By Chris Chase; photos by
Greg Wilson, CanadianDriver.com
What’s the deal with minivans? Many people seem to think they’re terminally uncool, yet these people-movers still sell pretty well despite the surging market for seven-seat SUVs and crossovers. Of particular interest is the continuing success of Chrysler’s minivans. The former Chrysler Corporation arguably invented the minivan back in the early ’80s, when these family haulers quickly became more popular than leg warmers and frizzy hair.
For years, no other minivan came close to being all things to families like the Chrysler minis were, but that’s changing. Competitors like the Toyota Sienna, Honda Odyssey and even Koreans like the Kia Sedona and Hyundai Entourage (now discontinued) offer most of the same stuff the Chrysler-built vans have, but they have it wrapped in, generally-speaking, more reliable packaging.
Still, the Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Town and Country have managed to stay on top in terms of sales. Why? Partly thanks to big-time incentives, but also because buyers see these things all over the place. If they sell that well, they must be good, right? Let’s skip back in time to 2001, when the fourth-generation of these venerable vans debuted, and find out how good – or bad – they are as a used-vehicle purchase.
Engine choices were between a 3.3-litre V6 (180 horsepower) and a larger 3.8-litre six (205 horsepower). A four-speed automatic was the only transmission choice.
Fuel consumption ranged from 12.2 to 14 L/100 km in the city and 8.2 to 9.6 L/100 km on the highway, depending on the engine in question and whether the van was fitted with the optional all-wheel drive system that was available on Grand Caravans and Town & Countrys up to 2004. In 2005, Dodge began offering “Stow ‘N Go” third row seats on the Grand Caravan; these fold into floor when not in use and when they’re in the upright position, they leave a useful well of cargo space in their place.
In many ways these vans are indeed quite good at what they do, but in other areas, the Caravan falls short. Check out Consumer Reports’ used-car verdict on the Caravan: that publication gives the Caravan its “worse than average” reliability rating. These vans are infamous for having transmission troubles that often require a rebuild or replacement, either of which can be pricey when the van is out of warranty.
All-wheel drive was an option, and while used examples so equipped are rare, they are best avoided thanks to problems with the all-wheel drive components.
Refrigerant leaks in the air conditioning system are frequent, and the tubes that carry hot coolant to the rear-seat heater can rust and eventually leak, too. Watch, too, for other engine coolant leaks and bad water pumps. Engine oil leaks are common, too.
As with so many modern cars, CR finds many owners complaining of brakes that squeak, squeal and wear out prematurely, and there are troubles with power windows, locks and door latches. Overall, Consumer Reports gives the Caravan its “much worse than average” used vehicle reliability rating.
So: there are a number of problems to watch for, but for those who are mechanically inclined and interested in tackling their Caravan’s problems themselves, there are a number of good resources on the web dedicated to these vans. Allpar.com is a great resource for anything Chrysler, including the Caravan and Town and Country. Here’s a page detailing the engines used in these fourth-generation vans and this page is a general rundown of Chrysler’s minivans. For information on the well-documented transmission woes, go here, and more general troubleshooting info can be found here. ChryslerMinivan.org has a discussion section for the fourth-generation Caravan, as does DodgeForum.com.
Crash tests conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) produced wildly different sets of results. Grand Caravans tested by the NHTSA between 2001 and 2005 earned four stars for driver and front passenger protection in frontal impacts, and all Grand Caravans built from 2001 to 2007 got five stars for front and rear seat occupant protection in side impacts, with and without the optional head curtain airbags. Grand Caravans produced in late 2005 and later got five stars all around.
All this good news is tempered by the results published by the IIHS, however. That organization gave 2001 models a “poor” rating in its frontal offset test; 2002-2007 models got an “acceptable” rating. In side impact tests, 2006-2007 models without side curtain airbags got a “poor” rating, while ‘06-’07 models with this optional safety feature got an “acceptable” rating.
Anti-lock brakes were optional on the base-model regular-length Caravan, but were standard in higher-end models; expect to find this feature in many used vans. Traction control was only offered in uplevel models, except for all-wheel drive versions, where it wasn’t available.
Used values, according to Canadian Black Book, start at $4,325 for a 2001 Caravan SE five-seater, to $15,775 for a 2007 Grand Caravan seven-seater with all the extras, like power driver’s seat, sunroof, leather, power sliding doors, DVD entertainment system and a power liftgate. For a more reasonable $8,850, you could get a 2005 base Grand Caravan.
Price-wise, the Caravan/Grand Caravan’s closest competitors are the other domestic vans, like the Chevrolet Venture, Pontiac Montana, and Ford Windstar/Freestar. As per usual, import vans are more expensive and, generally, more reliable. So, the choice is up to you, the consumer: cheap and potentially trouble-prone, or pricier, with more reliability and sophistication.
