Sharp Dressed Van
Road Test: 1996 Dodge Caravan Sport
My dad's a van man. He's on his sixth ('59 and '68 VW
Microbuses, '73 and '84 big Dodges, a second-generation Caravan, and a
'48 Cadillac van. All right, it was a hearse, but that's a story for another
That's why I showed him our test Dodge Caravan Sport.
By now, you probably know that the minivan is one of
Chrysler's great successes. The original Caravan defined the modern minivan,
and the Pentastar folks have stayed about a generation ahead of their challengers.
As with previous Chrysler minis, the third generation comes on two wheelbases.
They've proliferated models and trim levels to offer a viable, roomy, utilitarian
alternative to every traditional car save a Corvette or Rolls-Royce.
Our short wheelbase six-passenger test van carried Dodge's
Sport package, with monochrome white treatment and a revised suspension.
The resulting look is sleek and snub-nosed tough, although the Splendid
Co-Driver thought the white wheel covers "dopey," but she's not the target
market, thank you very much. (She did like the "really cute" purple scrawled
Sport logos. Don't ask.)
She also liked the curvature of the A pillar, the generous
window area, the "tasteful" grille, and the very short nose, so like her
The door pulls on the Caravan are big and you put your
hand around them. They're hand shaped, very comfortable, and give you a
good first impression. (The SC-D, perhaps uncharitably, argues that I like
the handle due to its resemblance to a refrigerator door.)
At first, Dad wasn't too impressed. He vehemently did
not like the left side sliding door. This is a Chrysler innovation on their
new minivans, and has already spawned imitations. Dad worries that it allows
kids to easily get out into traffic. (Knowing his kids, all in their 20s
or 30s, it's pretty likely.) An interlock prevents the left door from sliding
back when the fuel door is open.
Dad's first reaction on seeing the interior was that
it was silly for the grouped idiot lights to be labeled "information center,"
because there isn't much information there, and we all agreed. Second,
he said, "Hey, no place to put the phone."
There are lots of places to put other things. Up front,
there's a dual cupholder, and what looks like a change area, although it's
not flocked, in the center console. The cigarette lighter and ashtray aren't
standard. The usual lighter socket is marked as a power outlet, and doesn't
include the lighter element. There's a hard to reach (because it's recessed
away from you and tucked under something) rubber padded storage area for
glasses and such and an unpadded but bumpy-bottomed larger storage cubby
in the center front. There is a pretty fair size glove compartment and
a large slide-out storage bin under the passenger.
The center seat has a dual cupholder that pops out of
the sides of the seats for both center passengers to use. The center seat
also has molded-in cup holders, two on one side, one on the other, with
slots so you can put mugs with handles in them. They've also got a little
storage bin, one each side of the far back seat. Flip a lever and wheels
drop out of the seats, making them easy to move around. And the rear seat
slides forward so you can fit some extra items behind, like grocery bags.
The center seatbacks fold down and have insets for cupholders
and a tray on them, but the headrests interfere with folding them flat
while keeping the rear seat usable. For interior utility, three and a half
The front seats are grippy and reasonably comfortable.
A little bit more lumbar support would help.
The Caravan's cabin is very airy. The first thing you
notice is the vast windshield; the interior is bright, even with the Sport's
smoked glass. You sit far from the base of that windshield; not quite as
far as on the departing Lumina APV, but farther than on Ford's Windstar.
The SC-D likes the high driving position, and that the nose isn't visible,
giving a big full view of the road. From there, you also see large, legible
tach and speedo, white on black and green at night, with an LED odometer.
The panel's got a little fuel door indicator on it the way the Fords do
with an arrow, hurrah for Chrysler! You also see nice big air vents, visors
with little pull out extenders, and controls for the power locks, power
windows, power mirrors, and -- creatively -- power rear vent windows.
The front wipers have adjustable delay. And, hallelujah,
the rear wiper has an intermittent setting. We've been begging for this
on cars, oh, since we owned one. Switchgear lacks the substantial feel
of some of its competitors, although it's much better than Chrysler switchgear
used to be.
Chrysler used to have too much writing on their panels,
making them very busy. This is much better. And the smoothness of integration
of the passenger side air bag is really impressive. You can't tell there's
a bag there at all.
The climate controls have pictograms and are pretty
good. The SC-D especially appreciates that the climate controls allow gradual
shifting from one set of outlets to another, rather than discrete positions.
The system also runs quietly.
