July 10, 2014 at 7:08 am

The Dodge Grand Caravan is dead, long live the Grand Caravan

I’ve lived a sheltered life. Yes, I admit it. I had never driven a minivan.

I grew up in the back of my Mom’s Pontiac station wagon. My own cars have ranged from pocket rockets to sports cars. And when our rug rats ruled our carpets, Mrs. Payne banned the mom-ivan from our auto shopping list. Indeed, my sporty mate is a walking demographic study of why minivan sales have faltered in recent years. She finds them frumpy, square, uncool.

So when I got a taste of a Dodge Grand Caravan recently, I naturally rebelled. The forbidden fruit. I loved it.

Maybe it’s the fact that the Caravan has as much third row legroom as the second row of a Caddy ATS (we XL types love that). Maybe it’s the dozens of terrifying, tire-squalling, turns-on-two-wheels laps I’ve taken in Ford Econoline vans at Barber Racing Schools (Google it). Or maybe it’s the fact that Dodge minivans — the pioneer of the species — are in their twilight as Fiat Chrysler consolidates the vehicle under the Chrysler brand.

Whatever. I got a Grand Caravan SXT 30th Anniversary edition to test for a week. It deserves its own room at the Smithsonian when Dodge retires the line. It’s a practical, versatile, comfortable, rolling condo with enough interior room for an art house movie preview or your pet yak.

Introduced to the American lexicon three decades ago by Chrysler legends Lee Iacocca and Hal Sperlich, the minivan became America’s family-hauler of choice by the millennium — 1.37 million a year sold — before heavy flak from SUVs and crossovers reduced sales to fewer than 500,000 last year. Remember the definitive Mitsubishi SUV ad featuring a gym-full of male bodybuilders cringing as the PA divulges: “There’s a tan minivan in the parking lot with the lights on.” What macho man would admit to his ownership? What soccer mom?

Ford and GM have abandoned the market. Then came last spring’s announcement by Fiat Chrysler — the minivan’s womb — that only Chrysler will make minivans. Dude, minivans are soooo 20th century.

Maybe if they had marketed it to 8-year-olds.

Does anyone doubt that a poll of ankle biters would crown minivans No. 1? (OK, that and a 700-horsepower Lamborghini Aventador.) The Grand Caravan is home away from home. Throw the urchins in the back and you never hear those dreaded words: “Are we there yet?”

Begin with the exterior. It’s a van. ’Nuff said. Eight-year-olds aren’t self-conscious about their exteriors (that comes with the teen years).

The patented, second row, Stow ’n Go seats are autonomous thrones. No need to draw a line down the middle of the bench seat as in your crossover or station wagon (my sister and I still bear scars from the back-seat border wars). The space gets its own climate controls and movie screen. Can’t agree on a movie? Plug in a laptop in a C-pillar-embedded USB port and – voila! – a multiplex.

I’m just getting started. The Stow ’n Gos are so versatile they should be called Swiss Army Seats. Want to sit in the third row and stretch your legs? Kids need room for their LEGO city? Fido need floor space? Swiss Army Seats will fold into the floor. Open the trap door. Push the seat lever. Abracadabra. Poof. Gone.

It’s the greatest disappearing act since Dwyane Wade vanished from the NBA finals. Has Chrysler thought of licensing this technology to homes?

He: “Honey, we have 50 people coming over tonight for a charity fundraiser. We need to move the living room furniture to the basement.”

She: “Let’s just fold the couch and chairs into the floor.”

For all of its interior versatility, Dodge engineers recognize that the outside has all the sex appeal of a cardboard box. So they have tried to dress up the box for motor heads (me) with their “Blacktop package.” The SXT is the hottest minivan you’ve ever seen. Blacked out grille. All-black interior. Black-glossed wheels, and ... aw, heck, who are they kidding? “Hottest minivan” is an oxymoron.

This 30th anniversary edition Grand Caravan isn’t going to be on many collectors’ short lists.

Tour guide: “And over here is Mr. Leno’s 1937 Bugatti Type 57 SC Atlantic, and 1966 427 Ford AC Cobra, and 30th Anniversary 2014 Dodge minivan, and 1967 Lamborghini Miura P400S, and ... ”

You: “Did you say minivan?”

So what is the future of minivans, now that Chrysler is the only Detroit maker? For answers I turned to the Father of The Minivan, Mr. Sperlich himself.

If Jeep Grand Cherokee sales restored Chrysler to health after its 2009 bailout, it was the Caravan that rescued Chrysler after its ’79 bailout. Sperlich ruminated on how Dodge minivans have evolved into 4,500-pound, 280-horsepower V6 chariots. “It started as a smaller, lighter, fuel efficient, family vehicle,” says the ageless Sperlich. “And like everything else, its evolved into something bigger and better. The whole market is about people getting more utility.”

Sperlich suggests less may be more. Maybe Chrysler will broaden the line and offer smaller, cheaper, 4-cylinder minis? Put the mini back in minivan?

I’m not waiting around to find out. I got a 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 to flog. If Chrysler thinks that it can broaden its demographic to men with a shamelessly macho blacked out grill and 283 badly-misbehaving horses, well ... it’s working.

I raced this oversized shoebox to Lexington, Ohio and back. Boys, I think Dodge is on to something. Like a gray stealth bomber, it flew under the radar. What Smokey Bear is going to point a radar gun at it? It’s a minivan, for goodness sake. Lounging in a passenger space bigger than most Manhattan apartments, my family didn’t mind thanks to the vehicle’s quiet, smooth ride (still, I put barf bags in the handy pockets behind each seat).

Back home, my wife remained unmoved, despite my ear-to-ear grin. It’s still a mom-mobile to her. But if 8-year-olds had a vote, Batman would be president and the Dodge Grand Caravan would be in every driveway in America.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

As Dodge celebrates its 30th anniversary edition of the Grand Caravan, plans are in the works to discontinue its minivan segment, switching exclusively to the Chrysler brand. / Chrysler