires, but it won't feel right; the van does, despite its ground clearance.

Visibility is excellent in all directions, as one would expect from a vehicle with so much glass. Large mirrors, which can be folded in for space, provide good access to the rear view, while a massive windshield takes care of the forward motion. Covering that immense span of glass are incredibly large wipers, operating in Chrysler's traditional center-out motion to clear as much area as they can. (There is some reflection of the under-windshield area, which could be darker, but it doesn't generally present a problem.) In the back, corner pillars are bulkier than before, but don't present much of a blind spot. The sun visors slide out on their mounts to cover the center of the windshield, and are large enough to cover quite a bit of area; they can also be folded back away from the driver for just a little unobtrusive shielding. Headlights are controlled by a large, simple switch, but a safety system seems to turn them on automatically when it's very dark out, protecting the inattentive driver without annoying other drivers.

Our test model was a Grand Caravan SXT with just about every option, all cleverly integrated so they seemed to be designed in from the start rather than added on as afterthoughts. The power doors, for example, are controlled from the key, from clearly labelled buttons in the overhead console, and from buttons by the doors themselves. The power liftgate beeps a warning before opening or closing, and all the doors are designed to stop immediately on detecting a blockage to prevent injury (I've tested this by standing under the liftgate and having it close; it doesn't hurt, though I am not advocating that anyone else do it.)

Standard Caravans can be purchased with all wheel drive, while Grand Caravans can have "stow and go" seating (because of the need for underfloor space, you can't have both.) Stow and Go, Chrysler's trademarked phrase for foldaway seats, is very convenient for two reasons: when the seats are out of the floor you get substantial underfloor storage space, covered by a strong folding metal cover; and, of course, when they are in the floor, you get a flat surface for cargo.

Our test vehicle, with four captain's chairs in the first two rows and a bench seat in the back, could hold three, four, five, or seven passengers, depending on how you folded the seats, since the middle row folded separately, and the rear row split 2/3 of the across, with each side being able to fold independently. It was remarkably easy to fold the seats down: lower the headrest, then pull on up to three clearly labelled straps in succession (one at a time), then push the seat into the compartment. It can indeed be done in a matter of seconds, with a single hand, though it takes a couple of tries to get used to it. The center seats in our vehicle could be moved a fairly large distance fore and aft, providing either massive legroom or extra cargo space. With only four passengers, the Grand Caravan has a simply enormous cargo area; even fully loaded, there's plenty of room for stuff, with the visible spaces augmented by the carpeted, smooth underfloor seat storage bays. Thus, you get extra room even with all the seats in place.

There are many storage areas for smaller objects, too. Aside from large map pockets on both front doors, you get a change tray in the foldout front cupholders, a removable center console with a deep storage area and a shallow removable bin, and a slot in front for sunglasses, highway passes, and the like. The center console includes a molded-in tissue holder for those portable plastic packs, and a power outlet; there's also a clever folding cellphone / DVD remote control holder, which can be folded into the console or left sticking out of it for easy access. Containers in the overhead rack, good for sunglasses, highway passes, and the like, can be moved around or taken out. This is not necessarily easy to do, but, then again, most people will set it and forget it. The system really requires a quick look at the owner's manual, but in brief, the moveable parts of the overhead rack are held on by two clips. You take each clip, pull out, and twist to remove the pods, and do the reverse to put them back in. It takes a while to get the knack, but then again, this isn't something you do every day. Our test vehicle had three removable bins, as well as two stationary items: the DVD system and the rear climate control.

Then there are cupholders, the stereotypical kingdom of the minivan. Back seats have foldout cupholders than are good for holding relatively light containers, but can let go of heavy ones (such as full soda bottles). The front seats have the king of all cupholders in a pullout drawer; the arms cinch up tight around a container, holding it tightly in place. They can be released simply by sliding the cupholders back in. Between the cups is a little change drawer. The rearmost seats have a molded-in cupholder which is hard for kids to reach.

The DVD system has been greatly improved over prior versions. First, the remote is hardly needed; the system automatically activates if a DVD is already loaded. It is easy to set up the system so that DVD audio goes through headphones (just press the headphones button), freeing the speakers for AM/FM or CDs - automatically playing through the front speakers only, which reduces sound quality somewhat but removes the need for rear passengers to jack up their headset volume. The headsets automatically shut off after a while to preserve battery life, and have an LED that stays on when they're on to avoid confusion. DVDs are fed into the same six-disc changer used by the audio system; when a DVD is being played, you can use the slot, which is shared by the navigation system, so you can't use all three at once. The nav system is intelligently designed, though; if you take out its DVD, it still remembers where you want to go when the DVD goes back in.

