in the Real World
(This story originally appeared in 1999, updated 1/01, 10/05, 5/06)
Automotive journalists sometime lose sight of what's really important to people who plunk down their own hard-earned money to buy a car. No new car each week at no expense. No press junkets to fun and interesting places across the US, Japan, or Europe. No picking and choosing which car or truck is best for the task at hand. Family going away for a camping weekend? Gee, I'll take the Expedition. Dinner in the city? Where are the keys to the Benz?
No, in the real world we spend our own money and then live with the vehicle day in and day out, regardless of what we want to do. It has to chauffeur kids, go to the store, engage in the commuting ritual, take us out for a night on the town, and bring us on the occasional long trip. It's strengths become appreciated, and it's weaknesses become glaringly apparent.
In 1996, we chose a new Dodge Caravan SE to fulfill our everyday transportation duties. The latest version had leapfrogged the competition in just about every area.
Dozens, if not hundreds, of articles have been written on this vehicle. Most were based on a few turns behind the wheel when new. Some were long term tests that generally lasted a year. But those don't really count as long-term tests. Those long termers are shuffled around various personnel at the magazine or testing agency. One person does not live with it day in and day out.
Our Caravan has seen daily service, and cosmetically has held up beautifully. It has watched our first child grow like a weed and brought home our second. It has been horribly abused by both of them. It is constantly packed with stuff either on the way into the house or on the way back to the store to be returned. Books, toys, and dropped french fries are constant companions to the seats and floors. Its ability to absorb spilled drinks is truly amazing. The carpeted mats are full of stains, but under them lies a spotless carpet. The cloth upholstery still looks new, a feat I can't begin to imagine possible.
The exterior has the usual scratches from bicycles and parking lot dings, but the paint and clearcoat still look new, despite four New England winters. One gripe: the rear bumper is easily scratched by cargo going in and out of the hatch. It should be better protected.
For the first three years, there had been no problems. As in zero. Shortly after taking delivery, a rattle developed in the door but that cleared itself up after about a month and never returned. The vehicle is still very tight, with no rattles. One morning several months from purchase it made a God-awful racket upon starting. The engine was immediately shut off, we waited a minute, started it again and it was fine. It never returned.
One electrical glitch surfaced in the fourth year. Periodically, the windshield wipers will come on when using the turn signals. The condition will disappear for days at a time, and then stay around for a few days before leaving again. Most annoying.
For the first three years, service consisted of the usual oil & filter changes, an air filter, a transmission fluid change, and a coolant flush and fill. Total maintenance charges for the those three years were under $500. Not bad at all.
Year four brought several trips to the shop: new front brakes and rotors, new struts (one was leaking, and they had become pretty soft anyway), new tires, and a dead battery amounted to another $1000 in service and repair costs. Coming soon will be rear brakes and another coolant system flush 'n fill.
The versatility of this vehicle over the years has been impressive. It has hauled people, trees, brush, snow blowers, lawn mowers, junk, gear, bikes, furniture and a million other things. It still runs and drives as new, and remains a great conveyor of all things. It’s a comfortable freeway cruiser as well.
But even more telling is its ability to take punishment. There are lots of nice minivans out there, but this is one area where Chrysler's sixteen years of minivan leadership show. Through all the climbing over, slamming, spilling, abusing and jumping, everything (other than that turn signal!) still works as new. Nice job, Chrysler.
But this weekend I'd like to take my wife out to dinner and the BSO. Where are the keys to that Benz?
January 2001 update: A new, updated design greets consumers for 2001 that's not much different than the previous version. It's a bit quieter and more powerful, but still no folding rear seat. Styling is evolutionary. All in all, nice, but a rather tepid effort and no longer leading edge when all the new competition is considered.
We have also heard, and seen, of the old Chrysler nemesis, faulty transmissions, rearing its ugly head again. The problem appears to be confined to the 4speed automatic only. It also appears that if yours fails within 60,000 miles or so and you complain loudly and long enough to the right people, Chrysler may subsidize the repairs.
October 2005 update: Things are not quite as rosy now that the miles have piled up. The whole van has loosened up a great deal. The suspension creaks and groans, the power lock mechanism on one of the sliders has failed. The heater/ac fan now operates only on the high setting.
Most unsettling is the windshield wiper problem. The Chrysler dealer (Herb Chambers) says that an electronic box that controls signals to the wipers is not working and that the wiper stalk also needs replacement. This also affects the cruise control. Estimate: $800. Pretty absurd in our book. It's must be one of those Rube Goldberg contraptions!
To get this thing buttoned down again looks like it would cost close to $2,000. It's repair or sell time soon -- we'll let you know!
May 2006 update: The old girl is gone. All problems were fully disclosed, and we let it go for $600. She lived the last months of her life as our fourth car, essentially performing as a pickup truck for Home Depot runs and landscaping duties. She cleaned up nice, and still looked good inside and out-- ran great, too! In the old days, the heater switch could've been repaired for $5, but now all these integrated electronic modules make simple problems big ones.
(C) Copyright 1999-2006, VMR International, Inc.
CarProof is now CARFAX Canada!