January 10, 2013
2012 Dodge Grand Caravan. Click image to enlarge
Review by Chris Chase
Dodge redesigned its insanely popular Caravan minivan into its fifth generation for the 2008 model year. It was a significant redesign, mainly because it eliminated the short-wheelbase model, leaving the larger Grand Caravan alone to carry the minivan mantle. The shorty van was replaced by the Dodge Journey crossover, introduced in early 2008 as a 2009 model.
Under the new body were carryover engines. A 3.3L V6 (175 hp/205 lb-ft) was the default in all trims, and the top-trim SXT could be ordered with a 3.8L (197 hp/230 lb-ft). The 3.3L models got a four-speed automatic transmission (also carried over), but the 3.8L came with a new six-speed automatic. Fuel consumption estimates were 12.6/8.4 L/100 km (city/highway) with the 3.3L, and 13.3/8.7 with the 3.8.
In 2009, the 3.8L was canned in favour of a new 4.0L engine (251 hp/259 lb-ft), also paired with the six-speed auto. This larger, stronger engine was more efficient than the 3.8L, with ratings of 12.2/7.9 L/100 km.
Changes for 2010 were mostly in trim, but the 4.0L motor added a deceleration fuel cutoff to help improve fuel economy. If it actually did improve economy, that wasn’t reflected in the government’s ratings, which remained the same as 2009′s.
All 2011 models got Chrysler’s “Pentastar” 3.6L V6 engine (283 hp/260 lb-ft) and the six-speed automatic transmission, along with a styling refresh and a new “premium” interior. The 3.6L’s fuel consumption ratings – 12.2/7.9 L/100 km – were identical to the 4.0L’s.
2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 Dodge Grand Caravan. Click image to enlarge
The good news, on the reliability front, is that the new six-speed transmission appears to be more robust than previous Chrysler automatics, which were well known for mechanical failures. There are a few posts on Forum.ChryslerMinivan.net of six-speed failures, but all indications point to the most common issue with the six-speed being a software-related flaw that causes rough and/or erratic shifting.
Complaints of rough shifts seem closely linked with use of the powertrain’s “econ” mode, which alters shift points to save fuel, with rough shifting being a side effect. Here are a few discussions about the six-speed’s performance (Transmission Performance and ECON Button Does it Work and Clunk When Shifting).
Leaking axle seals seem common, too. This causes transmission fluid leaks, which, obviously, can lead to transmission trouble.
A minor coolant leak that lets coolant drip onto a hot exhaust manifold, causing smoke, may make you think the radiator is bad. It’s not. The cause is a bad “Y” connector in the cooling system, an easy fix, detailed in a Youtube video or check out this thread.
2012 Dodge Grand Caravan. Click image to enlarge
A small number (according to Chrysler) of “Pentastar” 3.6L engines were built with poorly made cylinder heads, repored in an Autoweek.com article.
At the risk of being too blunt, the Grand Caravan’s brakes are crap. The rotors warp easily, pads wear out quickly, and calipers seize frequently. Wheel bearings are another weak point.
If the power sliding door, power window and rear seat heater on one side of the van all fail simultaneously, it’s probably due to a chafed wire damaged by the sliding door mechanism.
Here’s a handy page at AllPar.com, detailing some of the standard features of the 2008-and-newer Chrysler vans, as well as year-to-year changes.
Here’s a discussion about the Pentastar motor’s real-world fuel economy.
From the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the 2008–2013 Grand Caravan gets the crash testing organization’s top rating of “good” in moderate overlap front and side impact crash testing. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gave 2008–2010 Grand Caravans five-star ratings in front and side impact protection, but revised test measures introduced in 2011 reduced the front impact protection rating to four stars.
As I said when I reviewed the Dodge Journey in November 2012, it seems clear, when digging for details, how Dodge is able to sell its vehicles at such attractive prices. The money has to come from somewhere, and in this case, the low prices and deep discounts come at the expense of materials quality. Thankfully, at least to this point, the major stuff doesn’t break too often, but it will be interesting to see how that situation evolves as the Grand Caravans on the road now continue to age.
This is a vehicle that sells well when new because the price is right. With that in mind, I wouldn’t buy a used one unless the same is true: the best used Grand Caravan is going to be the one with the lowest price. If you can do without, I’d also advise skipping convenience goodies like power tailgates and sliding doors. These are, almost universally, the things that fail on many aging minivans, no matter who built it. As always, be picky, and choose a van that comes with complete service/maintenance records, and gets a passing grade in a once-over from a trusted mechanic.