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AUTO REVIEW: Dodge minivan is still the one

I will never forget the look on Lee Iacocca's face when the Chrysler chairman strolled into McCormick Place for the 1984 Chicago Auto Show, spotted the truck-like rear-wheel-drive Chevy Astro and Ford Aerostar rivals to his car-like Dodge Caravan...

I will never forget the look on Lee Iacocca's face when the Chrysler chairman strolled into McCormick Place for the 1984 Chicago Auto Show, spotted the truck-like rear-wheel-drive Chevy Astro and Ford Aerostar rivals to his car-like Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager and broke into such a broad smile his glasses lifted off his nose.

Iacocca knew his new "minivan" was going to be a success, though he never dreamed it would still be around 25 years and 12 million sales later as a much-honored people hauler often described as the chariot of choice for soccer moms and dads alike.

Not sure when the final chapter will be written on Chrysler or its fabled minivan, but word is that the 2010 has gotten the go-ahead, barring President Barack Obama and Congress, who now run two-thirds of Detroit, ruling otherwise.

So we jumped at the chance to check out a 2009 Dodge Grand Caravan in sporty SXT trim.

The Grand Caravan is more enticing when gas prices lean closer to $2 than $3 for two reasons: The tank holds 20 gallons, for a $20 spread between the tabs for a fill, and at a rating of 17 mpg city/25 mpg highway you have to cover the spread a lot.

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The test vehicle was powered by the optional ($630) 4-liter, 251-horsepower V-6, which had all the muscle needed to pass slowpoke sedans and SUVs trying to conserve fuel. Even with the van full of people and/or bags, the V-6 was fleet afoot.

Only trouble, other than watching the fuel gauge sprint, is that the Grand Caravan is a little boxy and slab-sided, so when the road is open or an 18-wheeler passes, the minivan gets pushed and shoved in the crosswinds.

Some vehicles, especially those of German descent, strive to convince folks that the more complicated the controls, the more sophisticated and gifted the machine.

Grand Caravan isn't complex, though it is not lacking whiz-bang, "what a great idea" innovations, such as bins in the second-row floor to store items out of sight and Swivel 'n Go second-row seats that turn to face the third, with a table top that can be inserted so the kids can snack or play games on long trips. And rather than cart child booster seats, they pop up from second-row buckets. Nice touch for $225.

The bins, however, would be better if the covers were easy to open without having to move the front seats all the way forward, and if there was more legroom once second/third-row seats faced each other.

A 115-volt outlet along the second-row wall handles a computer. And a power-operated third-row seat folds flat into the floor to increase cargo space, or you can hide just one of the split seats if you don't need so much room. More nice touches. As a bonus, those third-row seat backs have grocery-bag hooks to keep things from rolling around.

Power sliding side doors on both sides help entry/exit, while the power tailgate makes for easy cargo loading/unloading. The sliding doors have water-bottle holders and can be equipped with manual sun shades.

Screens over second- and third-row seats pull down from the roof for viewing movies or watching Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network or the Disney Channel on satellite TV. When parked, you can watch the TV on a dash screen as well.

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Since vans are designed to carry lots of people, most of them kids, there's a host of safety hardware, ranging from stability and traction control plus side-curtain air bags to blind-spot and cross-path detection systems.

When a vehicle behind on either side enters your blind spot, a yellow triangle lights in the sideview mirrors. When backing up, cross path activates a flashing yellow light in the mirrors, along with a beep, to warn that something's coming from either side.

Cross path also came in handy when a child on a bike passed on the sidewalk, beeping feverishly to prompt more immediate action than the backup camera would.

But the goodies come at a price. Options pushed the SXT base of $28,325 to nearly $42,000. Technology is nice, but a $14,000 bump? Yikes!

To save $700, skip the running boards, which are neither high enough nor extend far enough from the van to offer one whit of help getting in or out; instead they are more likely to trip you up. Hate to see soccer folks on crutches.

2009 DODGE GRAND CARAVAN SXT

Wheelbase: 121.2 inches

Length: 202.5 inches

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Engine: 4-liter, 251-h.p. V-6

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

MPG: 17 city/25 highway

Price as tested: $41,555

Add $820 for freight

THE STICKER:

$28,325 Base

$2,365 Preferred package with leather bucket seats, eight-way power driver/passenger seats, heated front/second row seats, 17-inch, all-season radials with aluminum wheels, power liftgate, removable/rechargeable flashlight, sport suspension and illuminated door storage

$2,200 for navigation/TV screen in the dash plus dual-screen DVD entertainment system for second/third rows, wireless headphones, remote control and rear backup camera

$1,995 Premium group with iPod interface, U-connect phone, auto-dimming mirror, 505-watt amplifier, nine speakers, three-zone air conditioning, power, folding third-row split bench seat, rain-sensing wipers and cabin air filter

$1,030 Blind-spot and cross-path detection system plus park assist warning and automatic headlamps

$905 GPS navigation system

$895 Power sunroof

$700 Running boards

$695 Value group with remote start, manual window shades in second/third row and sliding center console with cupholders

$630 4-liter V-6

$600 Towing package up to 3,600 pounds

$495 Swivel 'N Go second-row seats with table top

$495 Satellite TV

$225 Second-row buckets with pop-up child booster seats

PLUSES:

Holds so many people and so many things

Amenities include three kids' TV stations, second-row seats that swivel and face the third row with a table, storage under the floor and power hide-away third-row seats

MINUSES:

Those amenities raise price so high

Running boards hinder entry/exit

Tossed by winds on interstate

Mileage

(Mateja can be reached at rides@tribune.com .)

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