Saturday, November 3, 2007

Caravan: Review of the 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan

If you had told me, just 8 days ago, that I would soon be yearning to drive a minivan, I would have looked at you as if you were a fool. However, driving a brand new 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan was life changing in the literal sense that it made the part of my life that involves loading two squirmy boys (one of them, increasingly tall and heavy) into my car each day infinitely easier. When the couriers came to take it away yesterday, I actually felt sad. I jokingly told Scott that he would be getting a call from the local SWAT team alerting him that his wife had locked herself inside the minivan and was holding people at bay with a kitchen knife.

I really loved it and I promise that if I didn’t love it, or found it to be a poor performer, I would be honest with you. So, if you care, if you find yourself in the market for a new minivan, read on…

The 2008 DGC, comes in two trim models – the SE or the SXT – and three powertrain choices: a 4.0-liter, V-6 aluminum engine with a six-speed transmission, capable of producing up to 240 hp with 253 lb-ft of torque; a 3.8-liter, V-6, six-speed that produces 197 hp; and the base model 3.3-liter, V-6, flex-fuel engine capable of 175 hp. The flex-fuel powertrain is only available on the base model.

I had the opportunity to drive the 4.0 liter, V-6. It…packs a punch. I was pleasantly surprised by how much power this thing has. It definitely outperformed my Santa Fe. My 6-year old Santa Fe which still kicks a little driving boo-tay.

I’ll be honest, the thing that most surprised me about the Grand Caravan was the way it handled. It drives as smooth as glass. The ride felt like that of a luxury car. It takes corners confidently with none of that SUV-induced sense of toppling over unless you’re driving 20 mph. On dry surfaces, it’s quick and smooth off the line. I easily took a couple of Odysseys and a Sienna without even trying. However, on wet pavement, it did not perform as well off the line and seemed to have some traction control issues.

Apparently, there is some controversy over the styling of ’08 Grand Caravan. A lot of folks just think it’s plain ugly. I, on the other hand, think it’s the best looking of all the minivans with the exception of the Quest. I’ve heard really negative things about the Quest, though, in terms of quality and apparently it hasn’t sold well. It’s also a bit more expensive than some of the other minivans on the market. I’m a fan of Dodge and Chrysler’s particular brand of styling. I like the edginess of models like the 300 and the Magnum and I honestly think the Grand Caravan picks up a lot of its styling cues from the Magnum – long straight lines, a boxy feel. And I will say this, call it ugly all day long, but I think it shows more personality than the Odyssey (no offense Odyssey drivers). I will say that I have a bias against Hondas even though they’re known for their reliability. I just think that a company once known for well-considered, innovative design (anyone remember the CRX or the Acura Integra?) has lost all credibility on that front, turning out really safe and reliable, but bland, boring cars for the masses. And that’s okay. Someone has to do that.

The interior is, naturally, roomy. The leather seats are comfortable and nice. I love the captain’s chairs for driver and passenger. The second row captain’s chairs are nice and they do rotate to face the third row. The Dodge Grand Caravan comes with a table that can be installed between the second and third rows. Passengers can use the table for… something…I guess. It seems impractical for use while driving, although it would be awesome on a camping trip or for tailgating.

I love the power-sliding side doors and the power lift tailgate. Very nice when you have a 25-lb. baby in your arms. However, I was warned that you should alternate between opening them manually and with the remote so that you don’t wear out the motor. Not exactly confidence-inspiring and I was honestly surprised to hear that.

The coolest thing about the Grand Caravan is probably the My Gig entertainment system. Wow. So not necessary, but so nice. It has Sirius satellite radio and TV, a DVD player, you can upload your music to the system’s hard drive, and of course, it has standard AM/FM radio. The satellite TV is nice, but, it’s not like most of our kids need to watch more TV. However, if you’re on a long trip and you want to keep the kids entertained, but don’t want to fool with dvd’s, then it’s kind of nice to have. You have to be careful, though. There are three channels offered: Nickelodeon, Disney, and Cartoon Network. There’s a lot of programming on Nick and CN that I find objectionable and the listings that are supposed to be available don’t always show up, so you don’t always know what’s on unless (unlike me) you can get the dashboard screen activated to see what’s on or your kids tell you what’s on. Brendan’s very honest, but I can see how a 6-year old might fib to Mom in order to get her to leave it on the channel he wants to see.

Speaking of the in-dash screen, I loved having the rearview camera. It instantly activates when you put the car in reverse. Now that I’m at an elementary school twice a day with kids running everywhere, I am hyper paranoid about running over a child. This eased that fear a good bit. You still need to check your mirrors and proceed cautiously, but it’s just one more tool in the safety arsenal.

Now, what didn’t I like about the GC? Well, the devil is certainly in the details when it comes to car design, and clearly the user interface designers and engineers either aren’t being listened to at Dodge or they simply don’t have any on staff.

Admittedly, some of these complaints probably relate to being used to my own car’s functionality and placement of shifters, buttons, knobs, etc. in my own car, but a lot of these are just someone’s failure to think about how people think and use tools.

In my Santa Fe, turn signals, wiper controls for front and rear, and the controls for the lights are all on two separate clickers on the steering column. You never have to reach for anything other than the radio controls, the fog lights (a push button), the rear window defrost, and the heat/ac. All of those buttons and knobs are on center panel to the right of the steering wheel. All easily within reach and intuitive in their functionality.

