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Dodge Caravan still going strong despite looks, lack of thrills

2013 Dodge Grand Caravan


Overall Rating
You’ll like this car if: you stick to the Canada Value package.
Looks Rating
It’s a box. Styling is a secondary consideration in this market.
Interior Rating
Stow-’N-Go seats are handy and there’s all kinds of elbow/cargo room.
Ride Rating
Just about where a minivan should be; the long wheelbase helps.
Safety Rating
An IIHS Top Safety Pick, with optional blind-spot and cross-path rear detection systems.
Green Rating
Not particularly. Most rivals are thriftier.

A little while ago, I was asked by a local radio station to choose my own Canadian car of the year. In my professional (ahem) opinion, they wanted to know, what was the most significant car on the market?

Never mind whether it was brand-new for 2013 or displayed the latest technology, what would I pick as a car of the year for Canada?

One of my choices was the Dodge Grand Caravan. Not because it's thrilling to drive, mind-blowing to look at, or represents cutting-edge design and engineering. Hardly.

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I chose it because, after – what? – 30 years on the Canadian market, it is still the most popular model in its segment and sells in vast numbers every year.

It's also made in Canada, with the plant in Windsor, Ont., running three shifts, pumping one out every couple of minutes, 24/7. And let's not forget the Chrysler Town & Country and Volkswagen Routan, which are essentially the same vehicle, with different badging.

There have been lots of changes along the way, and one of the main reasons for the Grand Caravan's popularity has to be because it's also the cheapest offering in this segment of the market.

For less than $20,000 before taxes and extras, you can take home an SE "Canada Value Package," which has to be a good deal any way you slice it.

A full-size minivan, with all the necessary modcons, and the most powerful V-6 engine in this category. None of the other minivans out there can even come close to matching this. The Toyota Sienna, for example, starts at more than $28,000 and the Odyssey is almost 30 large. Ditto with the Kia Sedona.

My tester this time around was a Crew Plus version, and it differs from the base model mainly in equipment level. For example, it comes with leather seats, power-adjustable pedals, second-row power windows, a driver information centre and a climate control system.

It also has the Stow-'N-Go centre seats, which fold flat into the floor and open up the interior in no time flat. That said, it's a bit of a wrestling match to tilt them up, pull on the necessary straps, and fold back the floor panels, plus the front seat must be completely forward with the seat back tilted upright, before they'll fit. But it's still a great feature and also accounts for the Grand Caravan's popularity, no doubt.

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The third-row seats also fold flat into the floor, opening up a total of 4,072 litres of cargo space.

My tester also had other goodies in the form of heated front seats, power rear lift-gate, Sirius satellite radio, power-folding third-row seat, back-up camera, power side doors, blind spot and rear cross-path detection systems. All of which bump the price up to more than $46,000, which changes everything. In this price range, the Grand Caravan now goes head-to-head against the Sienna, Odyssey and Sedona, and frankly, doesn't fare as well.

Power for all Grand Caravans is provided by the Pentastar V-6, which displaces 3.6 litres and develops 283 horsepower. Transmission is a six-speed automatic only and the shifter is placed high up on the dash, rather than on the floor or steering column. I found this arrangement to be counter-intuitive and off-putting – it needs to be relocated.

No gripes with the powertrain, however. This engine is willing, powerful and has a nice linear power delivery. Before 2011, previous versions of the Grand Caravan were saddled with an anemic pushrod V-6 that really started to wheeze with a full complement of passengers and cargo. The new V-6 is used throughout Chrysler's model lineup and can match its rivals, with the exception of the Odyssey, which gets my vote as having the most refined engine in this class.

There's one other thing. The Grand Caravan is one of those Monday/Friday cars. In other words, if it's built on either of those two days, quality may not be up to par. Here's the theory: on Monday, workers are slow and sullen after a weekend off and, on Friday, they can't wait to get home and may rush things.

Seriously, however; the Grand Caravan is low on the dependability scale as far as Consumer Reports is concerned. The magazine reckons that its reliability will be well below average. One of the main problem areas for the Grand Caravan is its transmission, which C.R. describes as being "a generation behind."

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Tech specs

2013 Dodge Grand Caravan Crew Plus

Base Price: $34,495; as tested: $46,435

Engine: 3.6 litre V-6

Horsepower/torque: 283 hp/260 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 12.2 city/7.9 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna, Kia Sedona, Nissan Quest, Volkswagen Routan, Chrysler Town & Country

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