After negotiating a deal with our niece to trade the Sentra for a summer of help with our son, we were now in the market for a vehicle more appropriate for a growing family.
Our My endgame for this search was the total inverse of PonderosaMatt’s when he bought his Yaris for his family of three — I was going BIG!
My fondness for the Caravan actually goes back a ways, and there were really no other cars I was considering. There was the week I spent driving my aunt’s 1984 Caravan, appreciating how it seated us all comfortably. In 1999, when my wife and I took a trip down to Florida, the rental company handed us the keys to a Grand Caravan instead of the economy car we reserved. While it seemed ridiculous at first, it turned into a blessing when we went out with my parents and my great aunt and uncle. Besides enabling us to all ride in one vehicle, we marveled at how easily my elderly aunt was able to maneuver getting in and out of the sliding side door. Finally, we rented another Grand Caravan during a trip to Connecticut while we were living in Wisconsin. It was so easy to get our son in and out of his rear-facing child seat, and my wife was able to walk down the center aisle to the third row to soothe him when he started to cry. He hated facing rear.
However, moving to Wisconsin, buying a house, living on one income, selling the house at a loss, and moving back to Connecticut all in a year had taken us from over $50,000 in savings to over $10,000 in debt. In addition, my wife was only working part time (albeit as a pediatrician), and I had yet to find a job. Decidedly not the best time to buy a car, but the future looked bright. Shadow was paid off, and we were living in a small, inexpensive apartment. Since we still had good credit, we qualified for an auto loan with no money down.
Besides my history with the Grand Caravan, there were two additional reasons I focused on this model and the Chrysler Town & Country. First, removable rear seats are great if you have somewhere to put them. For apartment dwellers, Stow-N-Go is a godsend. Second, these vans depreciate horribly after leaving the lot. So, I figured I could pick up a 2006 model for about the price of a loaded new Corolla. I test drove an SE model with the 3.3-liter engine, but the 3.8 in the SXT was a much better match for the extended-length vans. I also preferred the power doors, steering wheel audio controls, and other niceties of that trim.
I pulled out my trusty spreadsheet from when we bought Shadow and adapted it for a used car purchase, substituting the asking price for the MSRP and the Kelly Blue Book average trade-in value in place of the invoice price. In my search, which was around July 2007, I was surprised to see a 2007 SXT in Inferno Red with 18,119 miles less than an hour away for only a little more than the 2006’s. The other nice thing about this van was that, according to the Carfax report, it was titled as just a leased vehicle, not a leased/rental vehicle. That doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t a rental, since not many private individuals lease vehicles for less than a year. If it was a rental, I was hoping that, being a minivan, it wasn’t subject to the same abuse that cars receive.
We took a test drive, then took it home for the night so it could be checked out by our mechanic. With a clean bill of health, we returned to the dealer the next morning to talk turkey. The asking price was $20,822, already a significant drop from the $27,775 MSRP (plus destination). Based on my calculations using the KBB trade-in value, I found $20,759.75 to be a fair out-the-door price, and ultimately negotiated $20,825 out-the-door.
After the papers were signed, they handed us one  key. Now, I distinctly remember two keys at some point.
I asked, “Where’s the other key?”
“That’s the only key we have.”
“There were two keys yesterday. We need two keys.”
“You’re welcome to buy another one from our parts department.”
“That’s unacceptable. You need to provide two keys.”
“Sorry, when we bought this from auction, it probably only came with one key.”
“We have a problem then.”
“Yes, I guess we do have a problem,” was the salesman’s reply, and then he looked at me with that and what are you going to do about it look. It’s funny how their attitude changes after all of the paperwork is signed. Grudgingly, we accepted his offer of a second key at cost, which was about $100 since the fob was part of the key. A couple of weeks later, the “non-existent” other key arrived in the mail.
Despite this little setback, we started enjoying all of the room available in “Carlo.” Within the first couple of weeks, we had the opportunity to drive several relatives home from a party, something we would never have been able to do without three rows of seats. The following July 4th, we flipped the third row into tailgate mode and watched the fireworks. About six months after that, we did expand our family with the birth of our daughter, somewhat justifying the purchase. It turns out that she hated being rear facing as much as our son, so either my wife or I made plenty of use of that third row during her first year.
