2011 Chrysler Town & Country: First Drive

November 23, 2010

The usual flurry of new vehicles that comes each year is a confirmed blizzard at Chrysler. Everything's changing, mostly for the better. And though the most dramatic upheavals are taking place inside and outside the 2011 Dodge Charger and Durango, and the 2011 Chrysler 300 and 200 (nee Sebring), the company's minivans haven't been left untouched.

With the 2011 Chrysler Town & Country minivan, the sum is some subtly reworked sheetmetal, a much-refined cockpit and a single new drivetrain swapped in for a host of old bits and pieces.

Maybe most important of all is the Town & Country's better defined mission--and the accompanying big new sticker price. From now on, in Chrysler's eyes, the Dodge Grand Caravan is its minivan value leader. The Town & Country goes where its name implies--straight to the $30,000 and over crowd where a pricey minivan doesn't sound so much like an oxymoron, but more like an existential necessity for the staff.

There are precious few differences between the 2011 Dodge Grand Caravan (reviewed over at TheCarConnection) and the Town & Country, aside from the cosmetics and the plush standard-features list. To recap, the new 283-horsepower V-6 is the front-driver's only power choice, and it's fine for tugging a full crew around from shopping spot to shopping spot. Steering's a bit quicker to the touch, while the softly tuned suspension bounds more than the more keenly responsive Honda Odyssey. Acceleration's a touch more brisk, but fuel economy is flat against last year's numbers. The Odyssey and Sienna are dynamic leads here; the Chryslers, character actors praised more for their versatility. 

Chrysler hopes the finery will help the T&C's luxury message land. So while the Grand Caravan remains a more upright, square-jawed Dodge, the Town & Country softens its approach with a broad chrome band wearing the latest iteration of the Chrysler logo, and a smaller grille that fades a little more readily into the background. The rear glass bows out a bit, LED taillamps light up the night, and a slightly reshaped hood tie together the low-impact changes made to the same basic one-box architecture that bowed back in 2008.

You'll notice more substantial re-imagination inside the Town & Country. Its new interior blocks out the same physical space as the one in the Caravan--they're both taller, and more imposing than the dash structures in an Odyssey or a Sienna--but Chrysler's skin wears more chrome bangles and bracelets around groups of major controls. Its dash is also studded with an analog clock, fresh out of the rounded-corner mold, and its steering wheel is rendered more like a shield versus the Caravan's bricky block. From the middle row of seats back, there's not much new to report, but the up-front reworking puts big distance between the unappealing textures of last year's T&C, and gives a decent clue into the current thinking on what "the new Chrysler" really is. 

2011 Chrysler Town & Country

2011 Chrysler Town & Country

Flexibility's the same hallmark it's always been, with two rows of disappearing seats giving Chrysler a trump card over all other vans save the 2010 Nissan Quest. It's a fine line, catering to adults or kids, but the ultimate utility baked into the T&C's floorpan strikes us as the sensible way to Scout's-motto the day's chores. Be prepared--but don't prepare a pack lunch, since the old Swivel 'N Go picnic table package is no longer available for reservations.

The Town & Country's luxe looks are paired with Touring, Touring-L and Limited trims. Rolled-up bundles of features are standard here, while they're either optional on the Grand Caravan, or entirely unavailable outside of the priciest editions. All Chrysler minivans have standard power windows for front and side doors; power locks and mirrors; power side doors, tailgate and pedals; automatic headlights; garage door opener; a 115-volt outlet; Stow 'N Go; a power driver seat; a safety bundle including parking sensors, rearview camera, and blind-spot monitors; and a music hard drive and audio controls delivered via a 6.5-inch LCD touchscreen. Oddly, the $31,000 Town & Country makes Bluetooth an option; the USB port is extra-cost, too. Options include a sunroof; leather seats; a navigation system; BackseatTV; a DVD entertainment system; and pushbutton start.

A $40,000 Town & Country Limited stretches the boundaries of what a high-function hauler can fetch in the open market. Its success hinges on those missing side-door hinges: can a minivan command that kind of premium, and is Chrysler the brand that's able to carry that marketing burden? In fighting trim, the T&C's a minivan perfectly tailored to take on other one-boxers like the most expensive Siennas, Quests and Odysseys. But dollar for dollar, it feels more like a natural predator for the Ford Flex and Lincoln MKT crossovers, with its overt tugs on the chrome-and-leather levers.

We prefer the natty Flex's take on MINI Cooper chic, its superior handling and its knockout interior. Still, the Flex has doors with hinges--and sliding side portals make curbside drop-offs so much easier, don't they? The Town & Country is the superior entry-and-exit specialist and kid-friendly down to its on-demand Nickelodeon--but the adult in us prefers four-door chic and can deal with long rides with Slingbox. 

The bottom line: choosing a Town & Country over those capable crossovers probably comes down to your passengers. Are they children, or adults? It's the same in TV as it is in cars: know your audience.

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