We were a little less than enthusiastic when a minivan appeared on our review schedule, but the 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan makes us seriously question our bias. Sure, it still looks like a minivan, and our smiles and winks at a cute girl in a convertible next to us were laughed off, but it handles and drives well. And to satisfy our tech tendencies, we can push buttons to make doors open and seats fold down. How cool is that?
Better yet, our Grand Caravan came equipped with the MyGig entertainment system, the first chance we've had to test it out. And topping that, we had Sirius satellite TV, which proved to be a very interesting option, although somewhat limited in its implementation. But the Grand Caravan isn't a perfect tech wonderland--the stereo has tinny speakers, and fuel economy isn't wonderful.
Test the tech: Photo safari
The MyGig entertainment system gives you about 15 gigabytes of space to store music and photos. Think of it as an in-dash MP3 player. The photo storage aspect of it intrigued us, as it seems like a useless but cool tech addition. We tried it out by taking a little trip from San Francisco to Santa Cruz, taking pictures along the way, and loading them onto MyGig.
We encountered our first snag with this idea when we plugged our camera into the USB port of MyGig. The system wouldn't recognize the camera as a storage device. It seems to only like USB drives. Instead, we went on our trip and took pictures but had to take them back to the office, copy them to a computer, and then to a USB drive.
The drive itself was very nice, as the Grand Caravan didn't want for power, with its 4-liter V-6. It even handled reasonably well as we took it from the 280 freeway onto twisty Highway 84, then down to the coastal highway, 1. It's no sports car, but we were passing up choppers and Camrys. For entertainment, we relied on the MyGig music server. With about 180 songs filling up a small portion of its drive space, we set it on random and had uninterrupted music for our four-hour drive. Audio controls mounted on the backs of the steering wheel spokes let us skip the songs we didn't like.
During our trip, we stopped for photos at a couple of lighthouses, got a few panoramas, and captured some Santa Cruz landmarks. After we had our pictures loaded onto a USB drive, we found another limitation of using MyGig for photos: It only lets you transfer one photo at a time, which is tedious, and it only holds eight photos. Yes, the photo feature of MyGig isn't really intended as a photo manager--it's there to let you personalize the system with background pictures for the music player. Click here to see our MyGig photo safari.
In the cabin
The most interesting and stand-out tech feature in our Grand Caravan was Sirius satellite TV. Unlike other countries, having television in the car is pretty novel in the U.S. But Sirius TV works better than foreign in-car TV implementations, as it doesn't rely on a single broadcast tower. You can drive through many counties and states, over many miles, without losing the signal.
Sirius satellite TV plays over the dual LCD screens.
But if you're thinking about getting the system so you won't miss your favorite new fall shows, forget about it. Sirius TV only gets three channels: Nickelodeon, Disney, and Cartoon Network. The package is designed to keep the kids entertained, not the adults. With the dual DVD entertainment option, as in our test car, the video plays on two ceiling-mounted drop-down screens, one for the second and one for the third row. You can also watch video on the dashboard screen if the transmission is in park. There is also a DVD player at the bottom of the stack that plays through the screens. Video quality is good, and rear-seat passengers get wireless headphones and a remote.
The MyGig entertainment system is more generally useful. We were very impressed with it, from its usability to its entertainment value. We quickly figured out that the hard button next to the LCD marked Radio/Media toggled between the radio and MyGig. The MyGig interface uses a simple tabbed structure, letting us easily select the hard drive, the jukebox feature, or disc. We plugged a USB drive into the port next to the screen, and MyGig asked us if we wanted to copy its music files to the hard drive. Similarly, after loading a regular or MP3 CD into the slot behind the screen, we could choose to copy it to the hard drive. When we ripped the Gorillaz Demon Days CD to MyGig, the system recognized the album and applied all the right ID3 tags.
On the MyGig system, JB stands for jukebox, a feature that lets you construct playlists.
MyGig lets you access music by artist, song, album, genre, and year, among others. It's a full-featured music player, and we found that it worked very well. We like that you can choose all songs by an artist or in a genre and play them in random order. Further, the jukebox feature lets you create short playlists of up to six albums. When we first looked at it, we found it a little baffling, but a quick read of the manual showed us how it worked.
