If you think the minivan segment is DOA, think again. Essentially every minivan on sale in the U.S. has been redesigned recently, and one of the newest is the 2011 Chrysler Town & Country, a historically strong seller.
The Town & Country has had its problems, but the changes for 2011 go a long way toward fixing them, making it an appealing choice in this reinvigorated segment.
This minivan is offered in three versions — Touring, Touring-L and Limited — for 2011. All trim levels get a new V-6 engine and lots of standard safety features. I tested a Touring version, which starts at $30,160 but was $33,805 as-tested. To see how the models compare, check out a side-by-side comparison of the three trims.
The overall shape of the Town & Country hasn't changed much for 2011, but there are a number of different styling cues, some more subtle than others. If you're familiar with the van, one of the first things you'll notice is its updated nose, which features Chrysler's new slatted grille and revised lower-bumper styling. Apart from maintaining the family resemblance to the 200 and 300 sedans, the new grille just looks better than the old design. The taillights and side and rear trim are also new.
Given the utilitarian nature of minivans, their styling is unlikely to make or break them. Some competitors, like Nissan with its Quest, have tried to make unique design a minivan focal point, but it's refreshing to see a cleanly styled minivan like the Town & Country. Its designers know what it is and are all right with it.
Ride & Handling
The previous Town & Country's ride quality brought to mind a big American car from the '70s; it rode softly, with a bit of wallowing thrown in. The 2011's new suspension tuning keeps body motion better in check, but still delivers a comfort-oriented experience that families will like. It also corners surprisingly well without much body roll — even when driven on winding roads.
Complementing the suspension changes is a body structure that's notably stiffer than the outgoing van's. The previous Town & Country was a creaky beast — you could hear the body flexing when traveling on uneven pavement. It didn't say "quality" when you heard it, even if that feeling came more from perception than from reality. Perceptions matter, though, and that creakiness is gone now.
From Three V-6 Engines to One
Last year, Town & Country shoppers had a choice of three V-6 engines, but for 2011 all models are powered by a 283-horsepower, 3.6-liter V-6 that teams with a six-speed automatic transmission. This is Chrysler's new Pentastar V-6. It's used widely in the automaker's lineup, and it feels strong enough in this van. The automatic shifts smoothly, and the drivetrain gets an EPA-estimated 17/25 mpg city/highway on regular gas. The minivan also includes an Econ mode that improves gas mileage by altering the transmission's shifting behavior.
Chrysler has been routinely criticized for its subpar interior quality, and with good reason. One of the biggest issues has been blocky design and poor materials quality. Both of those problems have been remedied in the 2011 Town & Country's substantially updated cabin.
Even though the minivan's all-new dashboard is made of hard plastic, it has a nicely grained, low-gloss appearance. Overall, the new interior trim makes the van feel more luxurious than the Honda Odyssey, if not the new Nissan Quest. Considering where Chrysler interiors have been, this is a dramatic improvement.
Chrysler has updated one of its signature minivan features for 2011: Stow 'n Go second-row seats. The seats, which are standard, fold into the floor with just one touch of a lever, articulating forward and into bins in the floor. (If the bin isn't open or the front seat isn't far enough forward, the seat just flips forward to make it easier to access the third row.) Chrysler says the Stow 'n Go seats are now larger for better comfort, but you still sit pretty low to the floor in them, which limits their appeal for adult passengers. Traditional second-row bucket seats are optional.
Nearly all the 2011 Town & Country's safety features are standard. That includes antilock brakes, side-impact airbags for the front seats, side curtain airbags for all three rows, an electronic stability system, active head restraints for the front seats and power-adjustable pedals.
In addition, the Town & Country comes standard with "SafetyTec," which encompasses a number of driver aids. These include rain-sensing windshield wipers, rear parking sensors, a backup camera and a blind spot warning system. For a full list of safety features, check out the Standard Equipment & Specs page.
As of publication, the 2011 Town & Country hadn't been crash-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Town & Country in the Market
The Town & Country finished last year as the best-selling minivan in the U.S., and many of those sales were of the outgoing version; the 2011 Town & Country didn't reach dealerships until late in the year.
With its updates for 2011, the Town & Country is well-positioned to keep its title in the segment despite revised competition from Nissan, Honda and Toyota. What will be interesting to see is whether these new minivans foreshadow a growth in the minivan segment relative to the rest of the market. With a post-recession citizenry focused on more practical purchases, the time might be ripe for such a shift.
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