In 1984, Chrysler Group released a vehicle that would change the American highways and byways forever. This vehicle became so revolutionary that it practically created a segment and has spawned numerous imitators during its long life. There is simply no denying the multi purpose properties that a minivan holds and when the Dodge Grand Caravan came on to the industry scene nearly 30 years ago, families knew they had a go-to ride. But times have changed and in a world where there are more SUVs on the road than anything else, the 2011 Dodge Grand Caravan must prove that the minivan is still the ultimate family machine.

Riding on the fifth generation front wheel drive platform that spawned the original 1984 model, the Grand Caravan was extensively massaged for the 2011 model year. The current generation may have debuted in 2008, but Chrysler LLC’s recent “rebirth” has breathed new life into the van. The most important change can be found under the hood as well as its suspenders. The changes to both of Chrysler’s minivans, the Grand Caravan and the Town&Country should help the other member of the Big Three return to glory.

For our adventure with the Grand Caravan, we tested a 2011 Crew. Riding on the same 121.2 inch wheelbase as all other Chrysler minivans, the Crew features such standard equipment as power sliding passenger doors, remote entry and engine start, Satellite radio with a 30 GB hard drive and touch screen control, and handsome 17 inch wheels. Base MSRP for the Crew is $28,695 and includes the 2011’s newest addition: the all-new Pentastar V6. To go along with the Grand Caravan’s new found power, our tester was equipped with options such as heated second row seats, the rear seat entertainment center with remote control, GPS navigation and a power lift gate. With options and destination charge, the Bright Silver Metallic test van carried a MSRP of $34,890. That price undercuts a similarly equipped 2011 Nissan Quest that we tested not too long ago by $5,000.

Easily the most anticipated aspect about the 2011 model is the new Pentastar engine. The all new, American built 3.6 liter double overhead cam V6 uses variable valve timing and is now found in almost every Chrysler LLC vehicle. In the Grand Caravan, the Pentastar produces 283 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque; both of which are greater than the Quest’s ratings. This engine is backed by a six speed automatic and front wheel drive and has to pull around a very “van-like” 4,306 lbs.

Driving the Grand Caravan, the new Pentastar is a very welcome addition compared to the old V6’s. It is smooth and has a nice powerband that simply gets the job done. Merging onto the freeway never became a hassle or a job as the Dodge worked its way up to interstate speed with ease. What was surprising was the noise that came from the Pentastar, which was oddly sporting. Unlike the Quest and its rough engine note, the Grand Caravan sings a smooth and very clean song even if pushed to redline. And with a solid average of 20 mpg, the 2011 Grand Caravan is right on par with the other minivans.

Another surprise came with the first turn of the steering wheel. Along with the Pentastar, the 2011 model comes with a revised suspension and steering set up. Both the front and rear sway bars have been thickened and the spring rates and steering gear have all been altered. The 2011 model’s ride height has also been lowered which not only makes the handling much more solid, but gives the Grand Caravan a more aggressive look. The steering feel is wonderfully crisp and is a welcome feature on a vehicle that should be boring. Overall, everything about the ride and handling on the Dodge is very solid and much more enjoyable than the Nissan Quest.

Even though the 2011 Grand Caravan maybe nimble on its feet, it is still a minivan and must be able to fulfill its duty. In order to be an excellent family hauler, cubby holds must be plentiful and nothing can be overly complex. The Dodge manages to pull off both as we were simply wowed by the amount of storage space this van contains. Almost every cargo hold can be covered and there are even hidden away containers scattered around the interior. Ergonomically, the Grand Caravan is a winner as nothing is in a place where it shouldn’t be. Unlike the Quest, the Dodge’s shifter was not in the way of any button or screen. The touch screen media control system is very well perfect and never showed a hit of lag. This is a very friendly vehicle that actually welcomes investigation into its functions rather than offending its driver.

We’ve said it before but we’ll say it again: there is no such thing as a perfect story. The Grand Caravan is no exception as it does contain flaws. Our biggest grip was with the transmission. At city speeds, the automatic shifts rather smoothly and operates just fine. But when a lower gear is needed for passing power, downshifts are abrupt and slow. The six speed actually felt confused as to which gear it needed to be in and when a downshift was needed, its appearance simply took too long. It may not be that old, (debuting in 2008), but the six speed could benefit from a recalibration.

Despite our grip with the transmission, the Grand Caravan never ceased to amaze us. The interior is truly a work of art and a model of ergonomics. The “Stow ‘N Go” seating allows for the second row seats to fold completely flat in the floor. Add this to the excellent rear seat entertainment system and kiss the family trips to the drive-in movie goodbye. An entire family can easily pile into the back of the Grand Caravan and enjoy movies with surround sound and all the wiggle room they could ask for.

For 2011, Chrysler has done what they wanted to do: re-establish themselves as minivan experts. Every little detail shows that they have listened to what the minivan buyer wants and have put them into practice. It’s the little things such as numbering the steps to fold the third row seats flat that make the Grand Caravan such a friendly vehicle. Sure, it may not be the most radical looking van on the road and doesn’t even come close to the extreme appearance that the Nissan Quest holds, but it actually does what it is supposed to do: be a minivan. Add in its revised suspension work and new-found engine power, and it comes out on top compared to a lot of its competition. There is no doubt that the 2011 Dodge Grand Caravan will make any family happy and encourage all types of adventures no matter how daunting the distance.

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