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Road Test: 2013 Dodge Grand Caravan

Have you ever seen the traction control light come on in your car? The little picture of the car with squiggly tire tracks that blinks at you when the car is trying to save you from yourself? I have seen that light come on once in a while if I am driving "enthusiastically" in an unfamiliar car, but usually only once or twice. The rest of the times that I see it come are when I do something on purpose, but that is another story. Last night I drove a vehicle that blinked its traction control light at me almost constantly. Was an AMG Mercedes? A V12 BWM? Maybe a Porsche 911? Nope. It was a minivan.

My wife's car is in for service and the shop gave her a loaner vehicle - a 2013 Dodge Grand Caravan with only 3200 miles on it. This van is a base model. I don't think that it has one option on it. Scratchy, hard plastic interior, not even a center console with a lid - just the basics. One thing that all 2013 Grand Caravans do have, however, is a 285 hp, 260 ft lbs of torque, V6. Is that a lot? No, not really. My Ford F-150 makes 350 hp, but where the pickup drives the rear wheels (most of the time), the van drives the front wheels.

Most people are under the impression that front-wheel drive vehicles have better traction than rear-wheel drive ones. There is, however, the notion of putting more power in a vehicle than it can handle. The Grand Caravan falls into that category - it is (for 2013) utterly graceless on the rain slick streets of Seattle.

I have not climbed under the van to look, but I don't think that there is a limited-slip differential, or any high-tech, power distribution gear of any kind. If there is, it sure doesn't work on our rainy, hilly streets. You step on the gas just enough to get away from a traffic light and that V6 tries to twist the steering wheel out of your hands (this is known as torque steer) while the van skips up and down as the front wheels spin, vainly looking for grip. This can be fun, sometimes, but in a minivan with kids, in the rain, in traffic, it can be tiresome to spin the wheels at every green light.

OK, maybe you think I am exaggerating or just driving too fast. Here is an experiment that you can try yourself, providing that you are not the type that freaks out and crashes into things easily. If you do crash, you didn't hear this from me. Anyway -

  • Rent a 2013 Grand Caravan on a rainy day in Seattle. (get the insurance, just in case)
  • Come to Klickitat Drive in Tukwila, and turn onto 53rd Ave S - proceed up the hill
  • Turn off the traction control - a warning light will illuminate
  • Enter the free-right turn onto S 160th St at about 20 miles hour - this is an up-hill, 90 degree, right-hander
  • Depress the accelerator between a quarter and half-way, only, and hold it there.
  • Observe that the front wheels will spin and the traction control warning light will flash.
  • With small corrections from steering and throttle, observe that one is able to keep the van travelling up the hill - with the front wheels spinning - for an entire block (or more if you are not too embarrassed to keep going)
Maybe you think that this is an unfair test since I turned off the traction control? Here is the thing - traction control is a safety device. Motorcycle riders don't go around banging their heads into things just because they are wearing helmets (I assume), and the traction control is supposed to be needed only to save your butt when you are doing something that is ill advised. You are not supposed to need traction control to just drive down the street on a rainy day. My more powerful, rear-wheel drive pickup, with no weight over the drive wheels will take this same corner, and if I *make* the rear wheels step out, they will only spin briefly before the truck gathers itself up and climbs the hill. In fact, my truck slips around less on ice than this van does on wet pavement, and no, there wasn't any Invisible Rain Oil on the road.

I have driven some genuinely fast cars in the rain without incident, so what is the deal with this van? I think that it is a combination of an accelerator that is too sensitive, crap tires, and too much horsepower for this drive train. It is ridiculous. I sure hope that vans full of families don't end up in ditches every time the road is a bit damp. If you see one of these driving slowly, it might not be the driver being lame - he or she might just be trying to keep the greasy side down.

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