For the 1989 model year, Dodge released something rather daring–a turbocharged minivan. What could have possessed them to turbocharge the 2.5 liter four is lost to the pages of history, but the 150 hp ’89 Turbovan has become a legend. Though Dodge built many caravans that year with manual transmissions, finding one today paired with the turbo is extremely rare. Those who have found them add intercoolers and tend to run 12 second quarters, shaming Mustangs and Camaros alike.
Last week at the Chicago Auto Show, Dodge pulled the sheet off their newest Caravan, the R/T. First things first when we’re discussing an R/T: it has a 3.6 liter Pentastar, pushing out 283 hp and 260 lb ft of torque. That’s fairly impressive if you remember that the best the 2010 Caravan could get from its 3.8 liter V-6 was 197 hp. According to Dodge, it will also get a more muscular suspension. The rest, though, is all on the surface. Gaze in wonder at the 17” alloys. Let the 506-watt, subwoofer-enhanced stereo drench your neighborhood with James Taylor and Billy Joel. Try with all your might to keep clean the red stitching and leather-skinned automatic gearshift lever. Dodge calls the Caravan R/T the Man Van. Critics say it is all flash and glimmer, with no real performance boost.
But to them, only a Hemi could constitute a performance boost in a Dodge, and this would have meant a complete redesign. Stuffing a Hemi into a FWD platform would be a Waterworld-level mistake. In my opinion, an AWD platform–Hemi or not–would be optimal, but I’m not going to stay awake with anxiety, rocking back and forth like Dustin Hoffman staring at a spilled box of tooth picks, waiting for it.
So the 2011 R/T is beefier than the previous year, but not what the fan-boys were slavering over. Is it a real Man Van? Its smaller, more powerful engine seems to be inching back to the turbo days, though hoping for anything but a naturally aspirated powerhouse in a modern Caravan is a little like hoping for a balanced national budget. No, it doesn’t really live up to the satirical smirk of the clever old turbo, but it is an improvement over the safe “beigeness” of the 2010. And, let’s be honest, were we really expecting the Hemi? Dodge is probably America’s most daring division of the Big Three (with the possible exception of Ford’s Raptor-breeding Special Vehicle Team), but the American auto industry is still rebuilding, and a fuel-bingeing minivan, however awesome, is a bit risky for the day.
In the midst of our vacillating debate, though, the Dodge people are laughing in the wings. It’s 2011, after all–the year of the Pentastar. It only makes sense to drop one in the Caravan beside the myriad other Fiat and Chrysler platforms getting them. “So,” they thought, “we’ve got a performance boost over the old model, strictly as a matter of interdepartmental cooperation. Let’s (a) slap on some alloys, (b) add a stereo that could be used to destabilize enemy bridges, (c) sell it as a Man Van, and (d) profit!” It really is a subtle marketing scheme. If they really wanted to build a Man Van from the ground up, they would have done something extremely daring: they would have given it a manual, which they haven’t tried since the mid-90’s.
I don’t consider the 2011 Caravan R/T a step backward, though (except the part about the transmission). I would, of course, prefer either a turbo as in the days of yore, or a tire-devouring Hemi, but excitement is like gelato–even if you only have a little more, it’s still a good thing. And if there’s one thing Detroit needs… it is reliability. But if there are two things Detroit needs, the second is excitement. It will be a refreshing go-machine to American Dads who love driving their families, but dread doing so in the beige waterbeds they’re slogging around town in now. I’m a man, and I would enjoy one. It is, therefore, a Man Van.
Image provided courtesy of Chrysler Group LLC