We took our Grand Caravan on a long ride across five states to Charlottesville, Virginia, home of Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia. The conveniences were very handy, with the DVD navigation system getting is around without flaw, always (and surprisingly) taking us on the best routes; the DVD system kept the kids busy when needed on the long ride. Again surprisingly, the DVD system did not interfere at all with our vision; normally the roof-mounted screens impede rear vision, but in this case, the roof was high enough to avoid that problem. Folding it back in again hides the system and deters potential thieves. (There's not much you can do about the navigation system).  The excellent audio quality kept the adults entertained, and the low levels of wind noise helped as well. For the long stretches on straight highway, we took out the navigation DVD and played audio.

As with all navigation systems, Chrysler's provides a range of options. We liked their typing system better than most; when entering a name or address, we moved a dial to switch from letter to letter, and the cursor stayed where we left it each time so we could move easily to the next letter. At any point, you can switch to a list of streets, towns, or numbers. Entering information this way was quick and easy, though of course a keyboard - not supplied with any system we know of - would be even easier. It remembers recent routes, so getting back to the hotel again was also easy. Indeed, we used the system more often than we really needed to because it was so quick. The map feature is impeded by the small screen size, but is still useful, with a range of magnification levels and easy selection of compass (North always up, or the current direction always up) and other options. Making the driver press ENTER each time the engine is started to get to the maps is annoying, but now standard on every system we've used, to avoid liability (you agree to drive carefully, in essence.) The system also includes a "breakcrumbs" feature, marking where you've been as you drive, and, like competitors, can get you to points of interest from gas stations and restaurants to hospitals to museums and schools.

Early navigation systems often made the mistake of trying to pack too much into the screen and computer area, so that it was nearly impossible to drive while changing the radio station (the first-generation Prius is an example of that). Chrysler has a standard volume knob, tune and seek buttons, audio and map mode buttons, and preset buttons, along with a real knob for map and special audio functions. None require you to know what's on the LCD monitor; the functions are stable and clearly labelled so you can quickly learn them and not need to pay attention to the system. This is far safer than, for example, having buttons which correspond to labels on the monitor, with multiple levels so you need to always keep an eye on the system as buttons change functions. The only exceptions to that general rule are the lack of bass/treble and balance/fade knobs; for those, you need to press TONE, then use the select knob and enter button; and having to use the select and enter system to set presets.

The AM/FM area does have one "intelligent" function: you can search for particular types of stations (e.g. adult hits, classical, classic rock, college, etc.) Radio reception is unusually good, and sound quality is excellent, in just about any spot in the van - without, as far as we can tell, digital sound processors.

Adding to all the other features is the convenience of power memory, which keeps power going to the stereo, DVD, and power windows for a minute or two after the key is removed. This is a feature long lacking in many Chrysler vehicles - indeed, some still don't have it - but it does add a substantial amount of convenience.

Most of all, though, we appreciated the basic minivan design. The cargo area, with both rear seats folded down, provided an immense amount of room, swallowing up six large suitcases with ease - stored end to end - and leaving room for coolers and other cargo, all in one layer without stacking. What's more, fragile items could be placed in the wells for the middle row. The height of the van is just right for easy entry and exit, not to mention easy loading of cargo. A full size SUV or pickup truck is high off the ground; it can be hard to get bulky items up there, not to mention hauling yourself up. The minivan's low floor means it's easy to put things in, including people; toddlers can walk right in. To sit down, you don't climb up or fall down, you just turn and sit. The sliding doors are incredibly convenient, providing wide openings in the tightest of parking spots, and allowing for easy exit with no "getting stuck between the doors." There's a reason why Chrysler's basic minivan design from 1984 - back then, a K-car on stilts - has survived all attempts at modification; now, all automakers simply copy the current generation Caravan, sometimes adding their own little features, which Chrysler eventually improves on and takes for their own.

Getting back to the interior: Above the stereo is a set of buttons for seat warming (two levels), rear washer/wiper, and hazard flashers. A clearly labelled LED lights in amber when the passenger side front airbag is off - it's controlled by a weight sensor. Below the stereo on our test vehicle was a thermostatically controlled, three-zone climate control system. Each zone - driver, front passenger, and rear passengers - has its own temperature up/down button and display. The rear zone can be controlled from the front or rear, or just be shut off entirely. Front vents are controlled by a knob, with positions in between the standard spots so you can get, for example, mostly heat vents with just a little bi-level ventilation. The vents themselves are fairly large, letting the fan run at high speeds without much noise. The rear zone has two sets of vents, upper and lower, for air conditioning and heat, respectively.

The optional overhead console is a nice piece of work, with two rows of buttons and a large, easy to read display flanked by dual lights, each activated (as all of the many dome lights are) either centrally, from the light switch, or by a simple press. The first row of buttons is for the power doors - an override that prevents passengers from activating them (handy for kids), and then separate buttons for each side door and the power rear hatch. The second row has a combination menu and reset button (more on this later), three positions for a built-in garage door opener, and a combination compass/thermometer and step button. The compass/thermometer button has an obvious function, while the step button goes through various information displays: gas mileage, distance to empty, miles until the next service, etc. The menu button is used for setting various aspects of the car's behavior: how the doors lock and unlock, whether they do it automatically, if the headlights go on after you've shut off the engine, etc. It's surprisingly handy to be able to impose your will on the car, instead of having a statistician and engineer make your choices for you.

