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Old 01-15-2002, 08:50 AM   #1
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Grand Caravan stays ahead of the minivan pack

By FRANK A. AUKOFER
Special to the Journal Sentinel

Judging by all the contempt and disdain heaped on them, especially by young people, you'd think minivans were candidates for the scrap heap.


2001 Auto Show



While minivans have lost ground in popularity to sport utility vehicles, the 2001 Dodge Grand Caravan ES has added some innovations and improved handling.



MILWAUKEE AUTO SHOW

Dates: February 24 through March 4
Location: Midwest Express Center‚400 W. Wisconsin Ave.
Phone: (414) 908-6000

HOURS
Monday - Thursday: 3 to 9 p.m.
Friday: 1 to 10 p.m.
Saturdays: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Sundays: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

ADMISSION
Adults (13 & older): $7
Senior Citizens (62 & older): $4
Children (7 to 12): $4
Children (6 & younger): Free

• Section: 2001 Auto Show



But despite the fact that their luster has dimmed somewhat in the onslaught of sport utility vehicles, the truth is that minivans are still a better choice for most families. They offer more passenger and cargo space, better fuel economy and lower prices than most SUVs.

If that were not so, manufacturers would be bailing out of the minivan market. But there are at least 14 minivan nameplates out there, both domestic and foreign, and they come in an array of configurations to suit almost any purpose.

Moreover, the manufacturers are doing their best to stay as competitive as possible. Every model change brings innovations to make the vehicle more attractive.

Still at the top of its game is DaimlerChrysler, which pioneered the modern front-drive minivan that, in the mid-1980s, became the prototype for every successful competitor that followed.

For 2001, the company has rolled out a new design that carries through its lineup, various models of which are sold as the Dodge Caravan and Grand Caravan, and the Chrysler Voyager and Town & Country.

There are 14 models in all, in both short and long versions, and they sell for anywhere from about $20,000 for an entry-level Caravan or Voyager to about $38,000 for a loaded Town & Country.

Somewhere in between is the popular Dodge Grand Caravan, which can be equipped with virtually all the good stuff the company offers. But it comes with a price.

The tested Grand Caravan ES had a base price of $29,750 and, with the sort of options most buyers would choose, topped out at $33,305. That's a fair load for many of the working and middle-class families that would most want this sort of vehicle.

But it includes a long list of desirable features that demonstrate, once again, that the designers at DaimlerChrysler have a knack for staying ahead of the curve.

Other manufacturers, for example, had leapfrogged the company by offering power-operated side doors. Honda's Odyssey even had them on both sides.

Now the Grand Caravan and the other DaimlerChrysler minis also have that feature, but they go the competition one better by offering a power-operated rear hatch.

At first blush, it doesn't seem like a big deal. Opening and closing the hatch is not all that difficult for most people. But once you start using it, you wonder how you got along without it.

Although it's been completely redesigned, the new Grand Caravan doesn't look much different from last year's model. But close inspection reveals differences, including larger headlights and taillights.

Inside, it offers other innovations, including a split back seat, zoned climate control and a console with a power outlet that can be moved from the front seats to the center seats.

In recent years, DaimlerChrysler minivans have continued to improve handling, performance, and interior comfort and quiet. The 2001 continues in that vein, and adds the safety of side air bags as well.

There's a bunch more power from the optional 3.8-liter, 215 horsepower, V-6 engine. It's connected to a slick-shifting four-speed automatic transmission that can be ordered with a DaimlerChrysler Autostick manual shifter.

Because the shift lever is mounted on the steering column, the Autostick is operated by a button instead of a tap of the lever. But it still provides terrific flexibility for hauling or winter driving. Unlike similar units, the Autostick allows starts in first, second or third gear.

The DaimlerChrysler designers decided against a third seat that folds away under the floor. They said it would admit too much road noise into the cabin, and instead decided on a split rear seat for easy removal.

Regardless of such differences in philosophy, the 2001 Grand Caravan demonstrates that DaimlerChrysler continues on the cutting edge of minivan design.
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