Buying a minivan is a little like eating high-fiber cereal: There may be tastier choices out there — crossover SUVs, cinnamon-swirl clusters — but, boy, does this one get the job done.
Chrysler’s redesigned Town & Country drives the point home. The cabin is hit and miss, and a lot of the features could be better executed, but it’s bound to fit the bill precisely for certain buyers. Few competitors — even minivans — can match Chrysler’s combination of cargo versatility, safety features and kid-friendly options. It’s the All-Bran of cars: If you need it, you know who you are.
The seven-seat Town & Country comes in three trim levels: LX, Touring and Limited. Dodge markets a twin in the redesigned 2008 Grand Caravan. I drove the Town & Country Touring and Limited versions.
After two generations featuring trendier sheet metal, the new Chrysler Town & Country revisits an old formula: upright windshield, blocky headlights, no-nonsense tail — much like the 1984 original. I suspect the styling will go over well with minivan traditionalists; they want utility, and Chrysler doesn’t try to imagine otherwise. (Note the Honda Odyssey, which embraces similarly unhip styling to the tune of relative sales success.) In contrast, risk-taking competitors like the Nissan Quest and GM’s recent SUV-themed minivans have proved less popular.
The Chrysler Town & Country LX looks the part of a base model, with 16-inch wheel covers and black door handles and side mirrors. Touring models add body-colored moldings, fog lights and 16-inch alloy wheels. Limited models get chrome moldings and 17-inch wheels.
Like most minivans, the Town & Country has optional power sliding doors and a power tailgate. They worked as advertised, and the motors don’t resist if kids want to open or close a door manually. Nice.
Most minivans offer just one engine, but Chrysler has three to choose from. A 175-horsepower, 3.3-liter V-6 powers the Town & Country LX. The Touring gets a 197-hp, 3.8-L V6, while the Limited has a 251-hp, 4.0 L V6. Both uplevel engines have six-speed automatic transmissions. I didn’t get a chance to drive the base 3.3-liter V-6, but it comes with a four-speed automatic — a weak combination for a two-ton minivan, so if you’re considering an LX, make sure to test it on inclines and in the passing lane.
The 3.8-L V6 hustles the minivan along when needed, but it can run out of steam on the highway, especially if you’re gunning for the passing lane. The six-speed automatic is unobtrusive around town. It loses its cool under hard acceleration, though, with harsh downshifts and occasional gear hunting.
Chrysler’s 4.0-liter V-6 is potent — the marketers ought to brand it Hemi Lite. It impresses me whenever I drive a car with it, and this is no exception. The engine imbues the Town & Country with confidence at any speed, and it has a muscular snarl in situations where the 3.8-L V6 starts wheezing. Lead-footed parents, consider yourselves tempted.
Gas mileage with the 3.8- and 4.0-liter engines is 16/23 (city/highway), while the 3.3-liter engine is rated at 17/24. Those figures are comparable with competing minivans. The 3.3-liter engine can also run on ethanol-based E85.
The steering wheel feels slightly heavier (meaning there’s less power assist) than most minivan and SUV drivers will expect. It’s by no means overly stiff, and it delivers a natural, well-weighted feel at higher speeds. I came to appreciate the Town & Country’s sightlines while in parking lots; the narrow A-pillars rarely blocked anything from view. The hood is stubby and the front corners are easy to get a sense for, taking a lot of the uncertainty out of parking. Optional rear proximity sensors or a backup camera can make things even easier.
Suspension tuning is the same for all trim levels. The rear employs a low-tech, non-independent twist-beam axle rather than the fully-independent setup most competitors use, and it shows. Potholes and speed bumps have an unnerving effect, with too much rebound in the wheels and a lot of flexing and creaking in the cabin. On the highway, the Town & Country regains its composure, though one Cars.com editor still found the ride unacceptably harsh. Curiously, the suspension delivers little body roll for a minivan. It won’t carve corners, but neither does it suffer top-heavy tipsiness at every turn.
Four-wheel-disc antilock brakes are standard. The pedal feels spongy and elicits plenty of forward suspension dive, which is typical for a minivan.
The dashboard does away with the previous generation’s wraparound construction, adopting a multi-tiered design that incorporates more storage areas. A large column in the center houses audio and climate controls; it looks ungainly but does the trick, affording a high line of sight for the radio display or optional navigation system. Three-zone automatic climate control — once a novelty, now widespread — is optional. The controls are neatly divided into two rows, one for front-seat temperatures and the other for the rear, but they lack the high-quality finish that competitors like the Odyssey have refined.
