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Nashville Scene Vacation School

Nothing beats a "family adventure" in the new Dodge Grand Caravan

By Marc K. Stengel

JULY 12, 1999:  I've put myself through some pretty ridiculous circumstances during my last dozen years as an auto writer. I've hung precariously over the edge of lofty mountain tracks while testing the limits of some new four-wheel-drive contender. I've been spit off a road-racing motorcycle at Road Atlanta's infamous Turn 11, liquefying a little finger in the process, just to know what it's like to flog a sportbike at triple-digit speeds in a little leather jumpsuit. Nothing, however, prepared me for the trial of endurance and seething pressure I've just undertaken. To evaluate the 1999 Dodge Grand Caravan ES minivan--in its most appropriate environment, mind you--I recently traveled over 1,400 miles round-trip with my family of five for a four-day weekend at Universal Studio's latest Orlando attraction, the Islands of Adventure theme park.

If you must know, yes, my wife, my three daughters, and I are back on speaking terms. And, yes, using generous dabs of club soda, you can erase drawings of fish made with Cheese Whiz in a carpet floor. And, no, you should never ride the Incredible Hulk Coaster at 8:30 in the morning with a bellyful of Grape Nuts and yogurt. I'm not exactly sure what the physical principle is, but when you accelerate in just 150 feet and three seconds to the same G-force as an F-16 fighter jet at takeoff, followed instantly by a zero-G "heartline" roll 110 feet high, your stomach decides it can do the same thing--only faster...and farther.

Truth be told, a Dodge Grand Caravan, for all of the jaded sniping directed at minivans of late, eventually becomes something of a homey refuge for a family of theme-park pilgrims alternately baking and basting under noonday sun and afternoon downpours. There are zippier minivans, like the 210-horsepower Honda Odyssey; there are frillier ones, like the Olds Silhouette or Nissan Quest, with their multimedia "screening rooms" in the aft section. Nevertheless, for the last 15 years, ever since Caravan rendered the family wagon obsolete in 1984, the Dodge/Chrysler/Plymouth minivan motif has solidified its stature as the benchmark against which all others are measured.

Dodge's cleverest innovations are precisely the ones that I take for granted--things like the twin sliding rear doors. You just gotta have 'em, of course; and by now every minivan-maker agrees. Caravan was the first, however. And even if the doors aren't power-sliders like the ones you'll find on GM, Ford, and Honda models, they're just what a van needs for loading and unloading kids toting bottomless backpacks of junk. The way the middle-row captain's chairs fold forward and out of the way with a gas-powered strut is another great boon to convenience, as are the 33 cubic feet of stowage behind the three-passenger rear bench. Little nautical-style cleats serve as handy anchor points for luggage handles and grocery sacks. Accordingly, among all of the other minor mishaps you expect from a family road trip, luggage falling out of the cargo hatch when you open the rear door will not be one of them.

I also take for granted the Grand Caravan's 180-horse V6, which is standard on the ES model we drove and also available in place of the 3.3 motor (158 HP) in the SE and LE versions. This is a tried-and-tested powerplant, nothing fancy, but with adequate oomph and so-so mileage at 15 mpg/city, 22 mpg/highway. What I loved about the powertrain was the innocuous little thumb button on the gear selector--which is where Dodge decided to install its AutoStick semi-auto transmission shifter. A first reaction is to smirk at the idea of manually shifting a minivan (albeit with no clutch required). But I'm here to tell you that during 700 interstate miles one way to Orlando, the opportunities for elective shifting are manifold. When ol' blue-hair won't get her '87 Fleetwood outta the fast lane, an elegant downshift out of overdrive into third gear sure beats mashing the brakes and lurching the passengers. When Bubba in the UT-flavored party van tries to race you up Monteagle Mountain, a swift kick-down into second simply smokes 'im.

One other detail in the Grand Caravan is Dodge's secret sanity weapon. If you're driving along with both hands properly gripping the wheel at 10 and 2 o'clock, the middle finger of the right hand is hovering directly over the volume control for the sound system, while the middle finger of the left hand is hovering over the station/CD track selector. These discreet buttons are behind the steering wheel--where they oughta be. As the kids' chatter increases in volume, you can drown 'em out effortlessly. But when the kids get too rowdy, you just silence the sound system with no apparent movement, then bellow for full dramatic effect.

What, then, is not to like? Rear controls for the HVAC are sadly deficient compared to certain competitors'. And although the lack of rear headphone jacks is more of a whine than a real gripe, Dodge suffers in this category as well by comparison with its rivals. Our solution to the musical tension between Lauryn Hill and Led Zeppelin? I just plugged a Diskman unit into the handy rear power adapter and wired my two younger girls with their own headphones. My oldest contented herself to sleep-test the rear bench seat.

On the return leg home, after booking great time for the last seven hours, we were on the outskirts of Nashville when road construction slowed us to a literal stop for an entire hour. The eighth-grader bleared awake at this point and observed, "It's just like school." My wife and I looked at one another quizzically. "Like school?" "Yeah," said Mary, "Just when you get this great average going, you hit one little snag and it ruins everything." She dozed back into dreamland, and we finally made it home before dark. Sure enough, the report card was waiting in the mail. Mary was right after all. Whatever she may once have thought about spending 19 hours cooped in a Grand Caravan with pesky sisters, Mom, and Dad--and no phone--I bet she regards the ol' Dodge as one of her summer highlights right about now.

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