The gold standard in minivans. by Ray Thursby
It goes almost without saying that the world of minivans is Chrysler's turf. Since 1984, the company has been building -- and the public has been buying -- the vans other manufacturers love to emulate. Whether sold with Plymouth (Voyager), Dodge (Caravan) or Chrysler (Town & Country) badges, these not-so-boxy boxes have set industry standards for value, comfort and space utilization. Now, thanks to last year's total makeover, they set the standard in style as well.
Style is important here. These are family machines, vehicles that have replaced sedans in many households. Whether taking the kids to school, providing vacation transport or going out for an evening on the town, they are expected to look right. And they do.
As you'd expect, Chrysler's discovery of a new and profitable market didn't go unnoticed. Since the mid-1980s, Ford has jumped into the fray with its Aerostar and Windstar minis, GM offers its rear-drive Astro and Safari, plus its plastic-skinned vans with Chevrolet, Pontiac and Oldsmobile labels, and imports such as the Toyota Previa, Nissan Quest/Mercury Villager and Mazda MPV have joined in.
Among the contenders, Windstar comes closest to matching the Chrysler trio. In some subjective areas, this challenger has shown the veteran a few new tricks. GM has lagged behind, but will rectify that in 1997 when a trio of all-new, steel-bodied minivans comes to market.
But despite all the competition, Chrysler continues to lead the way in both style and sales.
Though our test drive centered on the Town & Country, Caravan and Voyager are identical in structure, similar in powertrain and equipment. Differences will be noted, but most subjective evaluations apply to all three. If you like the T&C, but want to save a few bucks, you'll almost certainly be happy with Caravan and Voyager.
It's impossible not to appreciate the way Chrysler designers have blended style and utility. At heart, the T&C is a box meant to carry seven people and/or a lot of goods efficiently and, its reason for being, in luxury. That it is attractive, as well, is a bonus.
The front-end treatment is especially handsome. The low, sloping nose, combined with low cowl height, is of great benefit in maneuverability, and reduces aerodynamic drag. T&C is elegant, with a shiny plated grille flanked by rounded headlamps. The grille is a damage-resistant thermoplastic molding. The Dodge version's air intake has simple horizontal slats, while Plymouth has a good-looking eggcrate grille.
From the side, all three share a sleek, rounded profile. Differences are confined to minor lower bodyside details. Rear views are likewise the same except for badging.
One standout feature is a left-side sliding rear door, an option that seems to have taken the minivan market by storm. It joins the existing wide front doors, right-side slider, and large tailgate in providing unhindered access to the interior.
Between the three nameplates, Chrysler offers some 15 varieties of trim, wheelbase and overall length and drive systems, plus four engines and three transmissions among the three nameplates. Leaving powertrains aside for the moment, the most important is length: All three are available with either a 113.3- or 119.3-inch wheelbase; overall length increases by 13.3 inches with the longer wheelbase. The longer van's advantage is real, as the extra space is devoted to passenger and load area.
The Inside Story
This is what minivans are all about: space, space, and more space. Six passengers are treated like royalty in the Chrysler minis, and a seventh can be accommodated with minimal discomfort. Even better, the wide portals make getting in and out a snap.
Style doesn't stop with the exterior. Every surface has been sculpted to give the interior a fresh, modern look. And it's efficient; control placement is superb, with every button and switch set exactly where it should be. In the large center console, climate controls are simple and easy to use, radio buttons are slightly more complex and fiddly, but good nonetheless.
Our Town & Country tester was also leather-lined and had the top sound system the company offers, including a CD player.
In addition to comfort, these vans are well conceived to keep their drivers happy, too. A high seating position and low cowl set up a near-perfect driving position, and instruments are clearly marked.
There's storage space everywhere, with little bins, map pockets, cubbies and cupholders all strategically placed. In a word, the Chrysler minivan cabins are friendly.
Seat options give owners plenty of latitude to configure the T&C for optimum use. The front seats are always buckets, but the center position can be filled with either a pair of captain's chairs or a wide bench. The rear seat is always a bench-type. When the center bench is installed, its back folds rearward to make a bed-like surface; when either center bench or buckets are folded forward, their backs form a table top, complete with cupholders.
Center and rear seats are easily removable, the center(s) by unlatching and sliding out the side door, rear by unlatching and rolling -- on built-in rollers -- out the tailgate. When they're gone, there's 167 cubic feet of carrying space available.
All three Chrysler minivan brands also offer the option of a pair of integrated child safety seats.
Between them, the three Chrysler minis run the gamut from basic to lavish, which is where the Town & Country fits in. The T&C carries a full load of standard equipment, almost all of which can be applied to Caravan or Voyager. You'll pay extra for air conditioning, an uplevel sound system (three are available), child seats (short-wheelbase models only) or the various power assists, upholstery upgrades and other T&C niceties when choosing Caravan or Voyager, but they are available, as is a handy roof rack that adds even more storage capacity.
Ride & Drive
In essence, the Chrysler minivans drive, ride and handle like passenger cars. Good ones, at that. We found the Town & Country's suspension soft but well-controlled, its power steering precise, and its brakes -- with standard ABS regardless of model -- bring it to a safe halt with no fuss.
There's some body roll when the road starts getting twisty, but nothing out of the ordinary for a minivan. In fact, we think the handling of these vans is just about the best in the category. And on certain models a heavy-duty suspension reduces roll without much degradation of ride quality.
We were also impressed by the near-absence of road and wind noise inside our test van's elegant cabin. Chrysler's hard work with aerodynamics and sound isolation pay major dividends here. The only other minivan that comes close to this level of quiet operation is the Ford Windstar.
Engine choices are at the heart of the T&C's good road manners. All the Town & Country models are powered by one of two V-6 engines, a 158-hp 3.0-liter supplied by Mitsubishi in the basic LX version, and a 166-hp 3.8-liter that was standard in our LXi tester. Both are good, with a slight edge in performance, smoothness and load-hauling capability going to the larger unit.
Caravan and Voyager have standard four-cylinder powerplants. Though improved over the previous four-cylinder engine, these are a bit noisier, less able to cope with full loads or hills, and in base form are saddled with a three-speed automatic transmission.
It's also worth noting that the all-wheel drive system available on long-wheelbase versions of these vans is not for off-road use, but adds an extra dimension of security during bad-weather driving. This is a full-time system that is totally transparent to the driver.
Chrysler has worked hard to maintain its preeminent position in the minivan market. Buyers benefit from the effort, getting a stylish people mover that's sensibly priced, long on comfort and short on faults.
If any complaint can be made, it's in the area of build quality. We've sampled an number of Chrysler minis from all three divisions; some have displayed minor glitches -- especially in the area of the new left-side sliding door -- that would probably send owners into the dealership for a fix.
That aside (and it won't apply to each individual van) the Chryslers are, along with Ford's Windstar, the class of the field, and the Town & Country is the poshest people mover of them all. Check out both Ford and Chrysler; between them, one probably has your minivan. And if high fashion is a priority, the Town & Country is tough to top.
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© 1996 New Car Test Drive, Inc.