2004 Dodge Grand Caravan Review, Pricing, and Specs.

2004, Dodge, Grand Caravan

So, what would be the perfect long-range transport device for a man alone, headed out to enjoy the best American motorsports the month of August has to offer? How about a big, hairy sports car? Nah. Doesn't hold enough stuff for two weeks on the road. SUV? Yes, but why cart around all those extra pounds of steel and endure that rocky ride if you're not going to be in bad weather and you're not going off-road? Family sedan? Possibly, but with major luggage loads and unloads every day for most of two weeks, you'd like not have to lean way over into that small trunk twice a day. How about a... minivan?

Minivans and motorsports don't seem to go together in the same sentence the way soccer mom and minivan do, but Dodge showed us enough statistics about racers, bikers, and minivan owners being essentially the same demographic to convince us to give one a try. Boy, are we glad we did.

We recently spent two solid weeks on the road in the company of a loaded Dodge Grand Caravan in pursuit of four of summer's greatest events: the traditional motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota; then on to Monterey, California, for the Monterey Historic Automobile Races, followed immediately by the 53rd annual Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, the greatest vintage and classic car show on the planet; then up to San Francisco to fly off to Bonneville Salt Flats, home of the fastest cars on Earth, where the speed record is over 458 mph (if we'd had one more day, we would have driven to Salt Lake City too, but we simply ran out of time).

Right now, you are probably saying to yourself, this guy is nuts!!! Driving alone, over 3700 miles, in a minivan? No, this guy is not nuts, other than nuts about motorsports, and the minivan turned out to be a wonderful traveling companion. The Inferno Red Grand Caravan, hereinafter referred to as GC, was the long-wheelbase, loaded SXT version that comes with a 3.8-liter V-6 engine and 4-speed automatic transaxle, the power sliding side doors, power tailgate, leather bucket seats in four of the seven seating positions, and an agglomeration of options that included Sirius satellite radio, GPS satellite navigation, a roof-mounted DVD entertainment system, and the new Stow'N'Go disappearing rear seats, with a few minor items, base priced at $26,505 and coming in at a shade over $33,000 MSRP (in the real world, you can buy one of these for a whole lot less than MSRP). Note to bikers: a Harley Sportster will fit inside a GC with all the seats down.

For this trip, we left all the seats up, packing our big roller bag full of soft clothes and motorcycle gear (for riding around greater Sturgis) in the deep rear cargo well, a second suitcase full of dress clothes for the high-society events at Pebble Beach, and more soft clothes for the high-temperature, high-sun-load conditions at the Bonneville Salt Flats, stashed between the second and third rows. Plus one bag crammed full of Nikon digital photographic equipment for all four events, hidden in the left-side second-row storage compartment, completely out of sight, and one brief case crammed full of computers and electronics for daily Internet sessions, set on the right front seat and belted in. A soft-sided food and beverage cooler resided behind me on the second row floor, and the Valentine One radar detector took up its customary place at the base of the windshield. We were equipped.

GC and I left Detroit at 7:30 am on Wednesday, dipping down into Ohio to catch a ride on Interstate 80, one of the longest and most interesting highways in the United States (it starts in Manhattan and goes straight across 12 states to San Francisco.) Once we got past traffic-choked Chicago, we blitzed across Iowa and rested overnight in Omaha, traveling some 800 miles in one very comfortable 11-hour driving day.

First day of unloading drill: check in, get a luggage cart, walk toward the minivan, click the key fob and all three doors open before you get there. Off-load by sliding, not lifting, my three big bags, hit the buttons again and walk away, as the doors close and lock behind me.

By setting the trip odometer to zero at the start and the navigation system for our first destination in South Dakota, the Holiday Inn in Rapid City that acts as Harley-Davidson headquarters each year, we could track our mileage accumulated, mileage left, trip duration, average speed, and so on, making us feel much more like a pilot than a driver. Although the navigation display in the GC is smaller than most, it is high enough to read easily, brightly lit, and the graphics are well done. Needless to say, we never got lost.

By setting the trip odometer to zero at the start and the navigation system for our first destination in South Dakota, the Holiday Inn in Rapid City that acts as Harley-Davidson headquarters each year, we could track our mileage accumulated, mileage left, trip duration, average speed, and so on, making us feel much more like a pilot than a driver. Although the navigation display in the GC is smaller than most, it is high enough to read easily, brightly lit, and the graphics are well done. Needless to say, we never got lost.

Now a word about satellite radio. While there are differences between the two major providers, XM and Sirius, (remember Apple vs IBM and Beta vs VHS?), they are both capable of providing massive amounts of continuous news and entertainment, especially for the solo traveler (when I announced this monster motorsports trip to my friends and family, absolutely no one volunteered to go along, for some reason).

Although the Sirius receiver and faceplate in GC were the aftermarket MoPar model and not the OEM model, the set functioned perfectly, with big channel numbers and sharp contrast on the display, and I switched among five channels: Fifties, Sixties and Seventies oldies, BBC World Service and NPR, with an occasional side trip to the raunchy comedy channel, Raw Dog. There were no signal dropouts through the entire trip except when we drove under the tall trees on Monterey's glorious 17 Mile Drive, and by then, we were too busy to listen to the radio. One complaint: you have to switch out of nav and into radio to change stations, since they share the same display (but you can do it from the buttons on the back side of the steering wheel, which is a lot safer than reaching; the buttons on the front control the cruise mode).

