Town & Country gets fresh ideas

It's a major design challenge: Take the rectangular box we've come to know as the minivan and come up with a way to set it apart from all of the other rectangular boxes on the road. With these vehicles, thinking outside the box isn't an option.

Over the years, manufacturers have done their best to mask the basic boxy interior shape, sloping the nose and windshield, rounding the corners, bulging the rear door and sides.

They've added DVD players, endless seating arrangements, removable center consoles, all-wheel drive, and virtually everything found on other models.

About the only approach not taken -- so far -- is the high-performance road.

Still, let's face it: A box is a box is a box. Park a half-dozen different brands of minivans in a row without any nameplates and most of us would be hard-pressed to tell one from the other.

Finding a way to stand out from the crowd is vital for all manufacturers -- but nowhere more so than at Chrysler, which launched the genre in 1983, advertising the new vehicle as a "magic wagon."

The company immediately reaped the rewards of being first to discover a new segment of the auto market as the minivan rapidly replaced the family station wagon.

Chrysler has sold 10 million of the now ubiquitous vehicles over the past 20 years. It outsells its rivals at Ford and GM by 2 to 1, and the highly rated Honda Odyssey 3 to 1. Chrysler holds a 38 percent market share of the roughly 1.5 million minivans sold each year.

Friend Ed Manning just turned in his 1985 "first generation" Voyager for a new Caravan. Ditto old friends Dave and Susan Hamilton. Big families? Hardly. Both are empty-nesters who treasure their minivans for their versatility and predictability. Dave Montani, a Revere High School teacher who does some house painting on the side, is yet another who swears by the Chrysler minivans, either carrying his kids or his equipment.

Our driveway looked like a minivan convention last week. The Hamiltons stopped by to show off their new Caravan (their fourth). Montani was loading his paint supplies behind the third seat and had a ladder strapped to the roof.

And all were admiring the 2005 Town & Country Limited that the folks at Chrysler were showing off with its fold-flat "Stow 'n Go" second- and third-row seating.

One of the challenges facing van owners is juggling seats to accommodate various tasks. As anyone who has removed bench seats from a van quickly learns, they're heavy, sometimes too much for a single person to handle. Thus, we've had any number of folding solutions, but no way to fold both second- and third-row seats into the floor until now.

It takes a bit of practice, and I can't accomplish Chrysler's claim of being able to fold the second-row bucket seats into the floor behind the front seats and the third-row 60/40 split bench totally flat within 30 seconds -- with one hand tied behind my back. A nice touch: You don't have to struggle with removing headrests before stowing seats, just push them all the way down. A nicer touch: The third seat does stow in a couple of seconds. Chrysler offers four versions of its Town & Country, three with Stow 'n Go.

Usually an auto review focuses on handling and performance. Well, this minivan isn't much different from others we've tested. Chrysler's minivans are noted for their predictable, car-like handling; attractive styling; competent drivetrains; and a slightly below-average reliability rating from Consumer Reports. Chrysler addresses that head-on with a seven-year, 70,000-mile warranty.

This year, Chrysler has added three adjustable/movable storage bins on overhead roof rails, along with rear temperature controls. The rails also accommodate the optional DVD screen.

So the more things stay the same, the more they change. Chrysler has found a clever way to think "within" the box and freshen the product without a total redesign.

Nice touches: The rear parking assist uses a combination of audio warnings and an overhead series of yellow-to-red lights. And the outboard cup holders on second-row buckets automatically store themselves if you forget when stowing the seats under the floor.

Annoyance: The learning curve for the top-of-the-line radio/CD/navigation unit.

Watch for: Chrysler has pushed the design envelope in a competitive market segment in which the little things can sell a vehicle. Look for other manufacturers to follow suit in the fold-flat second-row seating. 2005 Chrysler Town & Country MSRP base price: $35,750
Horsepower: 215
Torque: 245 lb.-ft.
Wheelbase: 119.3 inches
Overall length: 200.5 inches
Width: 78.6 inches
Height: 68.8 inches
Curb weight: 4,372 lbs.
Seating: 7 passengers
Fuel economy: 19.2 MPG (Globe)