CARLSBAD, California - When your products serve as mainstays in the marketplace, and have done so for decades, changes have to be made carefully yet ambitiously. That's the dilemma faced by The New Chrysler corporation, while introducing the latest versions of the company's Chrysler and Dodge brand minivans.
When the old Chrysler Corporation launched the first Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country way back in 1983, as 1984 models, few would have imagined that they would still serve as veritable benchmarks more than two decades later. Through that period, minivans have had their ups and downs. New entrants into the minivan segment have come and gone. Yet, Chrysler has remained the one to beat. In fact, their minivans have been Number One in sales for years, currently capturing 38 percent of the market.
Furthermore, despite perennial concerns in recent years that minivans in general are doomed because of their tame, mom-mobile image, their share of the market has remained remarkably stable. Ever since 1993, around 1.1 million minivans have been sold annually in the U.S., though the total eased during 2006. Enough people - young families as well as older couples - are attracted by their versatility to keep minivans alive as aging, yet still-active, contenders.
"We think we've revolutionized it yet again," said product communications director Rick Deneau. Rick Kukucka, Chrysler's director of front-wheel-drive marketing, sees echoes of 1983, noting that young "millennials are starting to have kids themselves."
At a glance, the 2008 minivans might not look dramatically different from their recent predecessors. There's now a "lot of differentiation between the two" brands, Kukucka said. Dodge, in his view, flaunts a "get out of the way" front end, with a "bold and powerful look" for its Grand Caravan. Chrysler's Town & Country continues to appeal to slightly older buyers.
Chrysler boasts 35 new and improved features for the 2008 minivans, including Swivel 'n Go seating, dual gloveboxes, dual map pockets in doors, bottle holders in both front doors, and four storage bins in the upper rail system. A removable center console is available, with four bottle/cupholders and the ability to slide 2 inches rearward.
Chief designer Mark Trostle advised that the earlier minivan's "jellybean look" has been copied by a number of competitors lately. Therefore, Chrysler wanted to take a "different direction." Edges are said to be crisper, with a "glass-to-body proportion that's contemporary." A roof spoiler is installed.
"When you see it in the mirror, you know it's a Dodge," Trostle said. Like the Avenger sedan, the Grand Caravan gets what Trostle calls a "sinister look. It's tough, it's angry, it's in your face." Of course, that's not exactly the image that minivans ordinarily convey.
Design of the Chrysler Town & Country series, particularly up front, was influenced by the Chrysler 300 sedan. Minivan bodies are 18 percent stiffer, and Chrysler says its minivans are the only ones that offer self-leveling shock absorbers. Three-row curtain-type airbags are standard on all Chrysler/Dodge models, along with an Electronic Stability Program.
Three powertrains are offered: a 3.3-liter V-6 coupled to a four-speed automatic transmission; a 197-horsepower, 3.8-liter V-6 with a six-speed automatic; and a 251-horsepower, 4.0-liter V-6, also mated to the six-speed unit. The 3.3-liter V-6 is a flex-fuel engine, able to run on an ethanol/gasoline blend. That one earns an EPA fuel-economy estimate of 17 mpg in city driving and 24 mpg on the highway. Estimates for the larger V-6s dip to 16/23 mpg.
This is the first installation of a six-speed automatic transmission in a minivan, according to chief engineer Chris Alaniz, who advises that the "steps between the gear ratios are smaller." In his estimation, the "customer feels much smoother shifts." A 40-percent alteration in first-gear ratio promises brisker takeoffs.
Swivel 'n Go seating is available, allowing the seat to rotate 180 degrees or remove without disturbing seatbelts. A table can be set up between the second-row seats. The standard bench seat incorporates an integrated child safety seat, and Stow 'n Go (introduced in the prior generation) is an option. Chrysler claims that its drop-down windows, in the sliding side doors, go lower than those of the competition.
Park Assist is available. So, is a full Park View system with a camera and monitor screen. An optional power third-row seat includes what's dubbed a "tailgating feature." Sirius backseat TV, if installed, provides three channels for youngsters.
More than any other positive trait, the Dodge Grand Caravan SXT comes across as tight and solid. Handling is more confident than before, helped by positive steering behavior. No, these minivans cannot be called sporty, but at least they've moved a bit in that direction.
Ride comfort is outstanding, at least on smooth pavement. Sometimes, you hardly realize you're moving at all, except for just a trifle of up/down motion. Engine whir from the 4.0-liter engine is nearly subdued, and little road or tire noise is evident. Front seats offer excellent comfort and support, though side bolstering is only moderate. Second-row occupants enjoy loads of space.
If anything, the Town & Country minivan feels a tad smoother than a Caravan on the road. Chrysler's new six-speed automatic transmission shifts quite often, especially on upgrades (and in town). However, it does so with sufficient smoothness (barely noticed much of time) to be non-troublesome. Nautical-style gauges, long a hallmark of Chrysler models, still look classy.
Although the Town & Country is satisfying in overall feel, in curves at higher speed, a momentary sensation of non-surefootedness can occur at times. Ride quality is never compromised, though, remaining smooth through various pavement surfaces.
Not everyone may agree, but the least-expensive Dodge Caravan, an SE with the carryover 3.3-liter V-6, could be even more enjoyable than a model with the more costly 4.0-liter engine. This powertrain performs with nearly as much satisfaction, and the four-speed transmission slips through the gears without any fuss. Ride and handling are just about as attractive, too. Upholstery in an SE is less elegant, true; but just as comfortable and supportive.
Dodge Grand Caravan prices start at $22,470 (including destination charge) for the base SE model, rising to $27,535 for the SXT edition. In LX trim, Chrysler's Town & Counter starts at $23,190. Dodge no longer offers a shorter-length non-Grand model.