Dodge Grand Caravan: Is this the last hurrah?



Of the American Big Three automakers, Chrysler has had the most turbulent financial history, with multiple walks near bankruptcy in its recent past. These strains have forced product decisions that were not always in the company’s best interest — as the current linkup with Italian brand Fiat is proving. Unable to sell small and midsize cars profitably, Chrysler (FCA) is looking for a partner, especially a partner to design and build these essential vehicles for them as the market shifts to crossovers and larger people movers. Chrysler also lacks the innovative hybrid and alternatively powered products that are the darlings of regulators and “green” buyers, with just the pending Pacifica hybrid-minivan the only such offering in its entire lineup.dodge-grand-caravan-2

So it is with some trepidation that one witnesses discontinuing one of its more profitable and prolific products. The Dodge Caravan helped rescue Chrysler in 1983, along with its boxy Plymouth sibling. Plymouth itself eventually went away, giving birth to the Chrysler Town and Country minivan model, while the short-wheelbase Caravan gave way to the longer, and more popular, Grand Caravan.

Today, 34 years after its dramatic debut — to much acclaim and success — Chrysler has placed the Caravan’s long-term future in doubt.

Originally slated to end production at year’s end with the all-new Pacifica destined to carry the torch forward, the company has just announced that the Caravan will remain a fleet production vehicle for at least one more year. After that, however, Chrysler’s plans are unclear.

The Pacifica is a heck of an upgrade; it works very well and climbs the ladder against the vaunted Honda/Toyota competition very nicely.dodge-grand-caravan-3

But this assumes that there is not a buyer for a continued presence of the Grand Caravan, whether it be fleet duty or budget-busting commercial action. We (four intrepid travelers) recently got to sample a Grand Caravan SXT during an eight-day tour of the Canadian Rocky National Parks. Our experience proved that the Grand Caravan might have some age spots, but it truly proved to be a versatile and capable traveling companion.

Using the tried and true 3.6-liter V-6 found throughout Chrysler’s lineup, the Grand marched up and down the highways and steep valleys of the Rockies without protest — once I deactivated the ECO button and could summon full power from the drivetrain. ECO was great when we crossed the plains from Calgary, cruising along effortlessly with a full load of gear and people, but with the terrain rapidly escalating in elevation, ECO mode made the van limp and unresponsive to small throttle inputs. Surprisingly, the Dodge averaged almost 25 mpg for our time together, a credible accomplishment covering over 1,000 undulating miles.

Minivans might be disdainful to a segment of the buying public (that’s a distinctively “you” problem), however there is no denying the vehicle’s ability to haul lots of stuff, efficiently. With power sliding side doors and a power liftgate, our Dodge opened itself up to all kinds of cargo hauling, allowing us to literally throw our gear inside various portals with no regard for the space consumed — as there is just plain plenty of it. I can’t think of a three-row crossover created that offers this much room, while taking up such a small footprint. And, in tight parking spaces — with tons of “Asian Invasion” buses filling all of the scenic parking lots — the sliding doors allowed easy access.dodge-grand-caravan-4

Our week together took us to over 6,800 feet driving as we crisscrossed the Continental Divide in the Canadian Rockies, visiting Banff, Kootenay, Yoho, and Jasper National Parks, traversed the Vermillion Pass and the Icefield Parkway, as well as plying the local roads in search of wildlife. With a season-pass, we had unlimited access through the myriad national park checkpoints along the major roads (many of which are four-lane) while the road surface conditions are superb. Few large trucks were noted, but hundreds of rental RVs populated the road with us, along with the aforementioned buses. During our trip it also was evident that Chrysler has a strong representation in Western Canada, as Dodge branded vehicles were the most prevalent — whether they be rental or privately owned. Challengers far exceeded any other pony cars, while Grand Caravans and Town & Country minivans as well as Dodge Durangos filled the parking lots as we hiked through the mountains.

We got to see plenty of Elk, one moose, one young grizzly bear, deer and lots of ground critters — with most of our exposures in or close to town. Watching an aggravated male elk chase a camera-toting tourist was one highlight.

We also saw a lot of high-performance cars and sports cars as these roads provided access to great mountain driving and first class lodges left over from the railroad-travel heyday. Park speed limits were just 90 km an hour, or 54 mph, so high-speed hijinks were limited for these powerful cruisers, and for us, even though we saw a total of two park rangers during our trip.dodge-grand-caravan-5

Arriving at Jasper it became clear the railroad still plays a large role in Alberta’s economy. Double-stacked box cars, coal cars, oil cars, and lumber passed in mile-long processions day and night, trains going east and west over the mountains from Vancouver to Jasper and Edmonton and Calgary. The grand hotels left behind from an era that consisted of mostly train travel is still impressive today.

As are the vistas and numerous mountain lakes, and the waterfalls! And did we saw lots of incredible waterfalls; almost every day brought another jaw-dropping waterfall experience, with many accessible through canyon hikes on semi-paved trails with cantilevered walkways and bridges. The steep and cragged limestone-mountains creates a unique greenish-blue water that sparkles and captivates like few other bodies of water. Hiking to glaciers, ascending Whistler Mountain (8,100) feet and surveying the constant 360-degree views, especially after a day of snow, left us very pleased with our navigator’s multiple trail choices.

And the Grand Caravan left us pleased too. The van was quiet, roomy, and offered pockets and spaces that collected our traveling paraphernalia without protest. The Sirius satellite radio also proved to be heaven-sent; reception was 99.9 percent crystal clear deep in the valleys and everywhere we went — surpassing reception in local Maine. We got to keep up with football, our music, but left the news for others.dodge-grand-caravan-6

So far this year, Grand Caravan sales have actually doubled over last year — perhaps a result of the vehicle’s planned demise, perhaps rental fleet sales have increased, who knows for sure except the Dodge product promoters. For sure however, the Grand Caravan remains a practical vehicle, a sensible way to move people and cargo, efficiently. Perhaps the rear Stow-N-Go seats could be more adult friendly (wider and more thigh support), maybe the roof could grow some panoramic panels or a Vista-roof series of glass panels that would further cement its role on scenic adventures like we took, or, maybe Chrysler could take this wide, flat chassis and build a real hybrid rental-fleet vehicle that maintains its lofty hauling abilities and becomes popular with ‘green’ sensitive tourists. Granted, maybe niche sales action, but if you aren’t selling cars, why not sell minivans that customers know you are pretty good at.dodge-grand-caravan-7

If this is the end of the Grand Caravan, it has been a good ride. The Chrysler vans changed the vehicular landscape for countless families, made Chrysler relevant when it wasn’t, as well as proved that simple sometimes does work better than big and complicated.dodge-grand-caravan-8

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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