Minivanís inventor continues to define the segment
By Nina Russin
Minivans aren't chick magnets, according to my buddy, Ted. He reiterated this several times at the coffee shop today. I suppose he wanted to make sure that I understood his aversion to the Chrysler Town & Country I was driving wasn't temporary.
Ted's a single guy, so any car that isn't a chick magnet is, in his opinion, not worth owning. I mention this because there are a lot of Teds in the world who've given minivans a bum rap.
A minivan's true beauty lies beneath the skin: its ace-in-the-hole is versatility. My friend, Kathy Graham used a Dodge Caravan to haul her Harley Davidson around. She put her motorcycle inside the van. Can a SUV or crossover do that? I don't think so.
Minivans may be the most invisible models on the showroom floor, but the same doesn't hold true for the open road. Since introducing the first Dodge Caravan in 1983, Chrysler has sold over 13 million minivans, and not just to soccer moms.
In a sense, minivans are the ultimate active lifestyle vehicles because their owners can haul huge amounts of gear around by day, and camp out in the cargo area at night. They're also a much more practical transportation solution for challenged athletes than full-sized vans, because they accommodate wheelchair ramps, adaptive controls and gear, while maintaining a relatively small footprint.
The Town & Country is Chrysler's luxury minivan model. The Limited grade comes standard with keyless entry and start, leather trim, heated steering wheel, front and second-row seats, surround-sound audio system, satellite radio, dual-screen DVD, navigation and a media center with a 404 gigabyte hard drive.
Pricing starts at $38,995 excluding the $835 delivery charge. The test car has several convenience options, including a power sunroof, power folding third-row seats, height-adjustable and load leveling suspension, removable second-row bucket seats and Mopar's Uconnect infotainment system. MSRP is $42,595.
New V-6 engine boosts gas mileage
One advantage minivans have over other high-profile vehicles is aerodynamics. The minivan's one-box architecture is slipperier in the wind tunnel than two-box designs such as sport-utility vehicles, pickup trucks and crossovers.
On the flip side, minivans are just as heavy as their comparably-sized competitors. Curb weight for the Town & Country is 4652 pounds. Add a few passengers and that weight increases to over 5000 pounds. The engine needs enough power to move this mass off-the-line, even if the car is towing a trailer.
Lack of engine power in the early days turned potential customers off to minivans. I remember driving the first Dodge Caravan around Detroit and thinking that the car was dangerously anemic. Chrysler's new Pentastar V-6 engine has made a dramatic difference in the Town & Country's power and performance.
The engine produces 283 horsepower and 260 foot-pounds of torque: plenty to give a large vehicle good acceleration throughout the power band. The V-6, which Jeep also uses on the Grand Cherokee sport-utility vehicle, works equally well on the Town & County. When equipped with a towing prep package, the Town & Country tows up to 3600 pounds, exceeding our ALV criteria.
A six-speed automatic transmission has large overdrive gears to boost gas mileage at higher speeds. Average fuel economy is 20 miles-per-gallon, according to the EPA.
Test drive in Phoenix
I spent the past week driving the Town & Country around the Phoenix, Tempe and Scottsdale metropolitan areas. With its combination of car-like handling and new safety features such as blind spot monitoring and rear obstacle detection with cross-traffic alert, Chrysler's luxurious minivan is an appealing option for active families.
Keyless entry and start is especially helpful for parents who might be carrying a small child to the car. Opening the door is as simple as touching the exterior handle, saving the inconvenience of fumbling for the keys.
Despite its large footprint, the Town & Country offers good steering response at all speeds. There's plenty of assist from the power rack-and-pinion system on the low end for maneuvering crowded parking lots. A 39-foot turning circle makes U-turns a possibility on wider four-lane suburban roads.
Overall length is 202.8 inches. The minivan is low enough to clear the average garage door. I was able to park it in my garage with room to spare.
Visibility around the exterior is pretty good. The blind spot monitoring system illuminates LED signals in the side mirrors when cars in adjacent lanes pass through the driver's blind spots. The feature makes it easier and safer to maneuver through dense traffic on the highway.
The Town & Country has an independent front suspension and twist beam axle in the rear. Optional self-leveling shocks make it easier to tow a trailer. The ride is pleasantly compliant. There is more roll in the corners than for some crossovers, but I never felt a loss of control.
Four-wheel disc brakes with antilock braking stop the car in a firm, linear fashion on both wet and dry roads.
Engineers did an excellent job of minimizing road, wind and engine noise into the interior, making it easy for all three rows of passengers to converse.
When equipped with the optional second-row captain's chairs, the Town & Country seats up to seven passengers. Substituting a bench seat in the second row adds an eighth seating position.
Automatic folding third-row seats on the test car make it easy to fold the back seats into the floor, extending the cargo area for bicycles and other large gear. The Town & Country easily meets our bicycle-friendly criteria.
A new feature this year adds stow-in-place crossbars as standard equipment on the Limited. The cross-bows can be stowed inside the standard roof rails when not in use to enhance aerodynamics. The roof rack system makes it easy to add a top-mounted carrier for additional cargo.
Chrysler's interior designers excel at packaging. This is particularly evident in the positioning of storage bins throughout the passenger compartment, cup and bottle holders. The space between the rear captain's chairs adds another path to the back row of seats.
Assist handles on the A and B pillars make it easier for older or disabled passengers to get inside the car. There are multiple 12-volt power points for passengers to recharge cell phones, and a USB port for plugging in a music stick. A standard flashlight in the cargo area comes in handy at night on camping trips.
An observation mirror in the overhead console enables parents to monitor kids in back without taking their eyes off the road.
The Chrysler Town & Country comes with front, side and side curtain airbags, blind spot monitoring, rear park assist, tire pressure monitoring, active front head restraints, stability and traction control. High-intensity discharge headlamps which are standard on the Limited grade project beams of light which are longer and closer to daylight than halogen.
Chrysler builds the Town & Country in its Windsor, Ontario Canada assembly plant.
Likes: A versatile minivan which meets our bicycle-friendly and towing critera, and also has a high level of standard safety features.
Dislike: High MSRP puts the Town & Country out of reach of many potential buyers.
Model: Town & Country Limited.
Base price: $38,996
As tested: $42,595
Horsepower: 283 Hp @ 6400 rpm
Torque: 260 lbs.-ft. @ 4400 rpm
Antilock brakes: Standard
Side curtain airbags: Standard
First aid kit: N/A
Bicycle friendly: Yes
Fuel economy*: 17/25 mpg city/highway
Comment: The Town & Country is available with flex-fuel capability.