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Second-Hand: It’s hard to top the Dodge Grand Caravan

Wheels contributor Mark Toljagic examines the 2008-10 Dodge Grand Caravan

Published November 25, 2011
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For those who buy their ground beef and their vehicles by the pound, the Dodge Grand Caravan is a shoppers’ special.

For more than a quarter of a century, consumers have awarded Chrysler with segment-topping sales of its front-drive minivan, making it one of the best-selling nameplates in the country. Credit the automaker’s aggressive discounting.

At the same time, buyers have been cursing its troublesome transmission, short-lived brakes and flimsy build quality for as many years.

Yet the van endures.

The evidence is in the number of 20-year-old Caravans still schlepping ladders, trailers and newspaper bundles around town. It’s an enigma wrapped in galvanized steel.

CONFIGURATION

To reassert itself in a market it commanded ever since the first Magic Wagon rolled off the Windsor line in 1983, Chrysler spent $1.4 billion to develop its fifth generation of minivans for 2008.

Although Chrysler characterized the van as all-new, the floorplan was a carryover to accommodate the popular Stow ‘n Go seating system, which allowed the second- and third-row seats to disappear into the floor.

The van’s wheelbase and overall length grew by 5 cm (the short-wheelbase Caravan was terminated, to the distress of Canadian fans), and it gained a blocky new profile that, contrary to appearances, provided better aerodynamics. To improve driving dynamics, the van got a revised front-strut suspension, but the rear twist-beam axle remained.

More so than any other vehicle, minivans are designed from the inside out and the new Grand Caravan’s cabin did not disappoint.

Stow ‘n Go breathed new life into Caravan sales when the foldaway seating was launched in 2005; Chrysler went further with its innovative Swivel ‘n Go seating for 2008.

With seatbelts mounted on the seat structure, the second-row captain’s chairs pivoted to become rear facing, allowing passengers to share an optional table with those in the third row (the table stored in the floor otherwise).

Stow ‘n Go remained an option, although some owners noticed that occupants of the second-row folding chairs could feel the steel bars through the thin cushions. Base vans offered a conventional second-row bench and collapsible third row.

Thanks to that boxy profile, the cabin was especially spacious — but marred by austere plastic, according to buyers.

“My kids have better plastic toys than what is used for the interior,” one owner posted.

Much effort went into providing a quieter ride, partly by using thicker side glass. The sliding doors incorporated windows that could roll down far — a godsend for families with barf-prone kids.

There was a plethora of entertainment options, including a 20-gigabyte hard drive for storing music files, navigation and dual-screen DVD video systems.

The base model retained the 3.3 L pushrod V6, good for 175 hp and 205 lb.-ft. of torque, mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. Higher trims got the 197-hp, 3.8 L pushrod V6 tied to a new six-speed automatic — a first for the segment.

Chrysler added a third V6 to the options list: a 4.0 L SOHC V6 pinched from the Pacifica, which generated 251 hp and 259 lb.-ft. of grunt.

ON THE ROAD

Equipped with the largest V6, the Grand Caravan could sprint to 96 km/h in 8.0 seconds. Add one and two seconds, respectively, for each of the smaller motors’ acceleration times.

The ride and handling were par for the minivan genre, while braking distances were a tad lengthy. The Grand Caravan’s uncommunicative steering disconnected the driver from the task at hand.

Chrysler’s minivan has a thirst for fuel: “Gas mileage not great. Averaging about 13.5 L/100km,” reader Mike Simpson reported, and that’s with the “weak” 3.3 L engine. The bigger motors have overly optimistic fuel-economy ratings, drivers charge.

WHAT OWNERS SAY

Owners have been drawn to the Grand Caravan’s ample benefits, including the trick seating, vast haulage capability, clever design touches, quiet composure and big bang-for-the-buck quotient.

What they’re not happy about is Chrysler’s ongoing quality issues with this, their fifth try at making a reliable van.

Far and away the most common complaint has to do with the Caravan’s voracious appetite for brakes.

“Need for full brake repair, pads and rotors, at just 40,000 km. Dealer cost to repair is $1,100,” reads a familiar gripe online.

Other headaches include faulty air conditioners, prematurely worn wheel bearings, electrical gremlins, bad thermostats, rattles and that old Chrysler nugget: transmission failures.

“Our company bought eight of these vans and so far three have gone back for transmission work,” reads one post.

In some 2010 models, the ignition key can inadvertently rotate from the “run” to the “accessory” position, causing the engine to shut off while driving(!). A recall requires dealers to replace the wireless ignition node.

Defying the odds, the Grand Caravan continues to dominate its segment.

We would like to know about your ownership experience with these models: Acura RDX, BMW 1-Series and Buick Allure. Email: toljagic@ca.inter.net.

2008-10 Dodge Grand Caravan

WHAT’S BEST: Winnebago interior, quiet cruiser, value leader

WHAT’S WORST: Refrigerator-carton styling, rattling doors, eats brakes like pizza

TYPICAL GTA PRICES: 2008 – $14,000; 2010 – $19,000