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Maroon Minivan Madness: Old-School Dodge Caravan Or Newish Chevy Venture?

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Welcome back to Shitbox Showdown! Today we’re going to be looking at a couple of those ubiquitous boxes-on-wheels: minivans. (Don’t make that face). First, however, we need to see the results of yesterday’s massacre–I mean, vote.

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Jeez, you guys. I get it; you didn’t like the Eagle. But man, some of the comments were brutal. For the record, I always liked the Premier and Monaco, and as several commenters pointed out, it was historically important for Chrysler. Its arrival led their engineering teams in entirely new directions they hadn’t thought of before, kinda like that leftover arm and brain chip in Terminator 2.

Oh, and for those requesting a “neither” vote choice: No. Play the game like the other kids. If nothing else, choose which color you like better. (Granted, that strategy won’t work today.)

There is perhaps no vehicle that carries quite as much of a stigma as the minivan. It’s what you drive when you have “grown up” or “settled down.” It’s the mommy-mobile, the kid-taxi, the Family Truckster. But there are a lot of use cases for a big enclosed box on wheels that have nothing to do with one’s progeny. Maybe you’re in a band, and your drummer thinks he’s the second coming of John Bonham, and you need a van to haul his overly-large drum kit. Maybe you own a rare and used book shop, and need a van to drive around to estate sales and buy up personal libraries (I actually knew someone who used a minivan for this). Or maybe you just want to sit up high in traffic without having to deal with a cumbersome SUV.

Old minivans can be especially good deals as cheap used cars. After a couple hundred thousand miles, after a thousand Fruit Roll-Ups have been cleaned out of the carpet, after the DVD player is as sick to death of Shrek and Frozen as the front-seat passengers are, what’s left is a tough, mechanically-simple vehicle whose whole designed purpose is comfort and convenience. What’s not to like?

I’ve found two examples for us to compare and contrast. One is the granddaddy of all minivans, and the other is a couple generations newer. Let’s see what you make of them.

1988 Dodge Grand Caravan – $2,500

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Engine/drivetrain: 3.0 liter V6, 3 speed automatic, FWD

Location: Federal Way, WA

Odometer reading: 40,000 miles (might be 140,000, but might not, from the condition)

Runs/drives? Just fine, according to the seller

This is it: the one that started it all. The first-generation Dodge Caravan, introduced in 1984. Back then the advertisements didn’t even use the term “minivan;” it was “garageable van” or “wagon.” Unlike other things with the prefix “mini” – skirts, say, or muffins, which have remained more or less consistent in size over the years – minivans have grown, and that embiggening started here, with the stretched-wheelbase “Grand” Caravan and Plymouth Voyager. The Grands added seven inches to the wheelbase, fifteen inches to the overall length, and a whole lot of room inside.

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As a 1988 model, this particular Caravan precedes the troublesome four-speed “Ultradrive” transmission by a year, instead backing its Mitsubishi-built V6 with a good ol’ Torqueflite three-speed. It’s not as cool as the turbocharged stickshift variants were, but it gets the job done. It’s also pleasantly devoid of fake woodgrain, which never looked right on these, at least to my eye. [Editor’s note: I realize aesthetics are subjective, but Mark is wrong, here. -DT]

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What does look right – and refreshingly simple, compared to modern designs – is the interior, which is swathed in yards and yards of maroon velour slowly fading to pink. There are no overhead screens. No audio jacks. No separate climate controls. Just seats. What did we do back then, on long trips? Read, or play the license plate game, or play Slug Bug (until Mom and Dad told us to knock it off), or actually look at the scenery. Wild, huh?

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Actually, this van looks really good for its age. It’s not rusty, it’s only missing one hubcap, and the interior isn’t trashed. If that is only 40,000 miles on the odometer, somebody could flip this on Bring A Trailer and probably make some money after they found a replacement hubcap. Or they could just drive it and enjoy it, as a reminder of where we were, and how far we’ve come.

