Can a minivan really be sinister? Dodge, the pioneer of the modern minivan, thinks so. Maybe that's why the Grand Caravan SXT now comes with an available Blacktop appearance package. So did we go over to what Dodge calls its "dark side"? Not entirely.
Appearance: The overall style hasn't changed since Dodge last updated the Grand Caravan for the 2011 model. Our tester came with the Blacktop package ($595), which includes a blacked-out grille, black headlight bezels, 17-inch aluminum wheels with black-painted pockets, black interior with silver accent stitching, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter knob. An important deletion to note with this package: a roof rack. We have to admit: The Blacktop package does make a stock minivan look as aggressive as is possible. We'd go as far as to borrow a competitor's line and say it has some swagger.
Performance: No matter the trim level, the Grand Caravan comes with Chrysler's 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6, which puts out 283 horsepower. The power is certainly adequate, but the engine can get noisy under hard acceleration. Plus, it's mated to a six-speed transmission that's not the smoothest-shifting gearbox. We wish it was paired with Chrysler's 8-speed automatic, which we like. Maybe the Caravan has been slow to get some of the upgrades we've seen in other Dodge models, but the powertrain left us with the impression it's not as refined as its competitors. Lyra even found the accelerator pedal slow to respond. We both found the steering feel to be heavy. On the plus side, the Caravan has a 3,600-pound towing capacity, which isn't bad for a minivan.
Interior: When you think Dodge and Chrysler minivans, you think Stow 'n Go second-row seats that go into the floor to create more cargo room. We think the seats are the van's best feature — they fold with a simple pull of a lever. This is one area where the Caravan outdoes the competition. The versatile seats make up for the fact that the Caravan can only seat up to seven, where some of the competition seats eight. The third-row seats fold by releasing latches in the rear. Says Lyra: "You'll feel like a puppeteer with all the straps you tug and pull." There's also a tailgate seat feature where the third-row seats can flip so they are facing out the rear of the van when the tailgate is up. This seems useful for families with small children, especially at outdoor activities. Elsewhere, the Caravan's interior quality now has more soft-touch surfaces but still lags behind the competition in refinement. (When Peter reached under the driver's seat, he encountered some sharp edges. Ouch.) We both thought the front seats could use more support. Even the 6.5-inch touchscreen seems too small for a vehicle of this size, which is too bad because Dodge's UConnect system is one of our favorites.
Our 3 favorites
Storage: Lots of nooks, cupholders and storage drawers.
Seating: Stow 'n Go second row is a great innovation.
Blacktop: The package will stand out in the car circle.
Gamers' delight: USB for charging; HDMI port; 115-volt outlet; two overhead 9-inch VGA screens, one each for second and third rows.
Versatility: Hauling people or lots of stuff.
Power liftgate: The closing button is at eye level.
The bottom line: If storage options are your priority, then the Grand Caravan deserves a look.