What was tested? 2011 Dodge Grand Caravan Crew ($28,695). Options: DVD player ($1,300), power liftgate ($425), navigation system ($695). Price as tested (including $835 destination charge): $31,950.
Pros: Its base price is nearly $3,000 cheaper than the Honda Odyssey, and that's before any incentives. Its Stow 'N Go seating system is pure genius.
Cons: It doesn't feel as high quality as many of its competitors, especially in the back seats.
Let's get one thing out of the way. If you want the best minivan for sale today, you want a Honda Odyssey.
But what if you're looking for the best value? That's where things get complicated, and Dodge has made the decision more difficult with an improved Grand Caravan for 2011.
The Grand Caravan doesn't have the same level of fit and finish as an Odyssey, but it also costs about $3,000 less than the Honda. A basic Grand Caravan will cost $24,995 before any rebates, while the Odyssey's most stripped-down version still retails for $27,800.
That's a big gap.
The cheaper price looks even more appealing when you consider what Dodge did to make the Grand Caravan more competitive in 2011, a year in which every minivan on the market has been either redesigned or thoroughly freshened.
The stars have aligned for soccer moms everywhere.
For starters, Dodge improved the cabin. Whereas last year you might have said, "I'll pay $3,000 just to get out of this plastic hell," the 2011 model has scrapped the cheap plastic in favor of soft, pliable, nice-feeling materials. It's a good step up for people riding in the front seats.
Next, they improved the powertrain and suspension so it drives better. Dodge dumped its old lineup of three V-6 engines in favor of a single choice: the new Pentastar V-6 with a six-speed automatic transmission.
The new engine offers plenty of power - 283 horses, if minivan drivers care about that sort of thing - along with improved gas mileage of 25 mpg on the highway and 17 in town. That's better highway mileage than the Toyota Sienna but not as good as the all-conquering Odyssey.
Dodge has even created a high-performance version for guys - a minivan, I like to call it - that they've named the Grand Caravan R/T. Try not to laugh.
To go along with the aggressive theme, they gave the Grand Caravan a new "split crosshair" grille and "ring of fire" LED tail lamps. Again, stand-up comics couldn't make up funnier names. But the overall look isn't bad, especially when compared to the Odyssey's controversial "lightning bolt" side profile, which would be better named "Quasimodo."
The best feature on the Grand Caravan, though - the one that makes Honda engineers snap their pencils in jealous frustration - is the Stow 'N Go seating system.
Stow 'N Go means you can make the back seats fold into the floor in just a few easy steps. Flip a few leavers, and your seats disappear, David Copperfield style, leaving a flat loading surface that gives you the flexibility of a cargo van.
And when your seats are filled with passengers, you can use the Stow 'N Go holes in the floor as extra storage.
In the end, you have a simple choice to make. Do you want the Odyssey - a better minivan by most measures - or do you want the cheaper-feeling Grand Caravan with magical seats and $3,000 sitting on the hood?
Minivan buyers, good luck. You've got some tough decisions to make this year.