Next morning we traversed 80 across Nebraska to North Platte, my family's ancestral home, for a quick visit, then up Route 83 to the junction with Interstate 90, and west to Rapid City, South Dakota, 1550 miles in two days, without the usual pain, stiffness, vibrating feet and exhaustion that usually ensue after an 800-mile day. The low-back leather-swathed tan bucket seat that was my home for two weeks was simply superb in terms of support and comfort, something I was frankly not expecting in a $33,000 minivan.

In the Holiday Inn parking lot absolutely crammed with Harley guys and biker chicks, (more than 500,000 bikers swell the population of South Dakota for the Sturgis event) I checked in, got a luggage cart, and performed my sliding-door and tailgate act right under the porte cochere while the bikers watched in amazement as the doors opened and closed, untouched by human hands.

Once in Sturgis, the minivan was mostly parked while I rode, ate, slept, talked and appreciated motorcycles and motorcycling with my friends for three days, except for evening meals, when six or seven of us piled in and out through the magic doors. Tuesday morning, without the helmet, boots, leather jacket, gauntlets, bandana and shades necessary for riding, it was T-shirt and jeans and back on the road again, down through Deadwood and Lead and into Wyoming, across the Wyoming vastness on I-80 and on to Salt Lake City, another 750-mile day, where GC and I stopped for the night at a Comfort Inn in the airport business park, half a mile off Interstate 80.

By now, we knew some of the important, and impressive, numbers. We were getting 23 miles per gallon at a constant 85 mph, about 2800 rpm on the tach (in the west, the speed limit on I-80 is 75 mph). And we knew we could go 400 miles between fill-ups at that speed, or only one gas stop per day after an initial fill-up. Granted, if we'd had seven people, luggage and a canoe on the roof, our mileage probably wouldn't have been that good, but lightly loaded, it was.

By now, we knew some of the important, and impressive, numbers. We were getting 23 miles per gallon at a constant 85 mph, about 2800 rpm on the tach (in the west, the speed limit on I-80 is 75 mph). And we knew we could go 400 miles between fill-ups at that speed, or only one gas stop per day after an initial fill-up. Granted, if we'd had seven people, luggage and a canoe on the roof, our mileage probably wouldn't have been that good, but lightly loaded, it was.

The last leg of our journey west took us from Salt Lake City to Reno, over the Sierras to Sacramento, and down I-5 to California 156 west, through Pacheco Pass to Highway 1 and south to Monterey. We stopped at Bonneville, 120 miles west of SLC, to check the condition of the salt racing surface, ("it's dry, hard and fast" said the man, "best it's been in 15 years"), but otherwise no diversions across the magnificent, barren stretch, then up into the pines to Reno/Tahoe.

By this time, GC and I were buddies, and I was growing to appreciate its cushy, but not sloppy ride, and its amazing quietness at high cruising speeds. A minivan is a big, empty box with lots of openings and a roof rack, pushing large quantities of air, and the Dodge boys have certainly done a wonderful job of managing all that noise, from the big rearview mirrors to the door and hatch seals to the plush carpeting.

In Monterey, in the company of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of the greatest racing, sports, and classic cars ever built, from Ferraris to Mercedeses to Rolls-Royces and Hispano-Suizas, (the honored marques this year), the Grand Caravan reverted to taxi/shuttle duty from its previous long-haul duties, going from the historic races to auctions, cocktail receptions to dinner parties, race track to concours. Every parking valet who had to park it loved the power sliding doors, and so did we.

After a thoroughly satisfying four-day weekend of fabulous old cars, wheel-to-wheel vintage racing, and mingling with celebrities like Sir Stirling Moss, Dan Gurney, Jay Leno and others behind us, we picked up our passenger, the 87-year-old American racing legend John Cooper Fitch, at Pebble Beach, and headed for San Francisco International Airport, destination Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah. At the Park'N'Fly in San Francisco, we unloaded GC for the last time, slammed the doors electronically, locked it up, surrendered the keys, and waved a fond goodbye to our constant companion of almost two weeks and 3700 miles. Aside from maybe adding a fifth or even sixth gear to the transmission, spreading out the ratios for better acceleration and fuel economy, there's not a lot I would change. OK, maybe bigger tires and wheels.

From the flatlands around the Great Lakes across the American prairie to the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada, from 600 feet to more than 7000 feet above sea level, the Grand Caravan delivered on every promise, from comfort to convenience, entertainment to economy, and it convinced this macho motorcycle and car nut that a minivan can be as useful and comfortable to a single guy on a mission as it can to a mom with a houseful of kids. Stigma over.

By Jim McCraw
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Images of the 2004, Dodge Grand Caravan

Bonneville Salt flats crew at work
Bonneville Salt flats crew at work
Sir Stirling Moss and Dan Gurney at Monterey Historics Races
Sir Stirling Moss and Dan Gurney at Monterey Historics Races
Main St. Sturgis South Dakota - 64th Annual Motor Rally
Main St. Sturgis South Dakota - 64th Annual Motor Rally