Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Thinking About Cars: Dodge Caravan

It's a car, it's a van.  It's a Car-a-van!

Hokey?  You bet.  I don't recall ever seeing that as actual ad copy, but I have seen it from time to time in magazine articles discussing the Caravan.

When it first came out, the Caravan was a serious paradigm shift.  Building a tall wagon on the chassis of your company's econobox?  Crazy.  And a front-driver?  That's not a van, that's a...well, we didn't know what to call it.  And at the time neither did Chrysler Corporation, calling their mutant freak grocery getter the T115.

There's some debate as to whether the Caravan really was the first minivan.  It depends on how you want to define the term minivan: compact van on car chassis or large volume/tall wagon but smaller than a typical van.  If you want to go with the former route, the Fiat Multipla comes close, using significant elements from other cars including its spiritual ancestor the 600.  If you want to go the latter route, the VW Type 2 comes close, borrowing heavily from the Beetle's drivetrain but missing the boat significantly in the chassis department.  The Type 1 chassis wasn't up to the challenge of the Bus.  And back in the USA, the Chevy Corvair "Corvan" and its relatives have a viable claim to "first minivan," but I can't find enough information about the chassis commonality to be able to give a ruling.

Anyway, with two little kids getting bigger in the back seat of the petite and pathetic Hyundai Excel, it was time to go bigger.  Damning the cliches I went shopping for minivans.  I read everything I could find.  I already knew I didn't want the spacy Toyota van with its awful engine placement (under the driver's seat!) and dodgy reliability record, and the Nissan Quest was too new for there to be any in my price range.  I was hoping for something like a Dodge Colt Vista, having had a great experience in one belonging to my uncle, it got pretty good gas mileage and unlike all the minivans on the market, it didn't really look like a minivan.  It looked like a wagon.

None to be had.  I got a Caravan.  At the time it was five years old, the paint had a chip or two and the seats looked great.  We put our baby seats in and drove away.  I didn't look back at the Hyundai at all, not even for a second.

The Caravan is, once you accept that all the minivan jokes have some element of truth in them, a blast.  It's not fast (unless you get the turbo, and then all bets are off!), it's not fashionable, it's not economical.  What it is, is good.

How fast is fast enough?  If you're going fast enough to get a ticket, then that's fast enough.  If you want faster, you don't want a minivan and are in the wrong car.

Fashion is as fashion does, for a lot of folks.  If you're the kind of person who makes a statement via how you raise your kids, well, that's your style.  Rock it.  Pile out that soccer team.  At the time I had my minivan I was totally chuffed to be a dad.  I wore T-shirts we had made with the kids' handprints and footprints on the pocket.  The minivan was my Dadmobile.

Economy is just a little out of the Caravan's reach.  Like Top Gear proved with a memorable challenge of a Prius around their track, and a BMW M3 pacing it, if you're asking it to do what it isn't meant to do, performance will suffer.  The original engines in the Caravan were a little out of their league (though the larger 2.6l Mitsubishi engine was adequate), especially where power-hungry American drivers are concerned.   So they'd put their foot in it and wonder where all the gasoline went.  On its best day my Caravan delivered about 25mpg on an all-Interstate leg of a long trip.  But when you're moving a lot of anything, the Caravan could often do it all in one go, thus saving trips.  Two trips with great fuel economy is worse than one trip with mediocre fuel economy - no wasted empty return run.

So now what can you do with it?  You can go camping.  We made a tent (from scratch!) to attach to the back of the van, and I built a bed that covered the wayback bench.  Small kids under the age of six buddied up sleeping on that bench and Sweetie and I slept in the tent, with the van's rear hatch wide open.  With the hatch up the tent was walk-around tall inside, and with a night or two of practice we could fold and stow that tent in record time.  Once in Michigan I felt a raindrop and we went into hurry-up mode, folding and stowing the tent at lightning speed.  The tent had maybe a hundred total raindrops hit it before I got it put away, even as other campers were barely becoming aware that rain was coming.  That was a great trip, more on that another day.

Pull the seats and the Caravan has more room inside it than I have in the back of my long-bed Toyota Truck.  I capitalize "Truck" because it's from the awesome generation when Toyota's Truck was so generic it didn't need a name.  My Truck has a cap on the bed, so there's limited height - really limited.  You don't get on your feet inside this thing, you can't.  You crawl, or hop on your knees.  At the generous hatch, you slide your plywood in.  If you got the Grand Caravan (I didn't), you slide it all the way in.  Can't do that with the Truck, either.

Another thing about that height.  You can move around inside the van.  You have to, it's designed with seats that aren't next to a door.  So it has to be tall.  Being tall, you can move around any time you want.  On the road, Sweetie could unbuckle (illegality alert, don't try this at home, I do not advocate doing this yourself), make her way all the way to the back of the vehicle, open the cooler and make sandwiches.  As a road trip ride, it rules.  And I did enjoy the sandwiches.

Right up until the time my Caravan's injection computer went totally toes-up, I enjoyed that car.  In spite of the cricket's chorus of chirps and squeaks from the interior panels, in spite of the paint peeling off in huge flakes as big as my hand, I liked it.  It was a relatively neutral palette against which my family could paint their own personalities, and the car itself didn't distort the picture at all.  It was just there, a tool for achieving our ends, and it did that pretty well...

Right up until it died.  And that was the end of that.

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