A U.S. Minivan That's No Worldbeater
Sunday, December 31, 2006
Years ago, I would've been perfectly happy with a minivan such as the 2007 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT. There is much to like.
It swallows cargo, thanks to its fully collapsible "Stow 'n Go" seats in the second and third rows. Its rear passenger doors and liftgate open and close automatically. The leather surfaces on its seven seats are comfortable. Its optional, DVD-based onboard navigation system is highly useful, despite the handicap of its small, four-inch screen.
Highway performance is good. The Grand Caravan moves easily with the high-speed, often manic traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike. It dances nicely with the legions of Yellow Cabs on New York City's crowded streets. And because it is shorter and lower than the 2007 Infiniti QX56 sport-utility leviathan I could have driven here, I could park the Grand Caravan at my favorite East Side garage at a $10 daily discount, for total holiday vacation parking savings of $60.
Also, the Grand Caravan uses regular unleaded gasoline, and uses it relatively sparingly. I averaged 25 miles per gallon in expressway travel carrying four people, their luggage and enough Christmas gifts to resupply Santa's warehouse.
Yet, despite its many virtues, the 2007 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT leaves me cold. I think it's because I've never been a fan of swan songs; and the Grand Caravan I drove on my holiday road trips was a tired song-and-dance act headed off stage.
It is not that anyone at the Chrysler Group -- the formerly independent, American-owned Chrysler, now a division of German-owned DaimlerChrysler -- announced that the Grand Caravan and its other Chrysler minivan siblings are about to go out of production. Chrysler, which introduced the world to minivans in 1984, remains the lone domestic automobile company in the minivan business.
Unlike Toyota, which boldly pronounced the "death" of the minivan last year at an international motor show in Geneva, no one at Chrysler publicly has issued such utterances. Instead, Chrysler officials insist that they will motor on, their minivan fleets fully stocked, while the rest of the automotive world rolls out more "crossover" vehicles -- tall wagons disguised as sport-utility models.
But Chrysler's actions, represented by the 2007 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT, say something else. The new model's core technology -- its engine and transmission -- is obsolete. Fully optioned, the tested Grand Caravan SXT comes as a $36,340 minivan with a 3.8-liter, 200-horsepower V-6 engine mated to a workaday four-speed automatic transmission.
Compare that with a comparably equipped 2007 Hyundai Entourage Limited minivan, which sells for about $3,000 less, but comes with a 3.8-liter, 24-valve, 242-horsepower V-6 engine with a five-speed automatic transmission that also can be shifted manually.
Although the Entourage Limited has 42 more horsepower than the Grand Caravan SXT, it gets similar fuel economy -- about 25 miles per gallon in highway runs. How? The South Korean automaker's engine, equipped with electronically controlled variable valve timing and lift, which helps to more precisely meter the air-fuel mix flowing into engine combustion chambers, is more efficient than the Chrysler model. Ditto the Hyundai Entourage's transmission.
The differences don't stop there. Fit-and-finish and interior materials in the Dodge Grand Caravan SXT are good. But in the Hyundai Entourage Limited, they are discernibly superior -- and, again, at a lower price.
The Dodge Grand Caravan SXT offers as standard equipment four-wheel-antilock brakes, which help to reduce the chances of dangerous wheel lock-up during panic stops; and traction control, which helps limit wheel-spin on slippery surfaces. The Entourage Limited adds electronic stability control and head air bags for the front and third rows -- again, for less money.
Hyundai's Entourage Limited says Hyundai plans to continue making affordable, highly desirable minivans for the consuming public as long as consumers want to buy them. The Dodge Grand Caravan SXT, faced with increasingly tough competition, seems ready to call it quits.