The traction control shutoff is oddly placed on top of the steering column, where the hazard flashers used to be, which is fine since it's hardly ever used. The optional pedal adjustment (fore and aft, for taller and shorter drivers) switch is right near the ignition key, and the stereo on some models has extra controls on the back of the steering wheel. The wheel-mounted cruise is easy to use and includes a cancel button. The column shifter is convenient for an automatic, gliding neatly and easily into Drive (you can also choose a low range or third gear, but apparently not first), and freeing up space in the center for the console.

The optional backup alarm is better than the ones we've seen on some past vehicles, with a combination of LEDs and beeps to warn when objects are coming closer to the four bumper-mounted sensors. There are a sizable number of amber LEDs to help on the approach, with red LEDs and beeps to warn of very close objects. Overall, backup alarms are very handy on larger vehicles.

One of the amazing things about the Grand Caravan is the passenger space in all three rows. In many vehicles, particularly SUVs, rear passengers have very little leg room. In the Grand Caravan, there is an amazing amount of space between each of the three rows, and the center row can be moved forward and backward. This can be quite handy on long trips. While there is a map pocket behind the front passenger seat, though, there's nothing behind the driver's seat to hold papers and such.

Another unusual, and generally unsung, feature is being able to show the stored computer codes without a reader. This feature is described at allpar.com, and can save the owner a great deal of time, effort, and money, even if they don't do their own maintenance and repairs, by pinpointing specific issues (e.g., a contaminated oxygen sensor). While the system isn't infallible, its accuracy has improved over the years, and it can be very good to know that what your mechanic assumed was a bad transmission is really a $2 solenoid.

Even the underhood area seemed convenient, with room to work around the engine, and clearly labelled fluid repositories. (It almost seems as though they made room for larger engines...though perhaps that's just what was needed to fit the 2.4, 3.8, and projected 3.5).

The SXT model is fully loaded, but Chrysler still managed to add about $7,000 of options to our test vehicle. First, here's what the SXT comes with:

  • Air conditioning
  • Inflatable driver's knee blocker
  • Four wheel disc antilock brakes
  • Low-speed traction control
  • Tilt steering
  • Overhead console with universal garage door opener
  • Floor mats and lighted sun visors
  • Heated foldaway power mirrors
  • Power sliding doors - both sides
  • Rear defroster
  • Rear wipers/washers
  • 3-zone climate control
  • Cassette and CD with six speakers, wheel controls
  • Eight-way power driver's seat
  • Roof rack
  • Rear heat and a/c
  • Power windows including rear vents
  • Power locks and remote entry
  • Cruise control
  • Cargo nets and grocery bag hooks
  • Fog lamps

Ouor test model also had the leather group, which inexplicably includes not just leather but also heated front seats, power passenger seat, Infinity speakers, power rear hatch, thermostatic control for all three zones, air filtration, the vehicle information center, and the removable front center console - for a breathtaking $2,930.

Somewhat more manageable was a $985 premium group, with the power adjustable pedals, rear parking assist, security system, overhead bins, and touring (firm) suspension. The navigation system added another $1,430, including a six-disc in-dash changer; UConnect, a hands-free cellphone system, added $360 but came with an auto-dimming mirror; and the DVD rear seat video system, very well integrated into the vehicle, was $990, including two sets of wireless headphones and the remove control. These all took a well-equipped, $26,315 minivan and pushed it up to $33,690, including the destination charge. That's still about $3,000 less than a 2004 model would cost - albeit with fewer rebates. If you can live with fewer amenities, the base Grand Caravan, still with the Stow 'n' Go seats, runs $22,000 with destination.

There are, of course, incentives. At the time we looked, you could knock $1,000 off - not quite the $4,500 offered on some other models, but you've already seen a $3,000 built-in price drop. And if this seems like a high price, compare it with an SUV, and it'll seem dirt cheap.

The Dodge Grand Caravan is an excellent vehicle in just about every respect. The more time we spent with it, the more we liked it - partly because we were still breaking it in, but mostly because it's both amazingly convenient and easy to drive. When not loaded with a family, it can be fun to drive as well, particularly set up as ours was with the sport suspension. Those who prefer a more luxurious ride will probably be happier with the softer-tuned Town & Country - though even with the sport suspension, as we noted before, the Grand Caravan muted bumps nicely, and provided a ride many cars would envy. So far, the Grand's competitors haven't established clearly better repair records, with the Honda arguably not up to the same quality, and the Toyota still too new to judge. Take a good long look at the Dodge, take it for a spin (remembering that the engine gets stronger and more responsive after it's broken in), and play with the doors and seats. We think you'll be impressed. Perhaps there's a reason why minivans are still Chrysler's kingdom.