2003 Chevrolet Venture – $2,500

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Engine/drivetrain: 3.4 liter V6, 4 speed automatic, FWD

Location: Vancouver, WA

Odometer reading: 219,000 miles

Runs/drives: “Great!”

Fast-forward a decade and a half, and you arrive here, at the Chevy Venture. It’s only a little bit bigger than the old Grand Caravan – ten inches longer, three inches wider, and three inches taller – but the march towards bigger and heavier vehicles was only just getting into full-swing at this point. A new Toyota Sienna, for comparison, adds four inches in length and six inches in width to the Venture’s dimensions. Hardly “mini” any more. But with the added girth came added stuff, like a sliding door on both sides (sometimes power-operated), more easily configurable seats, vastly improved cupholders, and rear-seat entertainment options (more on that in a minute).

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This Chevy has seen some use, but high miles aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Lots of miles means lots of service, or it wouldn’t have made it this far. The Venture uses GM’s ubiquitous 60-degree V6, 3.4 liters in displacement at this point, and it’s known to be durable and reliable, give or take an intake manifold gasket or two. The overdrive automatic has been known to develop an occasional slipping problem, but again, with 219,000 miles under its belt, someone was caring for it right.

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This van’s interior looks freshly scrubbed clean, which is nice, and the leather and suede upholstery is in good shape. Hell, the back seats don’t even look like anyone has ever sat in them. You can, of course, remove the seats or fold them flat to add cargo space.

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The Venture was available in a “Warner Brothers Edition,” which included a DVD player for the back seat, a bunch of Looney Tunes swag, and a special badge with Bugs Bunny on it. The original purchaser of this burgundy Venture does not appear to have sprung for that option, however, or if they did, they removed the badge. What a maroon.

You can go on hating minivans if you want, but I’m telling you: there’s a lot to like here. And these are just the cheap ones; spend a grand or two more and you can get a really nice, comfy, well-equipped minivan with all the toys. You just have to get over the stigma, and stop caring what people think. You know… settle down and grow up.

So what’ll it be, mac? Old Dodge, or not-quite-as-old Chevy?

[Editors note: Anyone who chooses the soulless Venture over that beautiful Chrysler box, please explain yourself in the comments. -DT]


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62 Responses

  1. Easy one for me! Growing up in the 90’s we had a 1986 Voyager with all the same maroon everything. It had the carbureted 2.6 and 3 speed auto. I will always remember this van, primarily for the sheer amazement I have looking back at one particular trip: This van carried our family of 6 and our Golden Retriever from Ohio to the Smoky Mountains to visit my grandparents before they sold their mountain home. The impressive part? Somehow, my father managed to pack the following on the roof rack for the return trip: A full size propane grill w/tank, a self propelled lawn mower, a patio umbrella, an Electrolux vacuum cleaner, and a Black and Decker scroll saw. This is all I remember but there may have been more. Combined with all 6 of us, the dog, and our luggage, I am amazed how that little 2.6/3spd got us back to Ohio without issues.

    I do recall my dad doing a head gasket (pre-overloaded trip) and the cv axles. Otherwise it was a pretty solid van for us until we traded for a 2001 Town and County.

    1. The Warner Bros edition instantly came to mind when I saw this. I’d get the badge and slap it on there if I bought the Chevy even though its not a “numbers-matching” WB. Kinda like an “SS” clone people make out of pedestrian Chevelles/Malibus.

  2. I voted Chevy based on the safety improvements alone. As Mark said in the article, these things had one job, move people from A to B safely. No minivan will ever be stylish (despite what Travolta said in Get Shorty), or cool, or desirable. They are tools, and need to do their one job well.

    1. I wouldn’t buy the Venture for the safety… The U-platform vans were notoriously weak in front impacts. Seriously, the crash testing videos are terrifying. The driver’s area of the cabin basically folds up in a moderate speed collision. This is part of the reason they added an elongated front end when they face lifted the Venture into the Uplander.

