CC Rental Review: 2018 Dodge Grand Caravan – Old Faithful

In my recent review of the 2018 Kia Sedona, I mentioned that one of the terms of the rental provided by my Kia dealer was that I could not take it out of state.  Unfortunately, I had a pressing need to take a van several hundred miles away to collect my daughter and her possessions after a summer internship in North Carolina.  My dealer contacted the good people at Enterprise and I was put into another minivan for the weekend.

I wondered for several days what I might get.  A different Sedona?  One of the now discontinued Nissan Quests?   Or maybe I would get to experience one of the newer Siennas or the new Chrysler Pacifica.  I got . . . a Grand Caravan.

First thought: “Dammit.”  However, as the weekend progressed I came to appreciate the van on its own terms.  While it suffers from a number of deficiencies, it still does a thing or two that no other entrant in the segment can do.  And it turned out to be a good fit for my trip.

This is still the best selling minivan in the US.  Chrysler has found the sweet spot that maximizes utility and low price, something that has added some life to this old girl.  How old?  The design of this van goes back to the days of Daimler-Chrysler.  It hit showrooms during the end of the George W. Bush administration in late 2007.  Its toaster-like shape may be the most recognizable in all of minivan-dom.  I can find no fault with the styling and actively like the retro style of the D-O-D-G-E lettering across the back.  Suddenly it’s 1950.

These 5th generation Mopar vans and I have a little history.  My first rental of this style was a Town & Country in the spring of 2010.  This was a fairly fresh design then and the van impressed me with its many cool features.  This was early in the post-Fiat takeover and Chrysler had dumped some emergency money into the horrid interiors that Daimler/Cerberus had been satisfied with.  I drove it for a couple of weeks while I looked for a replacement for my totaled ’96 Odyssey.  At the time it seemed like a modern grown-up version of a van compared with my petite little Oddity.  This one would have had the old iron V6 (3.3 or 3.8, I no longer recall) and the 5 speed auto.

Next came a Grand Caravan during a 2014 trip to Denver.  I. Hated. That. Van.  By then I had experienced a 1999 (3rd generation) T&C and my 2012 Sedona, so I had some more relevant experiences to contrast with it.  Perhaps this rental had been particularly abused because the body noticeably flexed each time I accellerated or braked from/to a stop.  The flex was made impossible to ignore by the weatherstrips around the rear doors that would go “weeeek” every time I started or stopped.  I liked the new Pentistar engine but came to hate the transmission.  Wonky shift logic and odd-feeling shifts ruined the experience of the very pleasant 3.6 engine.  I could not wait to get home to my Sedona and said a prayer of thanks that I had not bought one of these instead.

This van sort of hits a middle ground.  At 30k miles, this is not a brand new car, but it is noticeably tighter in structure than my Denver GC four years ago.  It still jiggles just a bit (and coaxes the occasional squeak out of the stowed seats) but is not bad.  I would rate its structural integrity as a bit behind the new Kia.

Let’s start with the good stuff.  The Chrysler 3.6 Pentastar engine has proved to be a home run.  Given Chrysler’s recent history I had been leery of investing in one for myself when they were brand new, but my fears have proved unfounded.  This thing is strong right from idle and runs its little heart out until over 6k on the tach.  It has a bit more power than the Kia’s 3.3 (which should be expected given its displacement advantage), making 283 bhp @6400.  But where this one really shines is in its torque.  At 260 ft lbs @ 4400, its 12 ft. lb. advantage might not sound like much over the Kia.  However, it finds its peak a full 1200 rpm lower.

You would think that an engine this flexible would make whatever transmission that is bolted to it mostly irrellevant.  But you would be wrong.  Perhaps I am just hard to please, but the characteristics of Chrysler’s 6 speed automatic almost ruined the experience for me.  The gear ratios are not bad – mated to a 3:16 final drive ratio, the 4:13 first gear makes pavement rippling almost easy.  Direct drive comes in 5th and then there is a big jump to the .69 6th/overdrive.  The problem is in getting from one to another of those six forward gears.

