CHICAGO, Ill. -- The sensuous BP Bridge in Chicago's Grant Park, a sculptural span for pedestrians dressed in panels of polished stainless steel, arches over Columbus Drive as we motor beneath it in a 2011 Chrysler Town & Country Limited minivan toting smooth new sheetmetal and a powerful new engine.
We see the Town & Country as an unconventional limousine: It's a refined ride with luxurious comforts, liberated with exacting handling mechanisms and enthused from the forceful -- yet fuel-thrifty -- powertrain.
Chrysler, the company which invented the minivan concept almost three decades ago, devised a new generational design for Town & Country in 2008 with a two-inch wheelbase stretch and a larger structure for an expanded passenger compartment plus flexible layouts for the three-row seat arrangement.
For 2011 Chrysler's mid-cycle update to Town & Country brings fresh exterior styling, an enhanced passenger compartment with improved seating and stow bins, the powerful new engine upgrade plus a retuned suspension to refine the ride characteristics.
Chrysler builds the 2011 Town & Country in three trim versions -- Touring, Touring-L and Limited -- and all stock the Pentastar 3.6-liter V6 engine which applies all torque to the front wheels through a six-speed electronic automatic transmission.
The dual-cam aluminum-block six-pack delivers big power numbers -- 283 hp at 6400 rpm and 260 lb-ft of torque at 4400 rpm.
Yet it can run on regular unleaded (87-octane) gasoline and earns fuel economy numbers of 17 mpg for city driving and 25 mpg on the highway.
Engineers at Chrysler lowered the ride height of Town & Country by one inch and retuned all suspension components to eliminate any wallow and float traits in previous issues.
The minivan employs independent MacPherson struts up front with coil over gas-charged shock absorbers and a stabilizer bar in an isolated suspension cradle; the rear suspension consists of a twist-beam axle with coil springs, a track bar and gas-charged shock absorbers or optional self-leveling shocks.
Spring rates are firmer now front and rear, as are all bushings and shocks, and the power rack and pinion steering gear is quicker.
Also, the minivan gains new low-rolling resistance tires. Standard for Town & Country Touring are 235/60R16 all-season Kumho Solus KH25 tires, while Touring-L and Limited trims roll on 225/65R17 all-season touring Michelin Energy Saver A/S.
Also standard on all editions is a four-wheel disc brake system connected to an anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake assist (BA), plus an electronic stability control (ESC) anti-skid device with all-speed traction control (ASTC).
Passive safety equipment for all trims includes frontal air bags as well as seat-mounted side air bags for front-seat passengers plus curtain-style air bags extending above side windows for all three rows of seats and linkage to rollover sensors.
In addition, there are active head restraints in place on front-row seats, the LATCH child seat anchor system for mounting two child seats on second-row seats, power adjustable foot pedals, a TPMD (tire pressure monitoring display), electronic blind-spot monitoring system (with radar sensors to locate vehicles in blind spots and signal the driver by lights in side mirrors or a chime, ParkSense electronic rear park assist system, ParkView rear backup camera, remote keyless entry device and Sentry Key antitheft engine immobilizer, even a sliding door alert system with hazard lamps flashing when a sliding door opens or closes.
Fresh exterior styling for the 2011 Town & Country appears contemporary with crisp tailored lines etched across angular sheetmetal and a distinctive chin-forward prow with glimmering chrome-finned grille and corner-mounted quad headlamp clusters, new projector-style foglamps tucked in the lower fascia and a new design for the winged chrome badge of Chrysler.
On flanks a new streak of chrome defines the slab side doors, and at the tail the top-hinged liftgate carries new curved-back glass and a body-color spoiler, with a new liftgate scuff pad added to the bumper and bold LED lamps pinned on the rear corners.
A low platform affords minimal step-up height comparable to a sedan so it's easy to climb aboard the minivan. A sliding door on each side positioned behind a front hinged door allows easy entry for back-seat riders.
The expansive passenger compartment contains seats for up to seven passengers plus storage spots everywhere and enough room for everyone in an extended family to ride in plush comfort.
There's a new one-piece instrument panel in place with premium materials and handsome chrome-ringed gauges.
The center console is also new and an optional super console contains power outlets and storage space.
There are three tiers of seats.
The first row shows two tall captain's chairs with broad seats to fit American body sizes.
On the second row, twin buckets fold the backs forward and seats tip up to allow access to the third row.
The third row split-folding bench fits two adults or three children.
The inventive Super Stow 'n Go system allows second and third tiers of seats to fold into stow bins in the floor.
Behind the third row is adequate storage space, but the maximum cargo room with second and third tiers folded into the floor amounts to a cavernous 143.8 cubic feet.
Base trim Town & Country Touring stocks standard equipment like air conditioning with triple-zone automatic climate controls, a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, cloth upholstery with eight-way power for the driver's seat, power controls for windows and door locks and mirrors, power sliding side doors, power rear liftgate, a trip computer and cruise control, auto-dimming rearview mirror, rain-sensing wipers, 115-volt power outlet, a roof rack and a six-speaker audio kit with AM/FM/CD/MP3, 6.5-inch touchscreen and a 30-gb hard drive for music storage.
Optional packages include a Driver's Convenience Group, three different Entertainment Group choices, Mopar Exterior Appearance Group, Passenger's Convenience Group, Security Group and Trailer Tow Prep Group.
Chrysler sets MSRP numbers for the redesigned 2011 Town & Country upward from $30,170 for the base Touring trim.