Minivans are typecast. Like Rodney Dangerfield, they get no respect. What's the reasoning behind this attitude? Well, they lack the stout frames and V-8 engines deemed essential for heavy-duty towing. But how often do you hitch up a 40' triple-axle rig for an interstate trek? The truth is, a properly equipped minivan can handle local tow jobs with ease. A case in point is the Dodge Grand Caravan, which has been completely redesigned. This descendent of the original that saved Chrysler's bacon in the 1980s brings fresh ideas to the light truck market, including a power-operated liftgate that opens or closes at the touch of a key fob; an automatic transmission that can be operated like a stick shift on steep grades; and a third row of seating split in half for reconfiguration or removal. What else has been changed? There's more power. The Grand Caravan's top 3.8-liter V-6 engine tops all other minivans with a potent 215 hp at 5000 rpm. Factor in the all-wheel-drive system available only in the long-wheelbase Grand Caravan edition and you've got enough traction to impress even SUV fanatics at the launch ramp.
To test this new Grand Caravan, we hooked up a 19' MasterCraft on a single-axle trailer, an appropriate 3,220-pound payload. (Chrysler uses a sliding scale for minivan tow ratings that factors in the weight of passengers and cargo inside the vehicle.)
Structural improvements do a commendable job of resisting the squeaks and rattles generated by a hefty load. The interior is notably quieter than in previous generations, thanks to superior isolation of the parts that buzz and grind as well as sealing systems that do an excellent job of blocking wind ruffle. With a curb weight well over two tons, firm suspension damping, and a wheelbase longer than any current Cadillac's (119.3"), this rig feels solidly planted at highway speeds.
The operation of the all-wheel-drive system is transparent to the driver. The front tires do all the work until they run short of grip; then drive to the rear axle is engaged. Stomping on the throttle on a slippery ramp prompted some spinning from the lightly loaded front axle before the rear tires pitched in to help pull the wet MasterCraft onto dry land, but more moderate throttle pressure yielded a smooth and slip-free climb up the grade.
The Grand Caravan's power side doors are the only feature that we feel needs additional refinement. The doors open and shut too slowly for hyperactive kids and are easily confused when bombarded with repeated commands. Still, unlike the power sliders found in some minivans, these accommodate manual override operation without throwing a hissy fit.
|MODEL||Dodge Grand Caravan|
|Engine||3.8-liter OHV V-6|
|Net torque (ft-lb/rpm)||245/4000|
|Suspension Front||strut-type, coil springs|
|Suspension Rear||rigid axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs|
|Brakes Rear||standard 4-wheel ABS|
|Tires||Michelin MX4 215/65SR-16, four-season|
|Curb weight (lbs.)||4,680|
|Towing capacity (lbs.)||3,550|
|Fuel capacity (gal.)||20|
|Observed towing fuel economy (avg. mpg)||13|
|Price (as tested)||$36,490|
LAST WORD. Lots of power, adequate traction, excellent fuel efficiency, and ample interior space make the new Dodge Grand Caravan one of the most versatile tow machines on the market.