Chrysler Town & Country – more than practical, its fun

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The minivan segment has been distilled over the past couple of years into the “big three” — Chrysler (and Dodge), Honda and Toyota — and a few smaller players.

Gone from the segment are industry giants General Motors and Ford; both having deciding to redirect their resources into crossover sport utilities and vehicles of a different ilk.

Hyundai/Kia, Nissan and Mazda continue to cling to a small percentage of the segment, and Volkswagen gets a re-badged Dodge Caravan for 2009. There’s talk that Subaru may also enter the shrinking segment.

Introduced in 1983 by Chrysler, the minivan was an instant hit and is still in our estimation the best and most economical way to move people, one of the most important automotive segments of the 20th century. But the rapid growth of the segment slowed in the mid-90s as high-riding all-weather sport utility vehicles caught the imagination of the car-buying public.

Then as truck based SUVs started losing favor because of increasing energy prices, more fuel-efficient car-based “crossover” sport utilities caught on effectively eliminating any chance for a minivan comeback.

Minivan sales started to slide a few years ago and now have fallen below a million units per annum.

While sales are eroding, minivan innovation has been accelerating as automakers strive to retain their share of what is still considered a large market segment.

And minivans have never been better as manufacturers continue to up the ante. This is pointed out by the new Chrysler twins, the Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country, both of which received a complete makeover for 2008.

Whatever advantages the Toyota Sienna and the Honda Odyssey had gained over the past couple of years have been erased by the 2008 Town & Country and Caravan.

While most of the recent minivan innovations have come on the inside in the form of passenger comfort; ease of use; and entertainment technology, we were equally impressed with the Town & Country’s improved driving dynamics. Just a couple years back, driving an Odyssey, Sienna and Caravan just weeks apart, we had to give the edge to the Japanese entries — particularly the Odyssey — in performance and overall handling.

No more.
At least that’s our judgment after driving a top-of-the line Town & Country Limited powered by a new 4.0-liter V-6 making 251 horsepower mated to a new six-speed transmission, and a month earlier a mid-level Dodge Grand Caravan with a 3.8-liter V-6.

We found the V-6, making 197 horsepower, effective enough for all situations, but obviously not up to the bigger engine’s standards. We don’t recommend the base 3.3-liter V-6 with its too-little 175 horsepower.

We must emphasize that while the overall driving experience has been improved, “driving excitement” is still not part of the minivan lexicon; at least not how it pertains to the driver.

But we were impressed with the responsiveness of the Chrysler Limited especially when loaded with four full-sized adults and some cargo. It moved smartly off the line at the stoplight and exhibited confidence-inspiring muscle merging and passing on the four-lane.

We found the steering light — no surprise here — but direct with good feedback. The suspension on our Limited seemed a bit tighter than before, but still delivering the friendly ride expected from a minivan and with less body role than before.

The Chrysler also exhibited new-found interior solitude. Wind and road noise are rewardingly isolated thanks to thicker glass and carpeting and isolated front-suspension components.

Also rewarding is the Town & Country’s rather tight 38-foot turning circle making it very compatible with parking lot situations.

While the Town & Country has caught up with the Honda — seen by many as the benchmark for minivans — in performance and driving dynamics, it has moved beyond the Odyssey in interior innovations.

Here are, for example, a few features found on the Chrysler products:

• A power fold-into-the floor third-row seat. A press of a button will power either portion of the split-seat into or out of the floor. Another push of the button and the seats will assume a tailgating position.
• Swivel ’n Go second row bucket seats that rotate 180 degrees to face the third-row seats. A removal table can be quickly installed providing four positions for eating or card playing. The downside is that leg room for four adults in this configuration is extremely tight. But for a couple of people who want to work on laptop computers or finish off a hamburger and fries from McDonald’s the table works well. It stores in the floor when not in use.
• Stow ’n Go second-row seats, introduced a few years ago, are still available, but you can’t have both swivel and stow. We still like the stow-able seats because when they aren’t stowed, the giant in-floor wells can serve as covered storage areas.
• A new entertainment system allows for all three rows to watch or listen to different sources. Two large rear screens can be used for Sirius backseat television featuring live programming from Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel or Cartoon Network or DVDs or video games. Talk about kid friendly. The Chrysler rules. The driver has the option of satellite radio, CDs, or music stored on a hard-drive.

The Town & Country is truly a panacea to the family on the go – especially on longer trips. No more “are we there yet?” With our grandchildren in the back seats, one playing video games and the other partaking  in the offered Sirius TV, both using headsets, we heard nary a peep while we listened to the radio and talked during a several hundred mile journey. Keeping a 9-year old and an almost 12-year old apart and happy is worth the price of admission alone. Not having to listen to them picking on each other and having to scold them is priceless.

Even though all three Town & Country trim levels come with a generous amount of standard equipment, we must point out that all of the above items are options.

The Town & Country has all the available features found in other minivans including navigation, a backup camera, power sliding doors and power liftgate.

Standard equipment on all trim levels includes an impressive list of safety features such as traction control, stability control, antilock brakes with brake assist and three rows of head-curtain airbags.

Prices have actually been reduced from 2007 starting at $23,555 for the LX trim level and rising to $28,940 for the mid-level Touring and $36,400 for the Limited.

Our Limited test vehicle with several options including the $2,020 rear entertainment system carried a bottom line of $39,785. Note that our vehicle did not come with the navigation system, a $1,300 option.

For peace and quiet family fun on the go, or for the practicality of a terrific people and cargo mover the minivan may not be glamorous but it is wonderfully functional and Chrysler has stepped up the game where we came away really impressed.


Base price, $23,555; as driven, $39,785

Engine: 4.0-liter V-6

Horsepower: 253 @ 6,000 rpm

Torque: 262 foot-pounds @ 4,100 rpm

Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Seating: 2/2/3

Wheelbase: 121.2 inches

Length: 202.5 inches

Curb weight: 4,621 pounds

Turning circle: 38 feet

Towing capacity: 3,600 pounds

Luggage capacity: 32.3 cubic feet

Cargo capacity: 140 cubic feet

Fuel capacity: 20.5 gallons (regular)

EPA rating: 23 highway, 16 city
0-60: 8.2 seconds (Edmund's)

Also consider: Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna, Hyundai Entourage

The Good

• Innovative seating and entertainment options

• Quiet, refined cabin

• Prices are lower than comparable 2007 models

The Bad

• Despite low price avoid the base 3.3-liter engine

The Ugly

• Very desirable options can run the minivan over 40 grand