In 1983 Chrysler turned the auto industry on its ear when they introduced the first front- wheel drive minivan. Now, in the 17 years since, minivans have become a staple of the neighborhood driveway everywhere. Even the incredible rise in SUVs has failed to dampen family drivers’ enthusiasm for this most practical of people movers. And despite the arrival of many clever competitors, Daimler-Chrysler continues to command the lion’s share of the minivan market. So what do the all-new 2001 Chrysler minivans offer that will keep those families coming back for more? How about the industry’s first power-operated rear hatch? A feature that few parents balancing both kids and grocery bags will be able to resist. It’s available on all 2001 Dodge Caravans and Chrysler Town & Country models, but not so on the now Chrysler Voyager. It includes an obstacle detection system that stops the hatch from closing on stray limbs, or your head. This is in addition to the first time available dual power sliding rear doors.
But that’s just part of an already successful package, that’s been extensively revised both inside and out. A fact obvious to seasoned minivan fans, since the latest Chrysler and Dodge minivans all feature sleeker, more muscular, styling for 2001. The front ends feature larger headlamps and gaping grilles. While a more wedged-shaped profile, with sharp character lines, tightens up the normally soft minivan form, and well defined liftgate, taillights, and lower fascia firm up a once flabby rear.
The interior is also completely rethought on both short and long wheelbase models. Always spacious, it’s now augmented with a more upmarket style and available side impact airbags. Gauges sport off-white faces on all models except the Town & Country Lxi and Limited with their gold-and-black graphics.
The handsome center stack is control and cubby hole laden. We found the switchgear for the standard cassette stereo and optional in-dash CD changer easy to comprehend. Or order the Rear Seat Video system to entertain today’s media-dependant youth. Interior comfort is governed by the new 3-zone automatic climate controls. Another minivan first. As is this clever removable center console, with power outlets and a cell phone holder. It fits between either the front or second row seats.
While further back, the removable third-row bench seat is now split 50/50 for more flexibility, and rolls in and out on compact wheels. And on top of that, there’s an available pop-up cargo organizer that makes it finally possible to get your grocery bags home intact. Very clever.
And to haul it all around, a beefed-up engine selection, that starts with a 2.4-liter 150- horsepower 4-cylinder, and currently tops out with a 3.8-liter V6 that delivers 215 horsepower and 245 pound-feet of torque. A more powerful 3.5-liter 240-horse V6 will be added early in 2001. All Chrysler-made minivans, both front and all-wheel drive, use a 4-speed automatic transmission. The Dodge Grand Caravan ES also offers Chrysler’s AutoStick transaxle for those who desire a manual shift option.
With the 3.8-liter engine and AutoStick transmission, our all-wheel-drive Grand Caravan ES hit 60 in a respectable 10.3 seconds. And ran the full 1/4 mile in 17.6 seconds at 80 miles- per-hour. Power is concentrated down low, for maximum family-hauling ability. The drivetrain feels smooth and solid. But the AutoStick’s habit of automatically up shifting well before redline makes us question its value.
Handling raises other questions. Revisions to the front-coil and strut and the rear-leaf- spring and tube shock suspension’s geometry seems to improve grip. But soft springs, which produce lots of body roll, and a lack of steering feel, upset the van’s balance in repetitive, tight turns. Fortunately, few drivers will push their minivans this hard.
But, in our high-speed emergency test, the Grand Caravan felt more confident. Snap steer it in at 60, and it responds with a solid, predictable front end push, and good rear end grip. And as for braking, larger discs and new calipers on our ES produce average stops from 60 of an acceptable 137 feet. Nose dive is prominent. But, the brake pedal, though a bit soft, delivers good feedback.
While out on the road, the Grand Caravan has a very elegant ride, yet with a solid feel. An easy vehicle to cross America in. Providing of course, that you can afford the fuel. EPA estimates for our Grand Caravan ES are 16 city/22 highway. We averaged 17 miles-per-gallon in mixed driving. Now, that’s lower than our previous Chrysler minivan tests, so we think it would improve with age.
As for affording the vehicle itself, the Dodge Grand Caravan lineup starts with the $24,915 front-drive Sport. The ES grade van starts at $29,750 for front-drive, and costs $32,875 for an ES all-wheel-drive model like our test machine.
Yes, the 2001 Chrysler and Dodge minivans offer plenty of new features, to attract buyers to their slice of the crowded minivan market. They may have reached the limits of minivan performance, but with the Caravan, Town & Country, and Voyager, Daimler-Chrysler continues to expand buyers’ expectations for comfort and convenience. As it should be. Because who knows more about minivans and what minivan buyers want than the company that created the class itself?
Engine: 3.8-Liter V6
Torque: 245 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 10.3 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 17.6 Seconds @ 80 MPH
60-0 MPH: 137 Feet
EPA Mileage: 16 MPG City 32 MPG Highway