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Second-hand: 2001-2008 Dodge Caravan

What would make someone angry enough to shadow the Chrysler display at the Toronto auto show wearing a Do Not Buy Dodge T-shirt?

  • The image of cars on a parking

What would make someone angry enough to shadow the Chrysler display at the Toronto auto show wearing a Do Not Buy Dodge T-shirt?

A Newmarket man had leased a new 2003 Dodge Grand Caravan but soon discovered it wasn’t assembled properly and, as a result, the roof began leaking.

The leak led to electrical snafus and mould and mildew growth. The problem allegedly festered, causing numerous malfunctions that resulted in the van spending a total of 179 days – half a year – in a dealership repair bay.

Dissatisfied with the repairs and the automaker’s response, he launched a protest website, www.donotbuydodge.ca, to spread his story to the world. He claims his site has drawn 4.2 million visitors and counting.

That can’t be good for Caravan sales.

CONFIGURATION

With automotive writers fawning over the reinvented 1999 Honda Odyssey, Chrysler needed a game-changing minivan to continue lording over the segment it had created.

The 2001 redesign of the Dodge Caravan (and closely related Chrysler Town & Country) was actually more evolutionary than revolutionary. The wheelbase remained unchanged while the body grew five cm wider. Only the short-wheelbase version was significantly longer, gaining seven cm overall.

Enhanced safety was a priority. The van’s unibody was stiffened to handle European offset frontal impact standards, and all models received dual-stage front airbags and pretensioners on the front belts (reining in the slack milliseconds ahead of impact).

The styling was familiar, although the headlamps were upsized to throw 80 per cent more light. Optional power assist was available on one or both sliding doors and even the rear hatch could be power operated – an industry first.

The Caravan was designed from the inside out to maximize flexibility. The optional floor console could be mounted between the front or second-row seats, and an available rear parcel shelf helped organize the cargo space.

The rear bench could not collapse into the floor like the Odyssey’s, but it split in half for more cargo/passenger configurations. Each half weighed 25 kg – manageable even for scrawny writer types.

Dodge retired its anemic 3.0 L V6, while the 3.3 L and 3.8 L pushrod V6s were redesigned for quieter operation and more power. Output rose 22 hp to 180 hp in the 3.3, and 35 hp to 215 hp in the larger mill.

A U.S.-only base model got a 150 hp DOHC 2.4 L four-cylinder tied to a three-speed automatic. All others got a four-speed autobox. An optional all-wheel-drive system was offered until 2004.

Chrysler spent $400 million to re-engineer the floorpan for 2005 to accommodate Stow ‘n’ Go seating, allowing the third- and second-row seats to fold into the floor. It kiboshed the all-wheel-drive option, since there wasn’t room for the AWD mechanicals below.

The optional seating, available only on the extended Grand Caravan, was convenient, although some owners complained that the foldable chairs were narrow and stiff.

The Caravan was redesigned for the 2008 model year, returning only in the popular Grand size.

ON THE ROAD

Equipped with the larger, pushrod 3.8 L engine, a 2005 Grand Caravan could sprint to 96 km/h from a standstill in 9.6 seconds, a full two seconds slower than the Odyssey and Toyota Sienna.

Roadholding grip on a circular skidpad was lacklustre, mustering just 0.71 g. Braking was a little weak, too, requiring 60 metres to stop from a velocity of 112 km/h.

The Grand Caravan suffered from a flabby suspension, imprecise steering and a floaty disposition at highway speeds. Regardless, most owners praised their vans for their smooth highway manners that made long treks relaxing.

Fuel economy was far from class-leading, drivers noted.

WHAT OWNERS REPORTED

There’s good reason why the affordable and stylish Caravan is a common sight: it’s eminently practical.

“It rides (and) drives smooth. The space it has in it is so versatile. I like the removable seating and storage space,” posted the owner of an ’04 model on the web.

But the Caravan has a nagging reputation for eating its transmission – a characterization that Dodge has yet to shake, despite a (now former) “merger of equals” with Daimler-Benz.

“Last night, on the way to church, we left our transmission somewhere along the Interstate,” starts a sad post about a 2002 Caravan tranny.

Lots of owners have been saddled with transmission repair costs, often around the 100,000 km threshold. Sometimes it was the transmission solenoid or the torque converter, sometimes the whole unit.

Other commonly reported maladies included failed air conditioning compressors and frequent repairs to front-end suspension components, especially the sway-bar bushings. Entire steering racks have been replaced.

Additional headaches included malfunctioning power-assisted doors and windows, leaky power steering hoses (recalled), short-lived oxygen sensors and water pumps, and electrical gremlins.

Fortunately, the Caravan depreciates like Soviet space hardware so it’s inexpensive to buy second-hand. Just keep some funds aside for certain repairs. And a website domain name.

We would like to know about your ownership experience with these models: Mazda5, Mercedes-Benz C-class and Pontiac Grand Prix. Email: toljagic@ca.inter.net.

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