Imagine driving down the road on your way to start a new life in a new state. You spot a sign that says "Caution: High Winds," being unfamiliar with the area you adjust your speed accordingly. Moments later you feel a violent tug across your car, the back-end steps loose, you try to correct but it is too late. The car begins to roll, and roll. Everything goes black.
You wake up in a hospital covered in casts and you realize you cannot feel your legs. The doctors say you will never walk again your spine has been fused from T5-T7, you have a fracture in your neck, had it been a inch more, you would not have woken up.
This is my wife's story, she was paralyzed in 2001 driving in California. A phenomenon known as the Santa Ana winds blew her car sideways, causing it to roll and ejecting her from the vehicle. After months and months of rehab she made the decision to go back to school and be as independent as possible. This meant learning how to drive all over again.
Many of us take the freedom of driving for granted, but for those with paralysis or other conditions that limit mobility the simple act of driving changes your world. Far too many disabled individuals are at the mercy of the public transit system, and we all know what a mess that is. Handicap conversion vans are designed for a very small market, but an important market nonetheless. These drivers deserve a critical analysis of vehicles just as much as the enthusiast driver.
My wife's first van was a 2003 Ford Windstar SEL with VMI conversion, it did the job but it at about 90k miles it became a total crap-box we traded it in for a 2008 Toyota Sienna XLE Bruan Conversion.
I recently had to take the Sienna in for a repair and got was able to rent 2013 Dodge Caravan Bruan Conversion and decided to review it. Since the '08 Sienna is my main point of reference, I have included comparisons throughout the article.
While I am not a driver with a mobility impairment I am very familiar with vehicle dynamics and have a general concept of the needs of disabled drivers.
(Dodge really did not want me to drive this van, but the good folks at Mobility Works in Cinnaminson, NJ loaned it to me for two days)
For a minivan it is not too bad. It is boxy with some nice lines, and the silver plays well. The "areo" kit with the conversion gives it a nice stance. The Caravan is far more masculine than the Sienna, if that is important to you. If I had to choose between the two based on looks alone, I would go with the Dodge, the wife still prefers the Toyota.
The inside is fairly plain, but the gauges look sharp and all the HVAC controls are simple and easy to use. The cloth seats are stiff and don't have much support. The van is a bit taller than the Sienna giving the feeling of more room. The rear hatch is very spacious, normally I have to put my groceries on the floor but the Dodge swallowed it all in the back. In the Toyota the hatch is mostly occupied by the spare-tire, leaving not much room so it becomes a catch-all for junk.
The Grand Caravan is equipped with Chrysler's 3.6L Pentastar motor cranking out 283hp and 260 foot-pounds of torque. Those are healthy numbers, but what's on paper and what makes it onto the road is a different story (see Gearbox). The '08 Sienna on the other hand, only puts out 266 hp and 245 torques from its 3.5L V6 but has no trouble getting moving. While I don't have 0-60 times for either van, the butt-o-meter says the Toyota wins the drag race. Dodge claims 25 mpg highway, I cannot confirm that due to the extra weight of the conversion.
The Dodge's engine as a decent amount of power put you would never know it due to the incredibly lagging 6-speed AutoStick transmission. When you step on the gas there is a solid 4 second delay until the trans drops a gear and gets going. However, the column mounted shifter is placed close to the steering wheel which allows you to manually select gears by tapping the stick left for down, and right for up. This is a must if you expect to make a passing maneuver sometime this month. While I certainly do not mind, and in fact prefer, to select my own gears I am not the target audience for such a vehicle. Since this van is designed for drivers with mobility impairments, many of whom will have one hand occupied by hand-controls for brake and throttle, leaving the other hand for steering, the use of the tap-shift becomes a tricky proposition.
Brakes were firm they slowed down the big van quickly with little drama. When you are driving something this large, you need good brakes. Well done Dodge.
I could tell immediately the spring rates were on the stiff side, which made me happy that is,until I logged a few miles. On the highway the Dodge was mostly smooth but any road irregularities could be felt through the chassis. Driving around town the Grand Caravan was very upset pot-holes and common bumps in the road, which makes for a jittery ride on anything but super-smooth pavement.
You would think with a stiff suspension the Dodge would have some moticum of cornering prowess. Nope, not even close. I realize this is a minivan and not sports-car so I am not expecting Lotus level handling but when our Sienna navigates the gentle highway curves it stays planted. The Dodge offers no such confidence in similar situations, and do not even think about exceeding suggested exit ramp speed by more than 2 mph, because you will be met with a whole lot of "Whoa, Body Roll!" Also, the steering in the Grand Caravan is excessively heavy, you have to really wrench it to make tight turns in parking lots. Again, not well suited for disabled drivers.
I'm going to admit that the sound-system sounds better than the JBL unit in the Sienna XLE. There is an iPod button that I did not try, because I don't own an iPod, but I'll assume it works.
I really liked the radio tuning and volume controls behind the steering wheel, once I figured out they were not paddle shifters.
Not much in the way of toys. Although, I will say that the chain-driven ramp that deploys on the passenger side, opens and closes significantly slower than the wire driven ramp on the Sienna. Also, despite being a larger vehicle the Caravan's door opening is tighter than the Toyota's, which means a narrower ramp. This makes entry/exit difficult when asshats park too close to you.
This is a difficult part because each driver requires their own level of specialized mobility equipment so the costs varies greatly. Before conversion, a Grand Caravan SXT goes for $26,595, a decent value, but when you consider that a 2013 Sienna similarly equipped starts at $26,585 . Given the criticisms, the Dodge is at a disadvantage.