The interior quality is better than Chrysler’s usual fare, but the automaker still has some ground to make up. The window switches feel luxo-European, and the faux wood and metal inlays are respectably subdued. There’s an endless array of cheap plastic panels, though, and in many places they look downright tacky. A lot of minivans and SUVs have done away with soft-touch materials — perhaps they aren’t as important to their buyers — but the better ones at least manage to make the harder surfaces appear expensive.
The gearshift sits high on the dash between the gauges and the center controls; it’s presumably intended as an elegant alternative to a column shifter, which some minivans still employ, but in practice it feels no less clunky. Options for rear passengers include heated second-row seats, rear A/C, power second-row windows and sunshades for the second- and third-row windows. The visors unfurl from the window sills and clip in at the top; they’re nice to have, but I question whether the tiny plastic hooks will survive repeated thrashings from kids.
The front seats afford a high driving position, and the power driver’s seat in the Touring and Limited has plenty of height-adjustment range. Power-adjustable pedals help with the accommodations, though I’d like to see a telescoping steering wheel; this one only tilts.
Headroom and legroom up front is excellent, and the second row is nearly as good. Most models have captain’s chairs with either Chrysler’s Stow ‘n Go or Swivel ‘n Go feature. I tested both. Stow ‘n Go, which debuted in the previous Town & Country, includes collapsible captain’s chairs that fold into compartments under the floor behind the first-row seats. The feature offers the reward of removable seats — an empty cabin with maximum cargo capacity — without the hassle of removing the seats. When the seats are raised, the floor compartments can accommodate a fair amount of cargo.
Contrary to what you might assume, Stow ‘n Go is hardly a win-win situation. In order to collapse into a small space, the captain’s chairs are meagerly cushioned and come up short on long-haul comfort, and the segmented doors over the storage compartments don’t open enough to fit the collapsible seats without first scooting the front seats forward.
I found the optional Swivel ‘n Go seats more agreeable. The captain’s chairs swivel 180 degrees to face the third row, and a removable plastic table installs in the center. It seems sturdy enough to survive its share of board games and homework assignments. The floor compartments behind the front seats can hold the disassembled table or other cargo. The swiveling seats have integrated seat belts for riding backward, if you (or your kids) can stomach it.
With Swivel ‘n Go, the seatbacks fold down but not completely into the floor like the Stow ‘n Go seats do. As a result, they’re amply padded and much more comfortable. They’re also much heavier, because the seat belts are built into the chair, so be careful if you plan to take them out at some point. The seats don’t recline more than about 30 degrees, so you won’t be able to lie down for a parking-lot snooze, as you could with the fully reclining Stow ‘n Go seats. Also, when the seats are in the reverse position, it’s a tight squeeze to get past the sliding doors and into the third row.
The third row feels significantly smaller than those of competing minivans — with Stow ‘n Go chairs in the Chrysler Town & Country, legroom in back is just 31.8 inches, trailing the Sienna and Odyssey by 7.7 and 9.3 inches, respectively. Chrysler estimates third-row legroom is the same with Swivel ‘n Go. I found the space tolerable for short trips, but for anything longer you’ll want to make it a kid-only zone.
Every trim level includes a Stow ‘n Go third row, which folds into the floor in a 60/40 split. A power-folding third row is optional. It folds with the press of a button near the cargo opening and can also convert into a rearward-facing chair for tailgating. My Touring test car came with the feature. The seat operated laboriously from the beginning, then a few days into the loan I powered it down with the DVD player’s remote control stuck between the cushions, and the folding operation conked out for two days. By the week’s end it was back up and running again, along with the squeaks and rattles it began the week with. Best to keep kids — and probably meddlesome journalists — away from those buttons.