The wheel is large, but it's not really grippy, or particularly
well shaped. It's big enough, however, that you can see all the instruments
when it is adjusted to the right height.
The Caravan features height-adjustable seatbelt anchors
in the front and center seats, but not in the rear. I also like the map
lights; not very focused, but they're large. You push on them to activate
which is very simple and direct.
Herself also found thoughtful a friendly card slipped
over the visor which details the controls, like those found in rental cars.
"It's for people who aren't going to read the manual for a number of years,
and probably maybe never to explain the key features that are in front
of you." She was less pleased by the molded vinyl armrests, but liked the
seat fabric, which she expects to wear reasonably well.
The Caravan's cruise control includes a cancel feature
that shuts off the cruise control without losing the settings, and without
activating your brake lights. The cruise control switches on the
steering wheel aren't lit. This is not a problem if you've had the car
awhile and know what switch does which, but it is a problem if you don't.
ON THE ROAD
The Caravan's six provides very good acceleration. So
good, in fact, that you don't really feel it because it comes on smoothly,
and doesn't suddenly pin you back in the seat. And the engine sound is
very far away, so it's hard to tell that you're really hammering it, but
suddenly you're going previously illegal speeds. Nonetheless, mixed driving
gave us 21.3 mpg.
It's also easy to spin the front tires on a wet surface.
Those tires on the Caravan Sport are all-season Michelin MX-4's, 215/65x16,
and seem to be up to the task, even on a very wet day.
Side mirrors are quite large. In fact, I followed a
previous generation Caravan and the 96's mirrors are larger, which is good
for all the people who will be transitioning from cars to this. It's also
noticeably more carlike in its driving (not imprecise, not sloppy, just
more carlike) than Dad's earlier Caravan.
Pedals are... interesting. The accelerator pedal seems
to move a little bit to the right as it travels, so your foot doesn't line
up with it. The dead pedal is kind of small for us large-footed types,
and some hanging wires under the dash blocked it. And we agreed that the
Caravan's brakes could stand to be a good bit stronger, especially on initial
application. As the SC-D put it: "A little more travel in the brakes than
I would prefer. I have to mush way down on them before I actually find
what I'm looking for."
The Caravan is very quiet at highway speeds. There's
some wind noise, but not much. And we suspect there would be a lot less
if we didn't have the roof rack.
What do you think, Oh Splendid One? "A really quiet
vehicle. It's very pleasant to drive. There's a softish feeling to it.
I feel all cocooned, which is an odd feeling for a vehicle that's obviously
this big, but it's pleasant. The power steering makes it really easy to
maneuver in a parking garage at low speeds." At higher speed, the power
steering is a little bit floaty for our taste.
The fully independent suspension of the Caravan handles
parking lot speed bumps with aplomb, no fuss whatever. And it doesn't sacrifice
performance on the road; it just glides along over horrible streets in
a stately fashion, but with surprisingly firm handling.
Crosswinds are noticeable in the Caravan, but even in
pretty good crosswinds and passing trucks we didn't find one that moved
Some petty annoyances: it locks the doors unbidden when
put in drive. The outboard-pivoted large wipers leave a very low widow's
peak in the center of the windshield, coming to well below the mirror.
And the CHMSL is far enough from the window that you can see it in the
mirror when it's on, an unnecessary distraction.
A more significant annoyance, however, is the large
blind spot, basically at the left rear corner of the vehicle, which we
could not entirely eliminate. The thick C pillar is probably the biggest
contributor, although the headrests on the center seats, particularly the
one right behind the driver, block some useful rear mirror, and help extend
the blind spot.
Chrysler has hit the books hard with this van. The design
is remarkably well thought out, and a clear improvement on their previous
generation. It drives easily and well, and returns credible economy. One
has to wonder whether it's going to hold together. Our test vehicle, with
under 2,500 miles on it, seemed tight and free of obvious flaws. Unfortunately,
we're hearing a lot of anecdotal information that high-demand Chryslers
are lagging in build quality. Indeed, the driveway in which my father examined
the Caravan was previously home to a Neon that had to be disposed of when
it started to fall apart after a year and half. We hope they have it right;
if they don't, though, an awful lot of people will be upset -- these minivans
are everywhere. They are an unqualified hit.
The bottom line, though, is that after poking about
our test Caravan, my van-experienced father went out and bought a 96 Chrysler
Town & Country. With a left sliding door. And they even found a place
for the phone.
©Copyright 1995, Backyard Aerospace
Hard Drive is a trademark of Backyard Aerospace.