Sunday, June 10, 2018

2018 Dodge Grand Caravan SE, Review From A Working Man

Obviously, unlike many of my reviews of vehicles and whatnot, this is a new vehicle with less than 800 miles on the odometer. However, the design hasn't changed much since 2008, with a refresh in 2011 that includes a spoiler, LED tail lights, revised dash, rounded headlights and a new crosshair grille. The looks are dated, but it still manages to look a lot better than many competitors.  Also "new" for 2011 is the 3.6 liter VVT port fuel injected Pentastar V-6 that replaces 3 engine choices.  It manages to provide more economy and power than any of them, with more stress on the latter. This van is white in color with black seats, carpet, and pewter colored door trim and headliner.

Because this is an SE model; a.k.a. the poverty package, there are no options on this van. Fortunately, it does have manual three zone climate control, AM/FM with a touch screen and a hard drive you can upload photos, DVDs and CDs to. It also plays DVDs but disables the picture if the van isn't in park. There is no Bluetooth or voice command even though there are buttons for same.  It also has a tilt and telescoping steering wheel with audio and cruise control. A display with mpg, outside temperature, miles to empty, trips 1 and 2, as well as the digital speed (a bit redundant) and the odometer. The gauges are red, white and black and remind of the old school performance ones of the 1960's. They are very well lit and easy to read as are the rest of the instruments, which are pretty easy to use. This van also comes with power heated mirrors. A trailer hitch and wiring was installed by the dealer. The wheels are 17 inch steel with plastic bolt on covers shod with Kuhmo Solus all season tires. These offer low road noise and rolling resistance.

The touch screen is very intuitive and requires little instruction to get it working. This writer has never used one before and this is far more simplistic than using a tablet. There is also a USB and accessory port to work around that whole Bluetooth thing. This is nice because the SE plus would have been more expensive. Unlike the SE plus, the SE's middle seats roll out instead of folding into the floor. There is a copious amount amount of storage in the floor as a result though. The back seats do fold flat. One note are the panels that cover the framework on these seatbacks are very flimsy. A cargo mat or 4x8 sheet of plywood is a good investment to cover these panels to prevent breakage when the seats are folded down. The rear seats are on the small side, but not much smaller than contemporary minivans. It does seat seven people, though this writer hasn't tried it yet. Cargo capacity is generous even with the middle seat installed. There is a conversation mirror to keep an eye on the rear passengers.

With all the seats up, there is a trunk space with hooks for grocery bags. Unlike other vans such as the long gone Ford Windstar, these are small, low and not very usable in practice. There is also a storage cubby back there and twisting two locks and removing the cover reveals a tire pump with sealant installed. This pump works very well on the bike tires I've had to pump up. Using the sealer renders the pump unserviceable after that. A new one is $75 online. My advice is to use this in a dire emergency only. Since these vans don't come with a spare tire, although perversely the winch is there, you might want to invest in a tire plug kit to save your pump. These are a helluva lot cheaper than buying a spare tire and tools and take very little time to use. They will also get you to a service station a lot easier than the tire sealant.

Doors and liftgate are easy to use, although shorter people will have a time trying to manipulate the liftgate. It goes up fast! The sliding doors may be challenging for children to close if you park on an incline. Power sliding doors would have been nice, and a power closing liftgate would have been better. Getting in the van is made a challenge for taller drivers because of the lower roofline. Going in head first as well as pulling the seat up a little closer seems to help with not scrubbing your head on the doorway. Shorter passengers will appreciate the grab handles getting in and out. Running boards are not a bad idea either. Windows open and close easily with express up and down. Unlike vans of old, the middle windows roll down and both rear vent window open with a switch.

The seats are very plush for a late 2010's vehicle. Front seats have generous thigh and back support. Plastics on the doors are soft touch, but the dash is very hard. Some faux wood trim is on the front door and dash that gives the interior a slightly upscale feel for what should be a down market vehicle. Rear seats are more than adequate in room and function. Seat belts in the front are adjustable, rear seat belts are in the frame, not the seats. This means a careless passenger can send a belt flinging into the door trim (ouch).  There are a decent amount of cup holders and storage bins, as well as places for juice boxes. The driver's side also sports an umbrella holder, and there are two glove compartments. One can carry a tablet. To power up all those devices, there are three power ports, and the one USB on the radio. An inverter would be a good addition to these ports and a wireless charger even better.

Driving position is one of the better ones this writer has experienced, save the Ford Windstar or Escape. There is lots of room for your legs and a decent amount of headroom. Controls are easy to manipulate, but the HVAC controls are on the small side. Radio controls are also on the back of the spokes of the steering wheel. Again, the instruments are clear and easy to read. On the road, noise is about average/low, but on Michigan's mottled moonscape of moribund motorways, you have to expect some bumps. Allegedly, the Sienna, Sedona  and Odyssey as well as the GC's kin, the Chrysler Pacifica are quieter, but these are a much more expensive story. You could line the inside of this van with sound absorbing material and still have enough money for a handful of those godaweful Caribbean cruises and bail money.

Engine sounds are on a par with the 1989 Chrysler New Yorker and any other V6 of the Chrysler pedigree, but the 3.6 Pentastar is a quicker, quieter and slightly less thirsty version. Even with variable valve timing and eco mode engaged, expect 15-18 miles to the gallon in the city and 19-24 on the highway. This is not a vehicle to buy for great fuel economy, but it does save gas if you combine your trips. Since you can carry more in this than a car or small SUV, you can save money on multiple trips if your life including hauling materials. It's also much cheaper and far less ungainly than a pickup truck. Unlike a pickup truck, there are more options in hauling passengers and cargo with a minivan, but I digress.

Future plans for the Grand Caravan are unclear at this point as FIAT tries to decide which end is up. Dodge has always been a workingman's brand first and a performance one second, which is why they have no problem selling these vans. They are a respite from the overpriced, overfeatured vehicles out there. They've still managed to remain relevant in a world that reveres SUV's and mega pickup trucks because of their economy and relative simplicity. While it may not pass the small overlap test, this vehicle scored "good" in all others. This is something many contemporaries have great difficulty passing and makes this writer question the need for such extremes. If it were so relevant, why wasn't this implemented 20 years ago as small overlap crashes happened before then. I saw one that tore a 1986 Camaro in half, killing the back seat passengers. Again, I digress.

Unlike the American full sized vans, which are very uncomfortable to enter, exit and drive, harder to maneuver, have limited space for their size; the American minivan excels in both form and function. It supplanted the station wagon because they were more efficient with both fuel and space, which is something an SUV or crossover fails to do to this day without being a massive hulk.

The only improvements this writer would suggest to FCA are to offer a reasonably refined four cylinder (not the tigershark or multiair engines as these are total garbage) WITH a six or eight speed transmission. Not everyone needs 300 horsepower and this writer could do fine with half that number. The roof needs to be two inches higher and the U-Connect needs to have Bluetooth on all models for safety's sake. The tire pump is great, but a spare tire could almost fit under the hood with a little redesign, much like the FIAT Ritmo/Strada. I'm sure this is a car you'd like to forget, but I remember the good things about this product too. The Grand Caravan is a marque that is over 30 years old and for many years other manufacturers struggled for second place with markedly inferior fare. Kia, Honda, and Toyota have outglitzed the GC, but they also cost considerably more. The Pacifica, which decently priced is still too much vehicle for those who need or desire basic transportation.

If basic transportation with a dignified amount of creature comforts is what you desire, The Grand Caravan is a bargain; you cannot even buy a Cruze or Malibu for the price.They will far more cramped as well. This is one I would strongly consider.


Walter Grace said...
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