Let's say you buy into the idea that a minivan is the ideal vehicle for you. And let's say you want one with all the bells and whistles. The list of potential vehicles would be small. The all-wheel-drive Toyota Previa and Mazda MPV All-Sport would be on it, as well as one or two others. But few come as well-equipped as Chrysler's Town & Country LXi - a vehicle that can lay claim to being the ultimate minivan. From its richly appointed leather interior to its all-wheel-drive system, the Town & Country has it all. PERFORMANCE, HANDLING The Town & Country's standard engine is a 12-valve, 3.3-liter V-6 that is rated at 158 horsepower. But when you order the LXi package, you not only get a bigger motor, you also get all-wheel-drive, traction control and four-wheel disc brakes. The LXi's 12-valve, 3.8-liter V-6 develops 166 horsepower. It offers decent performance despite having to propel a 3,900-pound vehicle. Chrysler engineers have done an admirable job tuning out engine noise. However, there still is room for improvement. The engine can be noisy, and it could use more horsepower. When you accelerate quickly, you'll hear the engine winding up. Although it is not short on power, the Town & Country would be even a better vehicle with a few more nags under the hood. Chrysler is introducing a new 200-horsepower, multi-valve, double overhead-cam V-6 engine in the 1998 model year in its Chrysler Concorde and Dodge Intrepid sedans. This new engine would be perfect for the Town & Country. The four-speed automatic transmission is an excellent gearbox, providing nearly seamless shifts. When shifting from park to drive, you hardly can feel the transmission change into gear. The all-wheel-drive system always is engaged, and torque is split evenly between the front and rear wheels. The system produces no noticeable noise. That refinement also carries over to the suspension system, which does a superb job of delivering a ride that is smooth, quiet and stable. Smoothness is one of the benefits of a heavy vehicle. The Town & Country rides more like a limousine than a minivan. The strut-type front suspension and rear beam axle setup absorb most bumps with ease. The T & C's four-wheel disc brakes were mildly disappointing. I like to feel a vehicle slow down quickly when I step on the brake pedal. But the van's brakes didn't seem to grab hard until I applied a lot of pressure to the pedal. I found the van easy to maneuver into parking spaces and when making U-turns. The power-steering system has an evenly weighted feel, and it responds crisply. The van can turn a circle in 39.5 feet, which is about average. Fuel economy over 435 miles averaged about 19 mpg in combined city highway driving. FIT AND FINISH TheTown & Country sets the standard for luxury minivans. I've never tested another minivan so loaded with features. Just look at the standard feature s our dark blue test vehicle had: Front and rear air conditioners and heaters; dual zone controls for the front passengers. AM/FM cassette CD player. Power memory seats. Radio-controlled door locks. Power mirrors and windows. Cruise control. Trip computer. Leather seats. Dual sliding doors. And that only scratches the surface. I found the van to be comfortable, well built and easy to use. The gray leather seats were superb, offering ample lower back support. I took one three-hour trip in the T & C and felt no fatigue. The removable rear seats also are comfortable. There's plenty of space between the two rows of seats, enabling passengers to move easily about the cabin. Chrysler engineers have made it easy to remove the rear seats - just pull up on a lever and lift the seats from their tracks. Built-in wheels allow the seats to be rolled into a garage. However, the seats are heavy, and removing them is a two-person job. The e's enough room behind the third-row seat to store at least two golf bags. Up front, the controls for the front air conditioner - two rotary knobs that control the speed and direction of the air flow and two sliding levers for the temperature - make a complex system easy to use. Those controls and the radio are located in the center of the dash, about an arm's length away from the steering wheel. Just beneath the radio Chrysler has installed a pull-out cupholder, and below that, a tray opens up that holds small items, such as tapes, CDs sunglasses and keys. Cruise control buttons are on the steering wheel, so you need not take you eyes off the road once you memorize the layout. Chrysler has the best sliding doors in the business. All it takes is a slight nudge and the doors slide smoothly on their tracks and close all the way. The dual sliding doors make getting in and out very easy. The $34,000 price tag is high for a minivan. But I think that the Town & Country is more than just a minivan; to me, it's a seven passenger limousine. The price has not been much of a deterrent. Sales of the Town & Country have shot through the roof since Chrysler rolled out its new generation of minivans two years ago. Fewer than 3,000 Town & Countrys were sold in 1994. In 1997, Chrysler is on track to sell about 50,000. Specifications: Base price: $31,465. Safety: Dual air bags, traction control, anti-lock brakes, side-impact protection. Price as tested: $34,520. EPA rating: 17 mpg city/24 mpg highway. Incentives: $595. Truett's tip: The luxuriously appointed Town & Country LXi could easily function as a limousine. Big, roomy and nicely styled, Chrysler's top-of-the-line minivan is a delight to drive.
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