Note, too, though, that not even the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna have enjoyed perfect reliability: the 2007-2009 Sienna engine suffers from a potentially catastrophic oil leak, and the Honda Odyssey is one of many Honda/Acura models criticized for a serious transmission problem, while just about all minivans are known for issues with power sliding rear doors.
Some posters at Caravan-centric web forums say major transmission trouble can be avoided, or at least put off, with meticulous maintenance. If you can find a sweet deal on one of the plum Caravans out there among all the stinky prunes, go for it, and stash the money you save – you know, for that rainy day when the transmission (or some other pricey component) requires attention. It’s not a car-buying approach for the faint of heart, but if you luck out, you’ll be laughing all the way to the bank.
Black Book Pricing (avg. retail) xxx:
|Year||Model||Price today||Price new|
|2007||Grand Caravan base||$11,650||$30,305|
|2006||Grand Caravan base||$9,900||$30,930|
|2005||Grand Caravan base||$8,850||$30,330|
|2004||Grand Caravan base||$7,975||$30,190|
|2003||Grand Caravan Sport||$7,225||$29,295|
|2002||Grand Caravan Sport||$6,250||$28,875|
|2001||Grand Caravan Sport||$5,475||$29,505|
Allpar.com is a great resource for anything Chrysler. Here’s a page detailing the engines used in these fourth-generation vans and this page is a general rundown of Chrysler’s minivans. For information on the well-documented transmission woes, go here, and more general troubleshooting info can be found here. ChryslerMinivan.org has a discussion section for the fourth-generation Caravan, as does DodgeForum.com.
Transport Canada Recall Number: 2000299; Units affected: 15,595
2001: Certain vehicles do not comply with the requirements of CMVSS 108 – Lighting System and Retroreflective Devices. The daytime running lamps (DRL) do not function when the manual lighting switch is in the park lamp position. The standard requires that the daytime running lamps be on continuously unless the master lighting switch is in the park lamp position. Correction: The body controller will be reprogrammed with software that will correct this condition.
Transport Canada Recall Number: 2001226; Units affected: 7,796
2001: On certain vehicles, the lower control arm pivot bolt could fracture. If the bolt fractures, the lower control arm will potentially separate from the crossmember causing a loss of vehicle control. Correction: Dealers will replace the lower control arm bolts and nuts.
Transport Canada Recall Number: 2004392; Units affected: 23,490
2001-2002: On certain vehicles subject to conditions involving extreme heat and humidity, condensation from the instrument panel air conditioning ducts may drip through the vent holes in the top of the base equipment radio and results in a short circuit that subsequently sends direct current to the rear speakers. This could result in a speaker fire. Correction: Dealers will apply a special tape to the top of the radio to eliminate the potential for water intrusion.
Transport Canada Recall Number: 2004276; Units affected: 150,116
2002-2004: On certain minivans equipped with a 3.3L or 3.8L engine, the upper power steering cooler hose could split, causing a fluid leak. Power steering fluid leakage in the presence of an ignition source can result in an underhood fire. Correction: Dealers will replace the upper power steering hose.
Transport Canada Recall Number: 2002186; Units affected: 22,715
2002: On certain vehicles, the fuel tank control valve weld joint could separate resulting in a possible fuel leak and risk of fire. Correction: The dealer will inspect the fuel tank and replace as necessary.
Transport Canada Recall Number: 2005103; Units affected: 3,069
2003: On certain vehicles, the power lift-gate (PLG) latch may become stuck in an unopened state and may not cinch on the striker during a PLG closing cycle. If the operator does not observe the visual and audible indicators that the PLG is not closed, the PLG may rise during typical low speed driving manoeuvres. Correction: Dealers will replace the power lift-gate module.
Transport Canada Recall Number: 2006058; Units affected: 38,034
2005-2006: On certain vehicles, the front windshield wiper motor armature shaft may break which could result in a loss of front windshield wiping capability. This could impair the driver’s vision and cause a crash without warning. Correction: Dealers will inspect and, if necessary, replace the front windshield wiper motor.
Transport Canada Recall Number: 2004050; Units affected: 331
2005: On certain vehicles, the front passenger seat belt retractor may have been improperly assembled. During a severe frontal impact, there is a possibility that the seat belt may not properly restrain the occupant which can increase the risk of injury. Correction: Dealer will inspect the retractor assembly, and replace if necessary.
Crash test results
Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.
For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.
For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.
Chris Chase is an Ottawa-based automotive journalist. He is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC).
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