Minivans: is the Dodge Caravan really that bad?
June 26, 2010 5:34 PM   Subscribe

Which used minivan should we get? A very low mileage, early 2000s era Dodge Caravan, or a late 90s, high mileage Toyota Sienna/Honda Odyssey?

We are in the market for a used minivan (we are paying cash, and would prefer something that costs under $6000). In that price range, it seems like our only low mileage, semi-recent option without abysmally bad reviews is the Dodge Caravan. Still, I have heard very mixed reviews about the Caravan's reliability. On the other hand, the Japanese minivans (Mazda MPV, Mercury Villager, Nissan Quest, and of course the epic Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna) seem to have much higher prices for older, high mileage vehicles. Perhaps this is a quirk of the San Francisco Bay Area? The best deals we have checked out so far are:

A 1998 Toyota Sienna with 130,000 miles, for $5000.

A 2000 Dodge Caravan with 65,000 miles, for $4000.

I don't care about features or options or fancy folding seats (this will be a short range child hauling mobile, doomed to a life of being soaked in projectile vomit and goldfish cracker crumbs). But, I do care about long term reliability. Does the better reputation of the Toyota in that respect beat out the advantages of a cheaper, newer Dodge with half the mileage?
posted by Wavelet to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You're right that high-mileage Japanese cars are more expensive, but that's because they last for a really long time, if well-cared for. Has the Toyota had just one or two owners? Do the sellers have the maintenance records? Did a reliable mechanic give it a good bill of health? If the answers to these questions is "yes" then go with the Toyota.
posted by lunasol at 5:53 PM on June 26, 2010

As a Caravan owner, I would advise you to avoid it like the plague.
posted by torquemaniac at 6:01 PM on June 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

My family suffered through two Dodge minivans. Avoid them. They are infamous for transmission failure.

The Toyota costs more because it is better.
posted by twblalock at 6:24 PM on June 26, 2010

When considering a Caravan be aware that the price difference between the cheapest model and the most expensive model is over a 100%.

I'd buy the Dodge. As a minivan the Caravan in unsurpassed even now IMO and for sure 10 years ago. Even the small caravan is bigger than the Sienna and the Grand Caravan is much bigger. Parts and accessories are cheaper and more available because of the huge consumer base of the Caravan.

As far as the mileage difference look at things like whether either van needs tires. The Sienna probably needs a battery or will shortly (a battery lasts 6-7 years); the Dodge, if it isn't the original probably is good on that score for a couple more years.

Also if the Dodge has the 3L it'll have a timing belt change scheduled at a 100K but because the 3L is a non interference design if you can skip changing it until it actually fails. Something to check for on the Toyota is when this service needs to be done next.
posted by Mitheral at 6:24 PM on June 26, 2010

We had a Plymouth Voyager that we bought new in the late 90s and it had major problems at 100,000 miles (AC went out, some expensive engine problems). We sold it and bought a used 2002 Odyssey (it was 2.5 years old at the time). We're now at 105K in the Odyssey and love it.

This is really unrelated, but here's another Japanese vs American anecdote for you.

Our other car was a 2007 Scion tC (Scion is a Toyota brand) with a 2.4 liter engine. It's a semi-sporty car, so it also had a transmission that is somewhat aggressive (which, one would assume, would negatively impact mpg). It got 25 mpg city.

Late last year, a friend of ours died and we got the opportunity to buy her 2006 Chrysler PT Cruiser for a very good price. We were in a belt-tightening phase, so we sold the Scion for $10K, bought the PT for $5K.

The PT Cruiser also has a 2.4 or 2.5 liter engine, yet it gets 20 mpg city and has really shitty pickup.

Same engine: worse gas mileage AND worse performance. And you wonder why people buy a Honda or Toyota over an American car.
posted by tippiedog at 7:31 PM on June 26, 2010

Caravans have a bad tendency to have transmissions take a dump on a regular basis, and 60,000 miles is when it generally starts. I wouldn't buy one with 65,000 miles on it for that reason alone.
posted by wierdo at 8:04 PM on June 26, 2010

Our Dodge Caravan was great. It was an older model than you may get (1998 iirc), but it ran reliably with no significant repairs for ~200,000 miles (we got it at about 100k) and we only parted with it because an oak tree fell on it. I'd love to get another.
posted by anadem at 8:04 PM on June 26, 2010

Consumer reports ratings for the Sienna and the Odyssey are really high. That drives up the price. The prices you're seeing aren't just a quirk of the SF area - we live outside DC and when we were looking at minivans a few years ago late 90's Siennas & Odysseys were about equivalent to early 2000's Caravans in price.
posted by selfmedicating at 9:30 PM on June 26, 2010

Odyssey. I wouldn't go near a Chrysler product if you want something reliable, and the Sienna's early models had some safety issues -- plus you're paying a premium for a used one, because (safe or not) they're reliable so cab companies snap up the used ones where it's legal to do so.
posted by davejay at 10:56 PM on June 26, 2010

It's not miles that wear cars out; acceleration and deceleration wears cars out. We talk about mileage because it's easier to measure and compare mileage, not because it's a great wear index.

At these ages, the history and condition of the particular vehicle is going to be very important. The brand and model tells you nothing about whether it's been garaged, or repaired after a major accident, or driven primarily in the city, or had its oil changed regularly. Statistically, it might be feasible to establish that an average 130K Toyonda is better than an average 65K Chrysler product, but the cars you're considering are not statistics. Ask for records, get a CarFax report and pay a mechanic to thoroughly check out any car you're seriously considering.
posted by jon1270 at 4:14 AM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thank you to all. Mostly, the Sienna/Odyssey vans we are seeing in our price range are, in addition to being high mileage, are also lacking maintenance records (for example, the Sienna we just looked at was at a used car lot, and they had acquired it from an auction). Caravans in our price range, on the other hand, often are single owner vehicles with all maintenance records available.

I think that we will continue to stalk Craigslist for a while, and if nothing turns up soon, we will have to either pay more for a Sienna/Odyssey with a repair history, or just settle for one of those oh so tempting low mileage single owner Caravans and put aside the money we saved towards the cost of a rebuilt transmission.
posted by Wavelet at 7:41 AM on June 27, 2010

My family's experience with several Caravan/Voyager models tracks with those above. They may be decent when new, and even last you well past 50,000, but higher-mileage models are just pretending to be in good shape and will find a way to die on you as soon as practical. Avoid, avoid, unless you really have no other option.
posted by dhartung at 9:08 PM on June 27, 2010

For future readers: I had the Toyota Sienna evaluated by our mechanic, found that the transmissions, brakes, frame, etc. were sound, got a ~$1100 price quote on doing all the age related deferred maintenance, and bought the van for $4300. I feel comfortable with buying a car that needs work if the price of car+work <>
Plus, it has a moonroof.
posted by Wavelet at 4:24 PM on June 28, 2010

Sorry, that should be, if the price of car + work is less than the price of mint condition car.
posted by Wavelet at 4:31 PM on June 28, 2010

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