      That said, I drove a hand me down Venture all last year as a beater work vehicle, and I honestly loved it. Great fuel economy, decent power, and it was surprisingly surefooted and stable on the highway. Just really nice to drive for a vehicle with 350xxx KM succumbing to rust. I would say for anyone looking for a reliable and dirt cheap spare vehicle to use for chores, hauling junk etc, you can’t go wrong. Just keep that safety video in your mind, and don’t use it daily or to ferry your kids.

  3. Venture. It’ll get 30 mpg highway, the V6 can keep up with traffic, and the 4T65 can be rebuilt by a relative amateur. NVH is definitely a step above the Caravan.

    I was carted around in both of these growing up. And teenage me passed my driving test in a LWB Venture. Having experienced both of them the Venture is by far the better van.

  4. Caravan to preserve for posterity, Venture to use for its’ intended purpose on a tight budget. The Dodge is old enough not to have rear shoulder seat belts. That’s a dealbreaker.

  5. My grandma had that EXACT Caravan. Same color, same weird maroon velour interior, everything. I went on a lot of my first fishing trips in that van. Thanks for bringing back those memories! Obviously, that’s my vote.

  6. The Venture could file a complaint that you tipped the vote against it by calling it soulless while calling the Caravan O.G. Do you want January 6th? Because this is how you get January 6th.

    Regardless, I think the Caravan is the winner. It’s so delightfully 80s with the maroon on maroon color scheme, and it should be easy to keep running what with its lack of features and technology. I have less confidence in the Venture going the distance without a repair bill that makes you walk away from it.

  7. Caravan all the way. As old and as outdated as it is, it’s probably more reliable than the disastrous U body pile of fuck. I’m amazed it’s still on the road, the shitty 3400 or the multiple electrical problems should’ve sent it to pullapart 10 years ago.

  8. The chevy is the better deal and it’s not even close. But I was brought home from the Hospital in 1988 in almost the exact same Grand Caravan, and my entire childhood was supported by that, and each successive generation of a Dodge minivan. I saw my first drive in movie in one, learned to drive in one, got my first speeding ticket in one, went on my first date in one, got my first kiss in one, drank my first beer sitting on the back bumper of one, the list goes on. So many milestones in my life were anchored by my dad’s undying loyalty to mediocrity and my mom’s addiction to having a sliding door for us kids.

    Give me that shitty old dodge.

    1. Not by a mile. I get David’s point (and that velour is amazing), but my money’s going to the 15 year newer vehicle if I give even a single shit about my kids’ safety.

        1. I was thinking the same thing, but didn’t want to open that can of worms, because as bas as 90’s Gm’s were, 1980’s chrysler products were a half-step up from a covered wagon. Full of dynamite. And also on fire.

        2. Yes, the Caravan and the Venture both offer 1988 levels of crash protection. The U bodies were appallingly weak compared to other vans of their day. The airbag can’t save you if the steering column shoots over your head because the seat tipped forward when the floor buckled.

      1. If you gave even a single shit about your kids’ safety you probably wouldn’t go with a Venture either. They had fairly abysmal crash safety when new, but they’re also prone to severe rust – and I see some on this one – so it’s going to crumple like a potato chip bag held by a drunk man preparing to throw it at Steve so he gets his attention.

        Honestly, I wouldn’t use either of these as family haulers, it’s kind of like comparing a bomb to a different bomb.

  9. I went with the Chevy. While I’m not really tied to a Chevy vs Dodge fight, the chevy is newer in every way. Engine tech, audio, interior…. all newer. I like the wedge look of the chevy over the dodge too. If the dodge had the woodgrain, it would be an easy chevy win since woodgrain on any car look bad. Never liked it since my dad owned his Grand Wagoneer, it just looks bad. Sorry David.

  10. The previous school district I worked for had a fleet of those Chevy Ventures for taking small groups of kids to field trips and competitions. The utter misery of shuffling teenagers back and forth from Chicago to Kansas City in the summer, with my knee wedged against the hard plastic center stack and trying not to die of heat stroke thanks to the broken AC … that shit still haunts my dreams 15 years later.

