CARSLBAD, Calif. - Chrysler has squared up. But that's a good thing.
The automaker has dumped the jellybean shape of minivans which it pioneered and moved to straight lines and perpendicular angles that have created a squared silhouette for its 2008 all new minivans. But most important is that the new design cues create more interior space.
However, Chrysler's new minivans are anything but square in the lame sense of the word. We spent the better part of two- days driving models of the Chrysler Town & Country and the Dodge Caravan in Southern California and the only real quibble we had with the motoring characteristics of the vehicles is that all three engines seemed loud to us under hard acceleration.
It handled well on the two lane roads through mountainous terrain here. And during a day- long trip to Los Angeles, our minivan handled the clogged lanes and high speeds of the I- 405 and the heavy street traffic of Gardena, Inglewood and the Wilshire District well. But we'll reserve our opinions on its driving characteristics until we can get a test vehicle on urban streets and in the parking lots for a week.
Still, when it comes to minivans it's about functionality, build quality, durability and features. The only vehicle where these attribute might come more into play is a working pickup truck.
Chrysler plans to increase its already segment leading share of the minivan market now that Ford and General Motors have bowed out and offerings from Honda and Toyota have grown long in the tooth. And Chrysler has created a lineup of minivans that are more than capable of doing the job. As one of our colleagues said, Chrysler has raised the bar considerably when it comes to the attributes of a minivan.
First, there are two nameplates, the Dodge Caravan and the Chrysler Town & Country that account for five different models - two for Dodge and three for Chrysler. That's a total of five models that can be equipped with either of three different V6 engines with horsepower ratings of 175 horsepower, 197 horsepower and 251 horsepower. The engines can be mated to either a four- speed automatic transmission or a first ever in this segment six- speed gear box that is reserved for the largest two power plants.
We drove four of the five models and found them comfortable and spacious. The interior materials were good, fit & finish was tight and the instrument lay out had that much needed ambience of quality that can envelop an entire vehicle.
Build combinations have been reduced from the 11,000 variants of the last generation. Still, consumers can choose from 1,300 variations of Chrysler minivans. There's simply too much equipment to cover in this space so we'll try to stick to several of the most significant improvements.
Seating is awesome. There are three different configurations but the most significant is Swivel n Go. The second row seat can be turned to face the third row. There's a small table that creates a room- like atmosphere. Also, the third row of Chrysler minivans can be outfitted with power seats that fold flat into the floor. And even with the third row deployed, there is plenty of room behind it for storage.
Most significant in the entertainment category is that Chrysler minivans can be equipped with satellite TV that has three channels. The feature kept a really rambunctious one- year old quiet. DVD screens for the second and third rows can play separate movies and the front- seat navigation screen can also play a film when the vehicle is parked.
Thoughtful conveniences abound. They include a conversational mirror that lets the driver keep an eye on passengers in the backseat, a spacious dual glove box and a center console that has cup holders and multiple storage compartments. It can also slide 21- inches rearward to serve second row passengers, or it can be removed entirely.
A premium audio system is powered by 506 watts and the minivans have an optional 20 gigabyte hard drive that can hold multiple movies or 1,200 songs.
Each of the five models has more equipment than the model it replaces but prices has been reduced. Stickers range from $22,470 for a Dodge Grand Caravan to $36,400 for a Chrysler Town & Country Limited.
As was said, Chrysler sells more minivans than anybody else. Now, it has an all- new minivan that promises to boost sales even more. The Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Caravan are in dealer showrooms now.