The controls for the Grand Caravan don’t make any sense at all and they’re spread all over the place. My goodness, it drove me nuts. First, the gear shift is on the dash. This, apparently, is a throwback to a ‘60s Dodge concept that failed. I can’t remember the specific vehicle (a ’67 work van, maybe?) that had this, but no one liked it, so they reverted to the steering column gear shift before evolving to the floor/center console shifter.

After several days of reaching to the center console to shift, I got used to. So much so, that even yesterday in my SF, I was reaching to the dash to put the car in drive.

There were a few things I really hated about the Grand Caravan. First, were the placement of the lights and the way they worked and were labeled. The lights are activated by turning a knob that is on the lower part of the dash, to the left of the steering column. Fine. Hard to reach and you have to sort of look for it to see if you’re actually turning on the lights, the running lights, or the option labeled “A”, which made no sense, meaning you’re taking your eyes off the road. The other aspect I hated about the lights was that to activate your brights, you just push in on the knob that turns the lights on. However, if you apply the least amount of pressure to that knob as you’re turning on the lights, you’ve just blinded anyone coming toward you. Bad, poorly considered design.

Next, I hated the key fob remote. It was backwards. If you pointed the remote at the vehicle (as most of us are wont to do, I think) when you were opening the doors, the button that opened the driver side rear sliding door was on the left of the key fob (opposite what is intuitive) and the button that opens the passenger side door is on the right of the key fob as you’re aiming it at the car. Yes, there are little pictures on the fob indicating which is which, but really? Do I want my user to have to look at a diagram or simply be able to do what is logically right and what feels right to sense and muscle memory? It really bugged the heck out of me that they designed it this way. Clearly no thought went into how a real person uses a key fob remote.

The last two things that really irked me are minor and my own quirks, but I’ll share them anyway. First, I am an adult and I can decide if I want to take my life in my own hands by choosing not to wear my seatbelt. Dodge (like our paternalistic government) doesn’t see it that way and they choose to have an obnoxious bell ding every 10 seconds or so, over the radio, to let you know that you’re breaking the law by not wearing your seat belt. I hate that. It’s just obnoxious and unnecessary. I often don’t wear my seatbelt if I’m just tooling around the neighborhood, but if I leave the relative safety of my neighborhood and venture onto a road with stripes, I put it on. And my kids are always buckled. I don’t need Dodge telling me to buckle up especially over my music.

And finally, and maybe most annoying, there was no tape player so I couldn’t listen to my iPod. I could have uploaded my music, but not all of it, and the process for doing so was tedious and involved and I just didn’t want to bother with it.

Overall, though, I really liked it. I’d probably buy one without comparing it to other minivans because it made my life so much easier for one week that I have the warm fuzzies for it. I can’t believe what a difference it made to my life not having to lift Brendan into the car or having to lean in with a door jutting out to strap Beckett in.

It was a lovely experience and if asked, I would definitely recommend this car to anyone looking to trade style for space, practicality, and function.


Suz said...

My Volvo has that seat belt dingy thing. It also drives me crazy, as my commute to work is limited to driving on Tradd, East Bay, Broad, Church, and Queen Streets, and thanks to idiot tourists and horse carriages, I can never exceed 10 mph anyway, so I never wear my seat belt. I just turn up the music to drown out the dinging! But I can't really complain since I drive a Volvo, in part, because of its safety.

Sheila said...

I have a new Grand Caravan. We had it custom made and I LOVE it. We didn't get the swivel seats. I personally don't know of anyone who can sit backwards for long while riding. I also love that with the Stow and Go we have all that extra storage you don't get with the swivel seats.
Unlike you, I have no problems with the lights. I leave them on A, which is auto, so they come on by themselves. I do have to push the button to brighten and dim them but I do most of my driving in town so it's not a big deal. I can reach it with ease since not only do the seats move on all directions the foot peddles do too. So I can sit where my reach is fine for the light button.
There is a spot that you can plug your iPod or mp3 player into to play and there is a way to have the TV or movie play on the front screen but it you touch it at all, once the van is in drive, you can't get it back without taking the van out of drive.
I have no trouble with all the buttons either. I read up on where and what everything was the night we got the van and I think that's the key. I LOVE the 3 zones for the heating and cooling. My husband likes his side a few degrees colder so I will no longer have to wear a sweater when riding with him. : )
I have a newborn and a 2 year old so the power doors are a dream, like you said. I had a Ford Escort so this is a BIG change for me. We have had it a month today. Now to get my husband and son to realize it's my car and not their toy! They go out to either watch a movie, on 3 screens, or load music up most evenings. The sound system in it makes it better for watching movies than going to most theaters.
I never had a key fob before so I have no trouble with how it's set up. I just love the auto start on the key fob.
As for the seat belt dinging, just fasten the belt and leave it that way, if your not one to wear it. That way you never have it dinging at you. I've noticed most car rental places do that as some cars now ding if the passenger isn't wearing their belt and the weight sensor is so light that laying a few things on the passenger seat will set it of.
I’m glad you enjoyed your time with the van. Your review was a nice read.