2007 Dodge Grand Caravan 3.3 LX (USA)

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The Americans call this a “minivan”. For any vehicle that is over 200″ long, as this one is, the soubriquet “mini-….” seems less than appropriate. Providing lots of space to carry people, and things is what the Dodge Grand Caravan is all about. And it does that rather well. The Grand Caravan is a full foot longer than the regular model, and all that space is used for extra passenger room. There are two large seats up front, with enough space almost to stand between them, where the floor is completely flat. There are two amply proportioned chairs in the middle, with plenty of space on the right hand side for passengers to slide past in the back row of seats, which are proper seats for a further three. You could probably put three youngsters in the middle row for short journeys. too. Unlike many an MPV, there is a surprising amount of luggage space with all the seats occupied. The boot is now very deep indeed, as there is a well which is used when the third row of seats are folded into the floor. In this model, the middle row of seats did not appear to fold, but they could be removed entirely. There are big cubbies in the floor in front of them. There’s also a large tray under the front passenger seat, as well as the usual collection of door pockets, cup holders and sizeable glovebox.

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Lots of other neat practical touches are provided, too. There are separate controls for the driver to regulate temperature and air con, but also a roof mounted set of controls in the rear passenger compartment. Coat hooks and power sockets abound. All the evidence suggests that the designers here truly understood the needs to the families who are likely to buy this car.

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Sadly, the driving experience is where it all starts to look a little less convincing. This is a big and heavy car, so the tried and tested 3.3 litre V6 is struggling a bit. When a sudden burst of acceleration to join freeway traffic was called for, it kicked down two gears, somewhat brutally, but revved itself following a hesitation at very low revs, changed up rather brutally and then lost the extra impetus I was trying to get. For more gentle ebb and flow on the freeway and the side streets, it was less of an issue. Point it at the hills, though, and it was quite clear that fully loaded, this car would struggle. Heaven help anyone who goes for the 2.4 litre entry model.

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That’s not the worst. No-one buys an MPV and expects the last word in sharp handling. And with this car, they certainly do not get it. It displays some of the worst understeer characteristics I have experienced in a while. And, recognising that it’s not exactly a sports car, I was not pushing it very hard at all. The steering is OK, and feels precise enough, but the handling is not a strong suit. Nor are the brakes. Indeed, they are quite worrying. I’ve come across worse (the Ford Taurus, esp in the wet is plain scary!), but these do not inspire a lot of confidence. The parking brake is clearly not intended to be used. It’s a foot operated pedal, which is quite common in US cars, but the hand release lever is mounted so low down (it is literally attached to the top of the lever that you push to set the parking brake with your left foot), that it is all but impossible to reach it. I did not bother, even when parked on a steep slope.

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That was not the only awkward feature, either. Despite having lots of adjustment, I never felt I got the right driving position that was comfortable. The driver’s seat felt like it was a little offset to the steering wheel and controls, and accordingly although the seat looked comfortable, and had plenty of adjustment in all directions, I did not quite fit in it, and was never quite where I felt I ought to be. The view of the dash is, however, good……… provided it is daylight. I picked this car up in the dark, and struggled to find things like the light switch. It’s on the dash to the left of the steering wheel, but is totally unilluminated at night. The dials are clear, and the whole quality of the materials and design felt a cut above more recent Chrysler Group products which, quite frankly, seem particularly low rent.

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Visibility to the sides is excellent. the side windows are low, and this helps make the cabin feel light and airy. The mirrors do a good job of showing what is behind you. However, there is absolutely no way you have any idea where the front of the car is. I always parked well short of where I needed to, as I could not judge. The back is easier to judge, but it is so far behind you that you really do have to remember there is an awful lot of car, especially when you are manoeuvring in car parks. Nonetheless, this does not feel as big a car to drive as it really is. It was quite easy to place on the road. Although you do sit a little higher than regular cars, it has none of the challenges of similar sized SUVs of needing a step to help you get into them. Access feels normal, from a normal height.

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On balance, then, I would struggle to recommend this car. Within months, however, it will be replaced by a new model. The next generation Caravan was shown at the major US shows earlier in the year, though an internal inspection was not possible. And no-one has yet driven them to see if the weak points I discovered have been addressed. I hope they have, because even this model is so practical for those who need a large MPV, it’s a shame it was just so disappointing in so many other areas.

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