by Kevin Ransom
A roomy minivan with luxury-car comforts.
Base Price $32,190
As Tested $32,190
Most minivan makers worry how they can distinguish themselves from the pack. But the Chrysler Town & Country solved that problem by inventing a category all its own: the luxury minivan.
It's no stretch to say that the Town & Country leads the pack when it comes to styling, comfort, spaciousness and quality. Indeed, the Town & Country offers so many refinements, and coddles the driver with so many amenities, that it can go toe to toe with many luxury sedans. It even rides like a car.
This year, Chrysler has raised the bar again by adding the high-end Limited to a Town & Country stable that already included the SX and the plush LX and LXi.
One of the ways Chrysler stays a step ahead of the competition is by offering varying configurations to suit different types of buyers. The company gives buyers a choice among three nameplates -- Chrysler Town & Country, Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan. Each comes in short- and long-wheelbase versions, and in several different trim levels. Front-wheel drive is standard on the Town & Country, but it can be ordered with all-wheel drive, a definite plus in the snow belt.
By offering a long list of luxury-line features, the Chrysler Town & Country is the only true luxury minivan. And the new Limited offers, as standard equipment, further luxury-line comforts, like leather seats with suede accents, a rear bench seat with center armrests and steering wheel-mounted audio controls.
A cargo net was added between the front seats of the LX and LXi this year that's handy for keeping purses, a small bag of groceries or other odds and ends from sliding around.
Four models are available: the $27,965 SX, the $28,240 LX, the $32,190 LXi and the $34,335 Limited. (All prices include the $580 destination charge.)
By comparison, Ford Windstar SEL is priced at around $31,000; the Volkswagen Eurovan MV is priced at around $32,000, the Toyota Sienna LXE is about $28,000 and the new Honda Odyssey EX is just over $26,000.
Two engines are available: A 3.3-liter V6 is standard on the SX and LX, while a 3.8-liter V6 is optional on the SX and LX and standard on the LXi and Limited. Four-speed automatic transmissions are standard on all models. All-wheel drive is optional on the LX, LXi and Limited; it's a $3175 premium on the LX.
The SX rides on a shorter wheelbase, (113.3 inches) than the LX, LXI and Limited (119.3 inches). It's also shorter from bumper to bumper-186.4 inches, compared to 199.7 for the big boys. The long-wheelbase models are about 125 pounds heavier than the SX, and the optional all-wheel-drive system adds an extra 300 pounds to the load.
We tested a front-wheel-drive LXi. It presents a sporty visage that is both elegant and slightly imposing. A steeply raked windshield blends into the sloping hood, finished with a sweeping grille and winged Chrysler badge. Rounded corners, sculpted body panels and understated side moldings add to the image, particularly in dark colors.
A base price of more than $32,000 may sound steep, but the LXi comes with a high level of standard equipment: anti-lock brakes, traction control, dual-zone air conditioning, power windows and door locks, cruise control, power eight-way front seats with memory, easy-out rear seats with rollers, adjustable driver's-seat lumbar support, leather-wrapped tilt steering wheel, keyless entry, overhead console trip computer, power garage door opener, illuminated visor vanity mirrors, rearview mirror with automatic day-night feature, AM/FM/cassette/CD stereo with equalizer, extra sound insulation and 16-inch gold wheel covers.
Side-door beams and dual airbags are standard and the driver gets a Next-generation airbag designed to deploy less forcefully in an accident. An accident response system unlocks the doors and turns on the interior lights whenever an airbag deploys. A reclining child seat was added to the middle-row bucket seat this year.
The Inside Story
Sliding doors on both sides make getting in and out of the Town & Country a breeze. It sure beats walking around to the passenger side to get a toddler out.
LXi comes with heated leather front seats, which are an option on the SX and LX.
For smaller loads, the seat backs can also be folded down -- affording enough room for the proverbial sheet of plywood. The back seats can be removed for big loads. The center-row bucket seats can be quickly unlatched and pulled through the sliding side doors. A solid yank on a lever pops the third-row bench seat up onto a set of wheels, allowing it to be rolled backwards and removed via the tailgate. These seats are heavy, however, so it still takes two people to lift them out and store in your garage.
The front seats are comfortable and supportive and provide a panoramic view of the road ahead. There's plenty of head room and leg room, whether you're in the front seats or the second-row seats. Getting into the back seats is easy and they provide good comfort for adults. The rear bench can seat two adults or three children.
When you're spending $32,000-plus for a minivan, storage space isn't the most important factor, but it's still nice to know that the long-wheelbase Town & Country-along with its cousins, the Plymouth Grand Voyager and Dodge Grand Caravan-continue to offer more cargo space (168.4 cubic feet) than any other minivan on the market except for the Volkswagen Eurovan, which holds 187 cubic feet. GM's extended minivan family-the Chevrolet Venture, Oldsmobile Silhouette and Pontiac Montana-hold 156 cubic feet.
Ride & Drive
When Chrysler overhauled its minivans in 1996, it took great care to retune the suspension to ensure a sedan-like ride. At the same time, they increased the torsional rigidity by 50 percent. That translates into greater stability, which is always a plus in a tall vehicle. Driving our Town & Country hard around an on-ramp, we discovered that the more rigid suspension ensured that the vehicle felt firmly planted. The same was true during sharper, low-speed cornering maneuvers.
Our confidence was bolstered by the Town & Country's rack & pinion power steering, which was responsive in quick lane-change maneuvers.
Last year, Chrysler's engineers addressed the road-noise issue that was once a problem with many minivans, and their noise-abatement efforts produced a ride that is not only quieter than most minivans-it's also as quiet as many family sedans.
Our LXi test model was powered by the 3.8-liter V6, which produces 180 horsepower at 4400 rpm and 240 foot-pounds of torque at 3200 rpm. The 3.8-liter engine is the biggest offered in Chrylser's minivan line and it's definitely our favorite. The smaller 3.3-liter engine, which puts out 158 horses at 4850 rpm and 203 foot pounds of torque @ 3250 rpm, delivers sufficient power for the smaller and lighter SX, but we recommend the 3.8-liter engine for the longer, heavier LX, LXi and Limited models.
We found the 3.8-liter engine packed more than enough thrust when accelerating off the line. The extra power was appreciated in freeway-merging situations. Once on the freeway, the 3.8-liter plant definitely filled the bill when we wanted punch to pass a semi-trailer.
Brakes are a special concern in larger vehicles that may be carrying a heavy load-or a half-dozen kids. The Town & Country's brakes quiet such concerns by bringing the vehicle to a confident, controlled stop, with no grabbing or fading.
If your lifestyle requires the roominess of a minivan, you'll find many fine entries in the market -- Plymouth Voyager, Dodge Caravan, Toyota Sienna, Honda Odyssey, Mazda MPV, Mercury Villager, Nissan Quest and the GM minivans. But if you like to be pampered by luxury amenities -- and are comfortable with a $32,000 price tag -- the Town & Country is probably the minivan for you.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.