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Some vehicles lead their segments; others even revolutionize them. The Dodge Caravan, however, invented an entirely new one: the minivan. Offering an especially useful amount of room in a surprisingly easy-to-drive package, the Caravan quickly became the new synonym for family transportation and spawned competitors from all sides.
The Dodge Caravan has traditionally stayed a step ahead of the herd. It was first to market with the sliding door, then the first with two. It pioneered the integration of safety features like airbags. And for many years, it was also regarded as being the most versatile and pleasant-driving minivan. Given all this, it should come as no surprise that the Caravan, along with its longer relative, the Grand Caravan, became the top-selling minivan year after year.
However, today’s minivan scene is much different from the one of the 1980s or ’90s. Though other American automakers have essentially given up trying to make competitive minivans, Japanese and Korean automakers have raised the bar considerably in the past few years. As a result, the Caravan has fallen behind in terms of power, driving refinement, interior design and safety content.
Though the current Dodge Caravan is affordably priced and distinctive due to its shorter length, people interested in a new or recent-vintage minivan will probably be better served by other choices. Alternately, one might wait for the redesigned Grand Caravan that’s set to arrive for 2008, though it’s unknown at this time whether Dodge will offer a regular Caravan version as well.
Current Dodge Caravan
Today’s Dodge Caravan currently represents the vehicle’s fourth generation. Whereas most “minivans” these days extend to the 200-inch mark, this Dodge measures a slightly tidier 189 inches from bow to stern. Combined with a likewise shorter 113-inch wheelbase, the Caravan is among the easiest vans to maneuver and park.
It’s also one of the most affordable. Dodge speaks of the Caravan being the “lowest priced minivan” — no doubt a reference to the base Caravan SE, which comes with a 150-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and a four-speed automatic transmission. The SE has bench seats in the second and third rows, air-conditioning and a CD stereo but is otherwise sparsely equipped.
The more desirable Caravan SXT (known as Caravan Sport until ’04) comes with a 180-hp 3.3-liter V6, a four-speed automatic transmission, an optional power sliding passenger door, dual-zone air-conditioning, second-row bucket seats, full power accessories, a tilt steering wheel, cruise control and keyless entry. Since 2003, the Caravan has also come in a V6-powered Cargo Van version targeted for business use.
As long as the underpowered four-cylinder is avoided, the current Dodge Caravan is quite capable. While lacking the famous fold-into-the-floor seats of its “Grand” sibling, the Caravan has adequate room for seven adults (and plenty of room for five) or 129 cubic feet of cargo with all rear seats removed. Just note that this conversion takes patience and strength, as the rear bench seats are quite heavy.
It’s on the road where the Caravan falls short. We once found it to be the most fun-to-drive minivan, citing its precise steering and substantial feel. However, the latest competition makes its pushrod V6 engine and four-speed automatic transmission seem outclassed for both performance and fuel economy. In addition, compared to newer competitors like the Mazda 5 and Kia Sedona, the Caravan’s ride is on the wallowy side and its brakes are a bit weak.
We also take issue with its cheap interior finish, and the fact that an important safety feature like side curtain airbags must be purchased as an option. Stability control is unavailable altogether. Finally, its reliability record has been spotty, as with all past Caravans.
Since the current Caravan’s debut for 2001, there has been only one substantial change: In 2005, Dodge eliminated its optional front-seat side airbags in favor of optional curtain airbags protecting all three rows. That’s an important upgrade, but considering the Caravan wasn’t tops in its class to begin with, it’s hard to recommend except as a budget buy. Those consumers who do decide to buy a used Caravan would be wise to expand their search to include the nearly identical Chrysler-badged versions — the short-wheelbase, base-model Town.
Newer Dodge Caravans trace their basic design to the third-generation model, which was produced from 1996-2000. (Note that for this generation as well as all previous ones, a near-identical version called the Plymouth Voyager was also sold.) Compared to the current model, this Caravan was an inch or two smaller in most dimensions, and the engine roster was much different.
Back then, the 3.3-liter V6 only made 158 hp. The 2.4-liter engine still made 150 but was paired to a lowly three-speed automatic transmission. This generation of Caravan also had access to the Grand Caravan’s top-of-the-line 180-hp, 3.8-liter V6. Plus, there was a fourth engine: a Mitsubishi-built 3.0-liter V6 with 150 hp.
Initially, the Caravan’s trim lines consisted of base, SE, LE and ES models, though Dodge subsequently moved to position the regular-length Caravan as a budget minivan, resulting in the discontinuation of the top-of-the-line ES for ’98. The midrange LE lasted until 2000. The base model came with only the four-cylinder and 3.0-liter V6 at first, then added the choice of the 3.3-liter V6 in 1997, only to lose it again after ’99. The SE started with the same three choices, but dropped the four-cylinder after ’97 and the 3.0-liter V6 after ’98. The upscale LE and ES stuck with the bigger 3.3- and 3.8-liter V6s.
Consumers looking at used Dodge Caravans would be wise to zero in on SE and LE models, as both came with essentials like antilock brakes, cruise control, a tilt steering wheel and 15-inch wheels. The LE also provided standard air-conditioning and power windows and locks. (A/C was also standard on ’99 and ’00 SE models.) The high-line ES added 16-inch alloy wheels and a driver-side sliding door (an item that later became standard on lower-line models). Depending on the trim level, major options included second-row captain’s chairs, an upgraded Infinity CD stereo and a self-leveling rear suspension. However, the most important thing for used Caravan shoppers to look at is the engine under the hood: Either the 3.3-liter or 3.8-liter V6 is a must for adequate performance.
The late-’90s Caravan was regarded as the state-of-the-art minivan, setting the standard for spaciousness, comfort and convenience while offering a carlike driving feel. It was first in the class with dual sliding doors, and we found its interior flexible and easy to configure despite the always-heavy removable rear seats. A redesigned version of the Honda Odyssey edged out the Caravan by the end of its run, but it was always competitive.
Our only real hesitation, aside from its never-great reliability, concerns safety, as this van’s crash test scores were mediocre all around. Note also that like most minivans of this era, the Caravan had only two airbags. Making partial amends is the availability of traction control starting in 1997 and the switch to depowered airbags in 1998.
The second-generation Dodge Caravan was produced from 1991-’95. Derived from the infamous Chrysler K-platform of the 80s, the Caravan’s trim lines were base, SE, LE and ES. Three engines were offered: a 2.5-liter four-cylinder with 100 hp (paired to a five-speed manual or three-speed automatic), a 3.0-liter V6 with 142 hp (three- or four-speed automatic) or a 3.3-liter V6 with 162 hp (four-speed automatic). All-wheel drive was newly available for this Caravan, as were antilock brakes.
Seating was still comfortable in all rows and the rears were still removable. Note that only the front seats had head restraints. The Caravan’s most major update came in 1994 when a second airbag, better side-impact protection and more dashboard revisions were added; all-wheel drive was dropped. For 1995, Caravan lost the stickshift as well.
While we definitely recommend sticking to newer Caravans for better engineering, safety and convenience, this was the only generation in which Dodge offered all-wheel drive on the regular-length Caravan. Just be sure to exercise caution when shopping for models of the early ’90s; the four-speed automatic found in most was known for its extremely high failure rate.