Dodge Grand Caravan SXT Review

Ignorance is bliss.

During my week in the Dodge Grand Caravan SXT, I was won over...the user-friendliness, utility and ease of driving erased misgivings I had about the materials inside being a cut or so below that of a Honda Odyssey.

It was delivered without a window sticker, so I checked the Dodge website. Base price $27,825. Reasonable, bordering on a bargain.

I knew it was loaded...but I didn't realize how loaded until I asked for a copy of the sticker. This minivan had more than $13,000 in options...jacking the bottom line all the way up to $41,385. No longer reasonable nor a bargain.

So what could I live without if I were playing with my own money?

Well, Swivel 'n Go, which allows the second-row captain's chairs to turn and face the third row, with a stowable table between (just like the old VW vans) was novel and a hit with the kids, but it has its drawbacks...in order to give the driver and front passenger legroom and maximum distance from the airbags, the second row seats have to slide on their tracks toward the rear of the van...and then there's not much legroom for the four people face-to-face. We found that out with two tall teenage boys one afternoon. This car had about $725 worth of Swivel 'n Go related options, so I'd uncheck that option box.

But the biggest expense is the electronics extravaganza...a combination of uconnect (Dodge's cellular phone interface), navigation, an upgraded Infinity audio system (506 watts and nine speakers) with hard disc drive, a rear-seat entertainment system (DVD player and two screens, one for the second row and one for the third)and Sirius Satellite TV for live TV on the move (hope you like Disney Channel, Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network...they're the only channels it gets). All those together add up to $3500 worth of options.

Now, some of that (I'm a sucker for a good stereo and believe hands-free cellular communications should be standard equipment) is worth keeping...but Dodge's website doesn't make it look like they're in the a la carte option business anymore. It might not be possible to option one just they way I want it.

That's not unusual in the car business. The Japanese have been doing it that way for years, it reduces complexity and cost, and right now that's something Dodge's parent company Chrysler (and any American automaker, for that matter) need to do.

But it does mean that it's not easy to get a well-equipped (but not overloaded) $35,000 minivan instead of a $41,000 one...and once the Grand Caravan starts to lose the value argument, the other choices (Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna) begin to seem like smarter buys.

UPDATE: Recently had a 2010 Grand Caravan SXT and there's some good news. For beginners, base price has actually dropped to $26,730. The interior is marginally nicer than last years...no real revisions...just feels like the suppliers improved materials a quarter-notch.

But best of all, the option packages are re-worked. This one managed leather, Swivel 'n Go, a premium group including iPod controls and an upgrade to a 500-watt, 9-speaker Infinity audio system, 3-zone climate control and the 4.0 liter 6 for $34,100 after destination charges. And Dodge has a 4.0 liter engine discount of $630 (essentially making it free), so the bottom line ended up at $33,470.

That makes a lot more sense than $41,000 for the first one...and makes a favorable comparison with the VW Routan (same van, different styling and interior touches). Still, it ended up $1,200 more than the comparably-equipped Routan we tested(the Routan doesn't offer Swivel n'Go)..and we'd probably buy the Routan.

But this is likely all academic...we're about a week away from time in the new Toyota Sienna....rumored to be close to a game-changer.