Inside, the Grand Caravan had those nifty black-on-silver day/green-on-black night gauges. All of the controls were easily accessible, and all of the seats except for the middle captain’s chairs – the main drawback of Stow-N-Go – were comfortable with plenty of legroom. Since the middle rows contained either car or booster seats, that wasn’t an issue. While there was an optional console that could be placed between the front seats, I loved that the space in ours was completely open, which only enhanced the utility of the vehicle. There were plenty of places to store items even without the console. We experienced that first hand when we rented a house for a week near Point Pleasant on the Jersey Shore, and the entire van, including every single storage space, was filled with stuff. How did we ever get along without Carlo?
Other highlights included finding a bargain on a race-car bed for our son at a tag sale and easily transporting it home. Moving items between the apartment and our storage area was also a breeze. When we were finally able to buy a home again, we stowed the second- and third-row seats and made about twenty runs from the apartment and storage area to the new house.
To be fair, there were also many things I didn’t like about Carlo. First and foremost was the gas mileage. After so many years of small cars with small four-cylinder engines, 15 to 16 MPG in the city is a tough nut to swallow. Highway driving was a more acceptable 23 to 24, but most of my driving was contained to a seven-mile commute to and from downtown. Also, it felt weird driving such a large vehicle by myself.
Carlo was also an accident magnet. I’m happy to say that none of the problems were the result of my impatience. The first accident was because my wife backed into a poorly-parked RAV4 that she didn’t see until it was too late. The second was a little more bizarre. My wife was visiting her mother, and they decided to go somewhere in her mother’s car (also, coincidentally, a RAV4). Her mother backed quickly out of the garage, ignoring both the mirrors and optional back-up camera, and slammed right into Carlo. I even backed into a friend’s car once. Although he claimed the resulting dent was already there, I think he was just being nice. Even with all of the greenhouse space and the big side mirrors, I definitely appreciate the back-up cameras in newer vans.
One of the biggest issues I had with Carlo was that legendary Chrysler quality, or lack thereof. The brakes burned me the most. This was more of a design issue than a quality problem, but the Grand Caravan ate front brakes. And, according to two dealers I spoke with, Chrysler made the rotors very thin “in order to save weight,” which meant they couldn’t be turned. Therefore, every 25,000 miles or so, I had to replace both the pads and rotors on the front, while the rears had to be replaced roughly every 50,000. I spent about $2,000 on brake work in the 42,000 miles I drove him.
Other issues were constant problems with the weatherstripping, tie-rod ends wearing prematurely, a Freon leak, a broken rear air-conditioning evaporator, leaky transmission pan, a bad water pump, and a slipping emergency brake cable. The last one made for a very nerve-wracking ferry ride with Carlo parked at a 45-degree angle.
Unfortunately, it was my own stupidity that did Carlo in. After a little more than three years of ownership, the airbag light came on. I had the issue checked by a mechanic, but he didn’t find anything wrong. Then the check engine light came on, then went off again, then back on. When the oil pressure light came on, I’m figuring there is definitely something wrong with the instrument panel wiring, since I never saw any oil on the floor of my garage. I know, stupid logic, but I didn’t know any better back then. I never checked the oil level because I thought that if there was an issue they’d tell me at one of the oil changes. One afternoon after leaving work, I floored it when the light turned green to try to make the still-green light up the street, heard a loud BANG, then a very disconcerting ticking noise. After arriving home, I checked the dipstick. Bone dry. I guess the oil light was real…
I immediately filled him with oil, hoping that would take care of the ticking. Not only did that not take care of the ticking, he was already a quart low after just a few miles. According to the mechanic, I blew out the bearings in the heads and was looking at about $3,000 for a rebuild. With two kids in daycare, we didn’t have that kind of money, nor did either of us like Carlo enough to invest that kind of money.
We cleaned him as best we could, topped off the oil, and took him over to Carmax. I’d read that Carmax salespeople will generally tell you after a low-ball offer that you’re better off selling your car yourself. After our low-ball offer ($5,500 on a $6,700 loan balance), we were told that if we tried to sell Carlo ourselves, we’d most likely attract shade-tree mechanics with even lower offers. At least we had the $1,200 to pay off the loan. When I handed the money to the girl at the Carmax checkout window, I mentioned how silly I felt paying money to sell a car. She told me not to worry about it, since she’d seen people pay as much as $10,000 to unload a car. Zoinks!
I know there are people with long-running Chrysler minivan stories, but this obviously isn’t one of them. Yes, it’s my fault for ignoring the light and not checking the oil, but why was the engine burning that much oil at 65,000 miles in the first place, only 5,000 miles after the last change? I’ve now been burned by Chrysler – directly and indirectly – four times (Horizon, Omni, Cirrus & GC). Never again. These days, you’ll only find me behind the wheel of a Chrysler minivan that’s owned by Enterprise or National.