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Second-Hand: 2005 Dodge Caravan

If we ever, as a nation, have a serious discussion about replacing the maple leaf on our flag, there's a case to be made for sewing on another Canadian icon: the minivan.

  • transportation, business, shopping and ownership concept - customer and salesman shaking hands outside

If we ever, as a nation, have a serious discussion about replacing the maple leaf on our flag, there’s a case to be made for sewing on another Canadian icon: the minivan.

And not just any minivan, but the Dodge Caravan, Canada’s best-selling vehicle.

What other conveyance has brought more families together from coast to coast, ferried more hockey players to arenas in the pre-dawn hours and brought home more bicycles and barbecues from Canadian Tire?

The history of the Windsor-assembled “Magic Wagon” is well known. Let’s pick up the story with the second-generation vans, launched in 1996, after Chrysler spent $2.6 billion (U.S.) to reinvent its front-drive superstars.

CONFIGURATION

The Dodge Caravan and its twin, the Plymouth Voyager, were available in short and long wheelbases, one or two sliding doors, and even optional all-wheel drive. The upscale Chrysler Town

& Country came in the extra-large size only.

Buyers could choose from four engines: a 150 hp DOHC 2.4-litre four-cylinder, a 150 hp 3.0-litre V6 (supplied by Mitsubishi), a push-rod 3.3-litre V6 making 156 hp, and a 3.8-litre V6, good for 166 hp (raised to 180 hp in 1998).

The new-for-’96 wide-body vans were spacious, comfortable and filled with clever interior features that made them an easy sell.

“I love pulling up to a Ford Explorer and realizing I have more room, better mileage, all of the same features for $10,000-to-20,000 less,” posted one owner on the Internet.

Seating for seven was standard, although the middle bench seat was often upgraded to two captain’s chairs.

Optional folddown child seats made an already family-friendly vehicle even more so.

With the arrival of the 1999 Honda Odyssey — which auto journalists quickly anointed best in class — DaimlerChrysler skulked back to the drawing board.

Its next-generation vans for 2001 were more evolutionary than revolutionary, with larger head and tail lamps and a slightly wider body yet again.

Dual sliding doors became standard, with power assist optional. Even the rear hatch could be power operated, a first. The rear bench could not fold into the floor like the Odyssey’s, but it was split 50/50 for more carrying flexibility.

The Mitsubishi V6 was dropped in 2001.

The handful of people who own the four-cylinder reported decent acceleration and gas mileage — a pleasant surprise.

The 3.3 and 3.8-litre V6s returned with 180 and 215 hp respectively. All models used a four-speed automatic transmission (the reliable three-speed was dropped in 1998).

DaimlerChrysler has continually tweaked its minivans, relying on innovative design and aggressive pricing to move product.

To that end, it introduced optional Stow ‘n Go seating halfway through the 2004 model year to trump its competitors, most of whom had adopted the fold-away bench.

In this instance, the concept was extended to the middle-row seats, which disappeared into the floor as well.

ON THE ROAD

Benefiting from a stiffer platform, the 1996-2000 Chrysler front-drive vans represented a quantum leap ahead of their predecessors in terms of driving dynamics.

The steering was reasonably precise, the ride was smooth and supple, and the handling genuinely car-like.

Power, even from the 3.8-litre V6, left a lot to be desired. A 2005 model, while 140 kg heavier, is peppier, thanks to 35 more horses. But it’s still a tad slower than the newest vans from Honda, Toyota and Nissan.

Then again, seven-passenger minivans shouldn’t be about blistering acceleration. Buyers put a premium on creature comforts, good road manners and safety features — all strengths of the Caravan.

The 2001 and newer models provide even more refinement and quiet, but at the expense of a “flabby” ride compared to the minivan state-of-the-art. Car and Driver magazine ranked the Caravan fourth in a fivevan comparo, with only the Ford Freestar faring worse.

WHAT OWNERS REPORTED

Owners love the practicality and flexibility offered by the DaimlerChrysler minivans. You can stuff them with people and cargo, drive near or far, and arrive safely and refreshed. It’s also pretty.

“Aesthetically, I like the styling and looks of the interior. It has great room in it and is great for trips,” remarked a driver of a ’99 on the Net.

Unfortunately, no discussion about these minivans can be complete without mentioning the awful service record many owners have noted.

The 1996-2000 generation vans are particularly troublesome, with stories of transmission failures consuming a lot of space on the Internet. One owner reported a failure at 6,200 km!

To stave off headaches, owners recommend changing the transmission fluid every two years.

Other problems common to this generation include faulty air conditioning, frequent brake service, shredded serpentine belts (change the tensioner along with the belt), leaky head gaskets and transmission cooler lines, and numerous electrical glitches.

The 2001 and newer vans appear to be significantly better. Fewer reports of transmission failures are evident, although the a/c may be troublesome after the third year. The front disc brakes appear to be more robust.

Owners warn of worn front struts, loose weather-stripping on the doors and flashing instrument lights.

Kathy Kemp said she bought a 2004 Caravan despite lousy service experiences with her 1999 because of the “value deals” offered.

In other words, the price was right. Find a 2001 or newer model and it may do your maple leaf proud.

We would like to know about your ownership experience with the following models: BMW 3 Series, Ford Mustang and Lexus GS 300. Send your comments to Mark Toljagic, P.O. Box 51541, RPO Beaches, Toronto ON M4E 3V7. Email: toljagic@ca.inter.net.

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