Base LX models have a removable second-row bench seat (Hernia ‘n Go?) and under-floor cargo storage wells. Cargo room behind the third row totals 32.3 cubic feet; maximum room in the LX and Touring is 143.8 cubic feet with the second row removed or stowed. The Limited has a standard overhead console, which shrinks maximum cargo room to 140.1 cubic feet. Here’s how the figures compare:
|2008 Toyota Sienna
|2007 Honda Odyssey
|2008 Nissan Quest
|2008 Chrysler Town & Country
|2008 Hyundai Entourage
Like most minivans, the Town & Country has no shortage of nooks and crannies. The glove box includes two separate compartments that Chrysler says combine to offer the most glove-box volume in the segment. An optional removable center console between the front seats includes four cupholders and two compartments, including one large enough to stow a small purse. The console can slide backward up to 21 inches, which puts drinks or other items within easy reach for anyone in the second row. The optional overhead console runs the length of the cabin and includes four flip-down storage cubbies.
Audio systems range from a four-speaker CD stereo to a 10-speaker, 506-watt surround-sound stereo. All stereos include an auxiliary MP3 jack. Chrysler’s MyGIG infotainment system is standard on the Limited and optional elsewhere; it incorporates a hard drive that can store up to 1,200 songs accessed through the USB port or ripped from a CD. (A 4GB iPod Nano stores around 1,000 songs.) While the songs are downloading, you can listen to the radio or another album in the six-CD changer. The system also holds pictures and addresses — a seemingly extraneous feature, given that tech-savvy parents probably have such information on their Blackberrys or iPhones.
The MyGIG display can also include an optional navigation system with real-time traffic monitoring, which I had a chance to use in the Limited. I wish the screen were bigger. The resolution is excellent, but there’s a lot of information crammed onto the 6.5-inch display. It’s especially tight compared to the Quest (7 inches) and Odyssey (8 inches).
Another option is Sirius Satellite TV, which pipes live mobile feeds from Nickelodeon, Disney Channel and Cartoon Network to two 8-inch monitors that flip down from the overhead console. The first year of programming is free. Afterward, subscriptions run $7 a month, though you’ll first have to pay $12.95 a month for satellite radio. I watched more “Kim Possible” and “Hanna Montana” than I ever cared to. Picture quality is on par with streaming internet video these days: It’s a bit grainy but should keep the peanut gallery entertained.
The monitors can also be hooked into a videogame console or play DVDs, and each screen has its own feed to run separate programming. Wireless headsets relieve those up front from noise distractions, and should mom or dad want to get the kids’ attention, both screens can be turned off with a dashboard button.
As of this writing, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has not crash-tested the 2008 Town & Country. Standard safety features include side curtain airbags for all three rows, four-wheel-disc antilock brakes, traction control and an electronic stability system.
All seats have three-point seat belts and head restraints. Drivers may want to lower the third-row restraints for better blind-spot visibility, but make sure to alert passengers to raise them back up when they’re seated back there, as they offer scant protection when they’re down.
The center captain’s chairs include two Latch child-seat anchors, and one more goes in the third row. Top-tether anchors are at the base of each seatback, which is a less-convenient position than on the seatback itself. An integrated child booster seat is optional for the second row.
Without the destination charge, the Town & Country LX starts at $22,460. Standard features include power front windows, a CD stereo, air conditioning and keyless entry. Touring models ($27,700) add a bigger V-6, power rear windows, cruise control, power sliding doors, a power liftgate and a power driver’s seat. Step up to the Limited ($35,670), and you get the MyGIG system, the largest V-6, a power passenger seat, heated leather upholstery and the 10-speaker stereo. Both the Touring and Limited have Stow ‘n Go seats, and many uplevel features can be added to lower trims. Other options include a moonroof, a navigation system, backseat TV and Swivel ‘n Go seats. A fully optioned Chrysler Town & Country Limited will cost around $41,000.
For buyers with an eye for efficiency, minivans used to be a no-brainer. They rode more like cars than their SUV counterparts, and they got better gas mileage. Their lower ride height and tall ceilings made for unbeatable cargo efficiency, too. Now the SUVs have caught up some, especially in the so-called crossover segment. One example: GM’s latest crossovers seat eight, and they boast a carlike ride and gas mileage comparable to the Town & Country’s. They also have 80 percent as much cargo room. No wonder many buyers are swapping minivans for crossovers.
With its latest entrant, Chrysler has a good shot at corralling a portion of the remaining minivan faithful. The Chrysler Town & Country hits home on a lot of family-friendly features that SUVs just can’t accommodate, and people in the market for this sort of car ought to put Chrysler on their list. If you can do with a few compromises, though, you might take a hint from other shoppers: There are some good alternatives in the crossover body type field — less utility, but a lot more style.