Disclosure: I have been in transmission nirvana with my 2012 Sedona, with which I have entered a sort of soul-meld.  In other words, it does its job so smoothly and unobtrusively that you neither know nor care which gear you might be in.  The Chrysler experience could not be more different.  No two shifts feel the same.  Some are firm, some are soft and some have a quality I can only describe as crunchy.  And you never know which one you are going to get.  The shift logic seems only moderately connected to the gas pedal – sometimes it upshifts as you are pressing harder on the pedal, other times it will downshift.  If you want a downshift you have to work for it, but when it comes it really grabs your attention.  I found this one better than my 2014 experience.  That one may have been hampered by high altitude or a vehicle that had taken too many trips up into the mountains.  This one was better.  Not hugely better, but better is better.  Perhaps this wonky shifting will somehow aid in longevity of the unit – Lord knows that the silky shifting 4 speed autos of the 90s had problems that way.

I also didn’t care for the steering.  I found it a little vague and requiring much too much effort.  I can take vague when corrections are easy, but when you have to put some muscle into moving the steering wheel, I prefer to move that wheel as little as possible on the interstate.  The steering requires more effort than my ’12 Sedona and much, much more than the ’18 Sedona.

I also did not care for the driver’s seat.  First, is vinyl back in style?  Beyond the covering, the seat was shaped in such a way to nestle my body into a hammock-like indentation in the middle.  This was not, in itself a problem, but there was an area across the upper part of the seat back which kept some unwanted pressure across the back of my shoulder blades.  I think Jim Kline experienced something similar in his recently rented Jeep, so maybe Chrysler’s seat design is more intentional than accidental.

Speaking of seats, it took me a minute to figure out the cryptic 1-2-3-4 instructions on pulling order for the multiplicity of little cloth straps in order to stow the rear seats.  I figured it out but the process seems more complicated than it needs to be.

One last gripe – that “key”.  When I was a toddler I had a set of big, thick, multi-colored plastic keys to play with.  This system takes me back to those days.  Insert big dumb child-sized plastic “key” into big dumb child-sized plastic “keyhole” and start the car.  I suppose that with longer than a weekend I might develop the knack for quickly opening the right door or getting the passenger door unlocked.  But I never got there.  In fairness I have whipsawed fairly quickly between three vans with three completely different fobs and starting styles.  Give me the simplicity of my own Sedona.  Yes, I’m a Luddite.

But enough bitching.

The GC was very sure-footed on the road.  It went where I pointed it (though it leaned a bit more than my own does in corners) and handled both smooth and bumpy roads very nicely.  There were times on the return trip where I stepped hard on the gas to get away from some troublesome traffic and was surprised to see the needle at the 90 mark.  And every time I went for the brakes they did their job straight and fast.  Get this van comfortably up into OD on the highway and it does what it does best – eat up miles with lots of confidence and no drama.

This van does some things that others do not.  The big one is Stow ‘N Go.  I rented this van for cargo.  I also used it for taking 5 other adults out for dinner one night.  In my own Sedona, the center seats would have been left in my garage for maximum cargo, requiring a second car on the dinner trip.  In the new Sedona there would have been less room for cargo due to the folded center seats taking up significant room.  However, at least two of those adults would have been more comfortable in the more substantial cushions.  Stow N Go makes for compromised seating quality (and it is not all that much easier than my own experience in removing and reinstalling seats) but to go from full cargo to full passenger 700 miles from home – well the Dodge rocks.

The GC also still gives you several thoughtful little touches in things like console storage.  This van may be old but its basic layout shows how far ahead of the pack Chrysler was ten years ago.

The van is also giving you a lot of utility for the price.  With the advent of the Pacifica, the GC is now the Value Van.  This SXT is the top trim line but is a universe away from the luxurious feel of the new high-end Sedona.  Automatic headlights are there but a nav system is not.  The stereo was decent but fancy bells and whistles were largely absent.  Remember how 95% of Buick LeSabres were equipped in the 90s?  That’s how this van is equipped now.  Most of what you really need, not much of what you don’t.

At 4321 lbs this van is a little on the light side in this day and age.  How long will it stay around?  Good question, but it was the top-selling minivan in the US so far in 2018.

I began writing this before DougD bought one and gave us some insights into his early experience with it.  But not everyone experiences the same highs and lows from a given vehicle.  But more data points are better than fewer data points so I offer my experience as a counterpoint.  Bottom line?  I liked it more than I expected to and after living with the 2018 Sedona for awhile, this is a more useful and versatile minivan.  However, I did not like it as much as I wanted to.  Which is a shame, because a better shifting transmission and a better front seat design would have made this a really pleasant driver as well.