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2011 Dodge Grand Caravan

$44,000 is steep for a minivan with dodgy reliability ratings Add to ...

Chrysler basically invented the minivan as we know it, back in 1983, and one of its key selling points has always been its affordability.

Since it debuted, the company has shipped a lot of these people-carriers out of the plant in Windsor, Ont., and, depending upon the time of year and dealer incentives, they can feature an MSRP in Canada of less than $20,000 new. That was definitely not the case with my test Grand Caravan, which, by the time the dust settled, was up in the $44,000 neighbourhood.

But first, some specs. Now entering its 25th year, the Grand Caravan was originally a variant of the garden-variety Caravan, but with a longer wheelbase and more interior room. Over the years, it has morphed into semi-luxury territory and even had all-wheel-drive for a while. Through it all, it has been the best selling minivan in Canada from the beginning – by a long shot.

These days, there’s nothing mini about it. Front-drive only, it received a new Chrysler Pentastar V-6 engine for 2011, which is a good thing. This powerplant is used elsewhere in Chrysler’s lineup – the new Jeep Wrangler has it – and, in this configuration, it develops 283 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque.

This makes the Grand Caravan one of the livelier minivans out there – it’s now more powerful than the Honda Odyssey, for example – and is a welcome upgrade from the anemic pushrod V-6 that preceded it. The last version of this vehicle offered a 3.8-litre V-6 engine as standard equipment, and it was the vehicle’s weakest link.

Anyway, the new engine is smoother, more powerful and quieter than its predecessor, and delivers decent fuel economy, although, in that regard, it’s still slightly inferior to the Odyssey and Toyota Sienna. Transmission is a six-speed automatic only with a dash-mounted shift lever. In terms of drivability and refinement, it has caught up to its offshore competitors.

Now, about that pricing. My tester, the Crew version, had an MSRP of just less than $34,000, and for that, you get cloth interior, tilt-telescoping steering, engine block heater, floor console with four cup-holders, power door locks and so on. All the stuff you usually expect to get with any minivan, plus fog lamps, larger 17-inch wheels and tires, an overhead console, etc. No gripes with the equipment level, but 34 large is getting up there for a minivan. Especially one that has built its reputation on affordability.

But that’s not all. My car also had extra features, including the Power Convenience Group, which comes with a power rear lift-gate and sliding side doors. It’ll run you another $1,500 and is arguably money well spent. Ditto with the Driver Convenience Group, which includes Bluetooth, heated front seats, UConnect and heated steering wheel. This last item is very welcome in colder weather. Lovely. However, brace yourself for another $1,000 here. So now we’re up to $2,500 over the base price.

It goes on. The dual screen entertainment system costs another $2,800 and has a back-up camera, wireless headphones, Sirius satellite radio, a second-row video monitor and so on. All of which is nice, but throw this into the mix and add a few other odds and ends and you’re approaching the $45,000 mark – before taxes. In my corner of the universe, that’s a lot of money to spend on a minivan.

And there’s something else. According to Consumer Reports, the Grand Caravan is at the bottom of the heap when it comes to owner satisfaction. When asked if they’d buy one again, just 53 per cent said yes, compared to 78 and 76 per cent for the Odyssey and Sienna. This is well below the median. Although it’s better than it was, the Grand Caravan still receives mediocre reviews from this organization, and the long-term reliability of Chrysler products is still a large question mark.

On the other hand, it does have those clever fold-into-the-floor centre seats. When Toyota, for example, redesigned its Sienna, it declined to incorporate this feature and Chrysler has an edge on everyone when it comes to carrying stuff and converting the Grand Caravan into a cargo van. And for those buyers who like the Grand Caravan but want that extra bit of upscale cachet, the VW Routan is essentially the same vehicle, but with a little more in the way of ambience. Ditto with the Chrysler Town & Country.

My test Grand Caravan Crew was a 2011 model, but changes for 2012 will be minor, and all things considered, I’d look long and hard at the base SE Value Package. It really has all you need in a minivan and is priced less than $20,000. That makes it a good deal.

2011 Dodge Grand Caravan Crew

Type: Minivan

Base Price: $33,995; as tested: $43,820

Engine: 3.6-litre V-6

Horsepower/torque: 283 hp/260 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 12.2 city/7.9 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna, Chrysler Town & Country, Volkswagen Routan, Kia Sedona

globedrive@globeandmail.com

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