2011 Dodge Grand Caravan Driving Impressions

Minivans tend to generate pages of notes on the interior but little driving impressions. The Dodge Grand Caravan is a transporting machine, not a driving one. That was especially true with last year's model, which offered a smooth ride but suffered from sloppy handling and indifferent steering. Dodge has made several changes to address those issues for 2011.

For 2011, the ride height has been dropped one inch and the suspension has been completely retuned: The spring rates are firmer front and rear, new low-rolling resistance tires have been chosen, the bushings and shocks are firmer, and the steering is quicker. Those changes make a world of difference in the handling department. Yet ride quality has not suffered.

The suspension still features rear coil springs and a twist-beam rear axle with a track bar. In other words, it's not an independent rear suspension, so it's not as sophisticated as the setups in some rivals. (A Trailer Tow Package includes self-leveling rear shock absorbers.)

Though just as large, the 2011 Grand Caravan is much more controlled than last year. It still leans a bit in turns but acceptably so, and it gathers itself quicker to head back in the opposite direction. The new steering is quicker and more direct. It no longer feels like you're at the helm of a ship.

The Honda Odyssey was far sportier than the 2010 Grand Caravan, but our impression is that the 2011 Grand Caravan is almost as dynamically capable as the 2011 Odyssey. And we haven't yet driven the Grand Caravan R/T model, which offers sportier suspension settings.

The ride is still quite good, better in some ways. While drivers will feel more road imperfections, the ride is still quite supple and it won't jostle you or the kids over anything but the worst bumps. Better yet, the float and wallow that was too evident on recent models is gone on the 2011 Grand Caravan, as is the copious lean, so passengers' heads won't be tossed about with every flick of the steering wheel, stab of the throttle or push of the brakes.

The 2010 model offered three engines, and only the top engine was close to competitive.

For 2011, Dodge Grand Caravan comes with one brand-new engine, the 283-horsepower 3.6-liter Pentastar V6. It makes 32 more horsepower than the most powerful of last year's engines.

Fuel economy is an EPA-estimated 17/25 mpg City/Highway, or 20 mpg Combined city and highway driving. With E85, efficiency falls off to an ethanol-guzzling 12/18 mpg, according to the federal government.

The new 3.6-liter V6 on the 2011 Grand Caravan gives Dodge an engine that is competitive with the other V6s in the class. It's smooth and quiet, offering decent punch from a stop and enough in reserve for passing. It increases towing capacity from 1800 to 3600 pounds. However, it doesn't feel as powerful as the 283-horsepower figure would suggest. That's odd because this same engine feels stronger in the rear- and four-wheel-drive Jeep Grand Cherokee.

We were disappointed with the 6-speed automatic transmission, which doesn't seem to communicate well with the engine or react well to the driver's right foot. That's likely because it's tuned for fuel economy, hitting those numbers, rather than responsiveness. We'd prefer a better balance of power and efficiency. There's also a button to push for an even more fuel efficient operating mode. Obviously, that only exacerbates the situation.

A couple of safety options that are worthy of note. The Blind Spot Monitoring system uses radar sensors to detect vehicles in the van's blind spots and warns the driver with lights in the side mirrors or a driver-selectable chime that sounds like the seat belt chime. We found it worked well, but like similar systems offered by other manufacturers it can sometimes give false readings. We've never seen one of these systems not detect a car that was there, however. But we think it's still important to look before you change lanes. The blind-spot system is an additional aid, not a replacement for awareness.

The Rear Cross Path system is activated when the van is in reverse. It uses radar sensors to detect vehicles crossing behind the Grand Caravan and warns the driver with lights in the side mirrors and that same chime. The system won't detect small objects, such pedestrians, so it's still important to proceed slowly. It does, however, detect vehicles up to 20 meters away, and is programmed to recognize the speed of oncoming vehicles and alert the driver only if they are traveling at a speed that could lead to an accident (in other words, stationary and very slow moving vehicles probably won't register). We like this system. It works well and is a useful aid in crowded parking lots.

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* Images, prices, and options shown, including vehicle color, trim, options, pricing and other specifications are subject to availability, incentive offerings, current pricing and credit worthiness.

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