    Gimme the OG.

  11. Old minivans are so cheap because of safety. Each generation is better and better, and that is #1 for parents which are the demographic overwhelmingly buying these. This is what makes them effectively obsolete for people moving at a certain point, and relegated to lugging tools/material for thrifty handymen.

  12. I had an ’88 Grand Caravan very similar to this one, and while capable, it had problem after problem, including the transmission as it aged. Finally started turning into a rattling trap. I doubt, even with good maintenance, this is going to be anything but a constant headache. Take the newer Chevy.

  13. The nostalgia hit was not quite on point (the Dodge caravan with 2nd row booster seats integrated into the seat back is where the memories truly lie), but the hood ornament eked out a win.
    And the acknowledgement that although the Chevy looked nicer and more usable inside, I’m pulling the seats anyway and the benches look easier to pull.

  14. OK the interior of the caravan is on fukkin point. It is so amazing that words cannot describe. Though I am pleasantly surprised by the condition of the venture interior. I didn’t realize GM leather can last that long, let alone look halfway decent.

    But my parents had a caravan when I was a kiddo. It was their first new car, and it was an absolute pile of dog doo. It never ran quite right, trans sucked and never found the right gear in a climb, terrible gas mileage and all around horrid quality. It’s the shit stain on my parent’s vehicle history so the bowtie gets my vote.

  15. For actual minivan use, the Venture is easily the better choice. The 4T65 is better than any Chrysler minivan transmission 😛

    The Caravan is too old and doesn’t even have the cool turbo manual combo that was available back then 😉

    You should import a 96-97 Chrysler Voyager from Europe, available with diesel and manual. You get the newer body style with most of the Venture’s features. The late 90s Chrysler minivans look awesome even today, and their biggest problem was of course the shitty automatic transmissions they came with, but a manual imported from Europe won’t have that problem.

    If soulless was a deal breaker in this segment, we’d still have the Mazda5.

  16. Venture! All the way!
    I remember the og caravan! Gf’s Dad had one, ’85’ swb blue with blue velour, we used it a lot as teens, I couldn’t drive one now without snickering about the antics we got up to in it! (Nudge nudge wink wink, say no more) however nostalgia doesn’t pay the bills and as a toolbox on wheels I’d rather rely on the Chevy,
    But I’d really prefer the maroon Windstar in the background of the final venture picture!

  17. I’ll go with the Venture. Having grown up in one, I can say they really weren’t bad rigs. Ours managed to survive three teenage drivers and had 260k on it when it was traded in after a decade of use. Apart from the power sliding doors, which pretty much broke the day we got it, and an appetite for brake rotors it was a good car.

  18. I went dodge, but only because of the lower miles. I would rather have the venture if all things were equal. Funny story, a venture much like this was the first car I ever hit 100 in. I was 15, on my permit, with my grandpa in the passenger seat snoring away. Never told him about it of course haha

  19. Went Chevy just to spite DT, and for associations with Pontiac and Saturn minivans. But I had a Plymouth Grand Voyager as the family vehicle growing up, and took my driving test in it. That V6 was a serious contender back in the day.

  20. A lot of my formative years occurred in U-bodies, my grandfather had an ‘00 Venture and my parents had a ‘01 Montana. One of my favorite memories of my grandfather involved me driving him in his Venture to the airport a few years before he passed away. That said, the fond memories of my grandfather aren’t enough to convince me to buy a U-body again…though they were as reliable as gravity, they were some of the blandest vehicles from their era, which is saying something.

    Dodge all the way.

  21. Lack of apparent rust on the Dodge tips my vote in that direction, plus a bit of nostalgia (my parents had a blue 1985 (I think – it had the stacked sealed-beam headlights, not the later composite lights) SWB manual caravan that I remember fondly and used to play in a lot, pretending to drive. I figured they were about a wash as far as safety – while the Venture is over a decade newer, they faired very poorly when they came out, it’s rusty, and I’m not sure I’d count on those airbags working as advertised at this point.

