Dodge Was Maddeningly Close to Releasing an Off-Road Minivan in the ’90s

How #VanLife almost kicked off with #MinivanLife

Dodge Caravan off-road minivan
Would you have bought an off-road-ready Dodge Caravan?
Image courtesy of Michael Santoro Design

If gearheads let themselves grieve over every concept vehicle, every drawing-board-to-trash-can sketch that never made it to production, they’d never get out of bed in the morning. But sometimes we get wind of a car that wouldn’t have just appealed to a fanatic niche, but could have changed everything if only it had been greenlit — and those are worth a eulogy. Such is the case with the off-road Dodge Caravan.

Over a decade before the #VanLife movement took off in the U.S., and even longer before nostalgia off-roaders barnstormed the market (epitomized by the new Ford Bronco), Dodge toyed with the idea of releasing an off-road-tuned version of the second-generation Caravan, as reported by The Drive. In fact, according to automotive designer Michael Santoro, the man behind the project, the beefed-up minivan got maddeningly close to production. 

“The vehicle was shown to Dodge dealers who also loved it. Everyone loved it… except the Jeep dealers who felt it would cannibalize sales,” Santoro writes on his website, which includes other concept drawings. “The prototype was a step away from premiering at the Chicago Auto when the plug was pulled at the last moment.”

For those who aren’t well-versed in the automotive family tree, the Dodge brand was at the time part of the larger Chrysler Corporation, which also brought Jeep into the fold in the ‘80s (now these companies sit under the newly minted Stellantis). So ostensibly Chrysler decided that instead of adding another off-road friendly model to its stable of vehicles, they’d let Jeep keep that niche for itself. 

Where did that decision lead them? In the 2010s, the #VanLife movement took off as young people wanted affordable, roomy, Instagrammable vehicles to live in, and the desire for both off-road-equipped and retro-styled cars is only increasing by the year. Meanwhile, the Grand Caravan is dead

Looking back on it, it seems Santoro’s rugged minivan idea was surprisingly prescient, predicting where the American consumer car market would go. Of course, the upgrades to this Dodge Caravan — light bar, new wheels, grill guards, side steps — aren’t anything revolutionary; these are accessories a minivan fan could potentially incorporate themselves, and no Jeep Wrangler owner is likely to kick themselves for buying one over a minivan. But who knows? Green-lighting this could have led to Dodge carving out a new niche and being a leader today rather than somewhat of an afterthought. 

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