Much has been made about the decline in popularity of the minivan. With the proliferation of crossovers and SUV-lights, one might think that the mommy-box market was tanking. After all, GM and Ford bailed on the segment, so it must not be viable, right? Wrong. The reality is that while the minivan market has shrunk some, with over a million annual sales it's still a big sand box with room for perennial leader Chrysler to duke it out with its remaining competitors from Asia and Germany.
Introduced at the 2007 Detroit Auto Show, the 2008 Chrysler Town & Country is more squared-off styling represents an edgy departure from the Clorox bottle shape of the previous generation. Particularly from the rear, the van's boxy design looks as if it were artfully drawn with a rafter square.
The angular look continues inside (check out our high-res Chrysler Town & Country pics), but crafted curves purposefully break up the linearity. With recognition that minivan interiors endure an interminable life with children, hard plastics are used for most every surface that isn't carpeted. Softer materials might initially satiate adults, but would probably not stand the test of time with kids who instinctively possess the ability affect Newton's Third Law of Thermodynamics (increasing disorder) on four-wheeled interiors. Designers tastefully added touches of chrome and brushed metal to areas that matter; the tall center stack, instrumentation, and door handles. Overall, the space might not be overtly luxurious, but it should maintain its modest good looks for years.
Chrysler's 3.8-liter V-6 powers the Town & Country Touring model we tested. Two other V-6s propel the trim levels that bracket the Touring; the 3.3-liter on the LX and the 4.0-liter on the Limited. Our van's powertrain included a six-speed automatic, and the combination provided more than adequate performance for this class of vehicle. With 197 horses, power was never lacking around town or on interstates.
Surprisingly quiet at highway speeds, the engine sounded rather raucous when the throttle blades opened wide. Unlike some competitive engines that emit a powerful but muted growl when poked, the 3.8-liter was aurally unrefined. Likewise, the six-speed shifted smoothly under most circumstances, but lost its buttery feel when rushed. Of course, this is a minivan and not a BMW sedan.
Outfitted with the 3.8-liter/six-speed, the Town & Country is said to deliver mileage of 16 city/23 highway. With its 20-gallon fuel tank, one could reasonably expect to cover over 400 miles between fill ups. We found no reason to doubt this estimate.
Composed and confident
The 2008 Town & Country benefits from a stiffer unibody than previous Chrysler minivans, and the improved structure shows in two key areas. First, the interior is quiet. Inside, panels and seats stay right where they should regardless of the road surface, so rattles, buzzes, and squeaks are very infrequent occurrences.
Second, the stiff chassis helped suspension engineers tune the struts and shocks to a very refined level. After spending several hundred miles driving on the severely pocked roads of Southeast Michigan, it was clear that the chassis team knew its craft. Without crashes or bangs or thump-bumps, the Town & Country absorbed road imperfections large and small with complete composure.
Additionally and somewhat surprisingly, the van took a confident set when pushed hard into corners. The feeling was more like a buttoned down, sporting sedan than a seven-passenger family conveyance. Simultaneously, the rather uncommunicative steering became talkative when carving through an arc. Not that one would encourage such behavior, but the Town & Country knows how to hustle. For just a moment, we thought about the potential for an SRT-6 Town & Country.
Stow, go and three-row
The Town & Country's long wheelbase of 121.2 inches affords a spacious interior with comfortable seating in all three rows. Our particular model was outfitted with the Swivel 'n Go second-row bucket seats, a feature that we suppose some people will find useful. This option includes second-row seats that can rotate 180° to face the third-row seats. A removable pedestal-mounted table can sprout from the floor in the limited floor area between the rows.
Perhaps the option would work for children, but adults will find the face-to-face configuration cramped. With all rows facing forward, seating comfort is very good. Even the third row proved suitable for adults because of the ample length and angle of the bottom cushion.
That third row, manipulated by a series of straps that release catches and latches, can disappear into a large cargo rear cargo area. The resulting load floor is flat and commodious. Like all new Chrysler and Dodge minivans, ours featured the huge under-floor storage area in front of the second-row chairs. In models with the Stow 'n Go seats, those seats could fold down into the space again leaving a flat load floor. But in our van, the table was strapped in down there conveniently out of the way, still leaving room for plenty of other gear. Storage options for smaller cargo is abundant and includes door bins, netted pockets on the second-row seats, a removable center console that's surprisingly deep, and a traditional glove box. An especially useful touch are the LEDs that illuminate the front-door bins.
Full three-point safety belts are provided for each seating position, even the center seat of the third row. The Chrysler also provides supplemental protection with front air bags plus three-row side curtain air bag. Anti-lock brakes work in concert with a stability control system that incorporates traction control.
Regarding other features, the Town & Country does not disappoint. Optioned with just about everything but a navigation system (not a great value in any vehicle in your author's opinion), this van would be a great long-distance kid carrier. Its entertainment system included not one, but two fold-down 8-inch LCD screens. The screens can carry the identical or independent programming from video input sources or Sirius Satellite TV. The kids can also stay entertained with everything they can load onto the gigs of hard-drive storage built into the audio system. Switched and unswitched 12-volt DC outlets abound, and the second-row also featured a conveniently located 115-volt AC plug.
Other important features include the rear-view camera, power liftgate, and seat heaters for the first- and second-row chairs. Among all of these advanced features, it amused us to find an old fashioned, manually controlled day/night mirror glued to the windshield. This stuck us as an excellent way to save a few bucks by eliminating an unnecessary, low-value feature.
Pricey and right
Our Town & Country Touring was outfitted with the Customer Preferred Package 25L for $3,020, an option that adds leather seating, power front seats, heated seats for the first two rows, and more. The van's grand total came in just shy of $34,000, a price that is generally competitive with entries from Honda, Toyota, Volkswagen, Kia, etc., but offers a few important features not found on others (Stow 'n Go, satellite TV).
Since the introduction of its first minivan in 1983, Chrysler has led the market in both real and perceived ways. Other manufacturers have closed in on the team from Auburn Hills, and in some cases have exceeded Chrysler in performance or value or utility or quality or refinement. But never all. This reality continues to make the Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Caravan worth a look, because these vehicles are certainly alive and kicking.--—Rex Roy