Our Grand Caravan also came optioned up with premium sound, which includes nine Infinity speakers and a subwoofer powered by a 506-watt amp. Although we liked how it filled the cabin, we weren't impressed with the audio quality. Considering the brand, we were surprised that the speakers sounded tinny and cheap. We were able to adjust treble, mids, and bass, along with balance and fade, through the stereo, but we couldn't make the speakers sound any better.
Bluetooth hands-free cell phone integration is present with Dodge's UConnect feature. We found this to be a pretty capable hands-free system. It's operated by voice command, with just a little onscreen feedback. The drawback of UConnect is that it doesn't make your cell phone's phone book available, so it works best for receiving calls or dialing numbers you have memorized.
The third-row seats fold flat into the floor at the touch of a button.
Navigation was not included in our Grand Caravan, although it is available. More interesting, the option sheet details that Sirius satellite traffic comes with the navigation system. We haven't had a chance to test out Sirius' satellite traffic service yet, but it looks very similar to the XM traffic service. It provides traffic flow information for freeways and major roads in specific metropolitan areas, along with incident information.
We were quite happy with Grand Caravan's automation of doors and seats. You can open the side doors and rear hatch from the key fob. Even better, the third-row seats can be stowed away in the floor at the push of a button. There's nothing like a little automation to make us feel powerful.
Under the hood
As mentioned above, the 4-liter V-6 in our Grand Caravan provides plenty of power, with 251 horsepower and 259 lb-ft. of torque. It's enough to chirp the front wheels and open up some distance from the cars around you. Unfortunately, the power comes at the cost of fuel economy. The EPA rates the Grand Caravan with the 4-liter V-6 at 16 mpg city and 23 mpg highway. We averaged around 17 mpg overall, with our mileage dipping well below 16 in the city.
The 4-liter engine is an option, though, with a 3.8-liter V-6 the standard at the SXT trim level. We find it strange that Dodge makes engines so close in displacement available on the same car. But the 3.8-liter V-6 only produces 197 horsepower while getting the same EPA-rated mileage. That big horsepower difference indicates that the 4-liter is a much more efficient engine. We wish Dodge could apply its engine tech a little more evenly, giving the 3.8-liter V-6 a little better mileage and horsepower.
The 4-liter V-6 engine is a $630 upgrade if you start out with the SXT's 3.8-liter V-6.
But there's more--at the SE trim level you get a 3.3-liter V-6, which produces 175 horsepower. The EPA hadn't published fuel economy estimates for the SE trim level at the time of this review.
The SXT trimmed Grand Caravan, with either the 3.8-liter or 4-liter V-6, comes with a six-speed automatic transmission, while the SE trim comes with a four-speed. We like how the six-speed performs. Under acceleration, it downshifts easily. As we hit the brakes on approaching a corner, it downshifted almost as well as a sport automatic. You can also select gears manually by pushing the shifter to the right or left.
We were really surprised at the lack of significant body roll during cornering. Although we didn't push the Grand Caravan too hard on mountain roads, we got up enough speed to test its grip, attacking some good 30 and 40 mph turns. We hit the brakes, dove into the corner, and shot out the other side without too much complaint from the car.
Emission ratings haven't been published for the 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan at the time of this review.
The 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT we tested came pretty well loaded. Its base price is a very inexpensive $26,805, but ours was optioned up to a total of $36,910. The MyGig entertainment system came as part of the Customer Preferred package, which also includes creature comforts such as UConnect, power liftgate, and a rear-view camera, all for $3,785. The rear-seat dual DVD system was a separate option, coming in at $1,720, while the Sirius TV was only $495. The premium 4-liter engine added $630. You can get MyGig as an a la carte option for $675, while MyGig with navigation runs $1,300.
We're not too happy with the gas mileage, and Sirius TV is only useful if you have kids, but other than that we were impressed by the 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan. It had plenty of power and some useful tech, although we also would have liked the navigation option, with live traffic reporting. We also wish the stereo system had sounded better. We haven't looked at very many minivans here at CNET Car Tech, so we can only suggest a couple of crossover SUVs as good alternatives. Although neither are quite as roomy, the Toyota Highlander is worth considering. The Highlander can be had with third-row seating, which might meet the occupancy requirements of anyone considering the Grand Caravan, and it has almost as much technology on offer.