    I actually spent my minivan money on a 2012 Mazda5 manual recently – twice as much money got twice as many gears as that Dodge.

  22. Caravan all the way. Ours was a blue/blue ’87 Grand that my parents bought new and promptly road tripped from DC > Seattle > Mendocino > Seattle > DC. We removed the second row and I spent most of that trip on the floor where the seat was supposed to be. It also served us well for many, many trips between SC, DC, and Maine. Great van that was subsequently replaced by a second gen Plymouth Voyager, then third gen Chrysler T&C. I loved and miss them all (not enough to buy this one on the other side of the country tho).

    Also, I’m almost positive that these had 6-digit odometers, so that 40k is probably legit.

  23. Having experience with variants of both vans, I’m going with the Chevy. All things being equal, the Chrysler vans are better overall, but 15 years is a long time. I think the Chevy will be more useful as a daily driver. If it was a ’98 Caravan instead of an ’88, there would be no contest.

  24. I voted the ‘88 Caravan but it’s a close call. The ultimate tilt was nostalgia. I spent 2 hours a day in a brown one of those with tan interior and wood grain everyday carpooling to school as a kid. That being said, if it were my actual $$ for a nostalgia ride I’d be looking at old ‘90s wagon.

  25. The Venture is boring, and was a mediocre car when it was new. But as a car built in this century (with 90s technology and design), this car still has more practical life as a car. The Caravan should get a wash and wax and get parked as a static display at Cafe ’80s.

  26. Agree that the Caravan is the OG, and that’s an absolute beauty.
    But I drove a red Venture through high school and it never let me down.
    Everyone hassled me for the soccer mom-mobile, but it fit six or eight or ten friends.
    You could even spin the wheels if you turned off traction control and stomped on it.

  27. If I’m going with a dangerously out-of-date minivan, I’m going back to the model I started with. The original K-Car Caravan, preferably the Grand version.

    The Caravan I owned had this engine and transmission combo. I’ve heard that engine had a reputation for bad oil leaks, but mine didn’t. I towed a boat with it while loaded full up with gear several times. It was loaded to capacity and pulling over 500 lbs beyond what it was rated for, and it didn’t feel nearly as burdened as I expected it to.

    The rear seats in the Caravan make a comfy garage couch, too, for when you’re done wrenching and want to sit in front of the drum fan with a couple of beers on a hot summer night. And when the van is gone, you might still have the seats, many years later.

      1. Mine was a passenger van leased for me by my employer, to haul products and tools, so the middle and rear seats were removed and stored in my garage. I don’t think the vans had any residual value at the end in the terms of the lease. I think the company kept them as spare service vehicles, because they didn’t want the seats back in. The bench seats were still in the garage when I moved out of that house. They might even still be there.

  28. Dodge all the way. I learned to drive and passed my road test in a very similar maroon ’88 Grand Voyager. That interior takes me right back. That ’88 was the second of four Chrysler minivans my parents owned over the years as I and my three younger brothers were growing up. The first was a blue ’85 Caravan with the Mitsubishi 2.6, and the last was a 2002 T&C. They downsized eventually as sons moved out, but now with six granddaughters they’re thinking another minivan might be in their future.

    1. I adore that red velour, but I’m more than happy to annoy David on this point. In what hellish existence can a 1980s minivan be said to contain “soul”? I do not think that word means what he thinks it means. He finds soul in Jeep Cherokees too, which… Jesus, I just don’t get it. And if I had all day I’d go back and count just how many mentions of “nostalgia” there are on this page, just because so many of you millennial goobers had the wretched luck to be hauled around in Caravans and Voyagers and for some reason want to relive that, except in a front seat this time. See your therapists, please. Your “nostalgia” is awfully heavy on the “algia” part. (Greek, from algos “pain”)

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