NEW YORK — An unconventional limousine stopped at the curb of my Manhattan hotel, but I climbed through the right-side sliding door anyway, and slipped laterally into one of two back-seat buckets on the second of three rows.
Settling in for a traffic-bound trek to the airport, I took in the profusion of plush interior elements, smooth ride, and zippy acceleration as we took on the Queens-Brooklyn Expressway to reach LaGuardia by the quickest means possible.
In retrospect, what struck me as unusual about the cushy trip was that my run in limousine luxury defied the stereotypical image of a big conventional sedan and instead substituted that box-on-wheels icon of suburbia car poolers, the minivan.
Give credit to Chrysler's stretched Town & Country minivan — or more specifically, to its new ultimate leather-lined luxury edition, the T&C Limited. What a superior luxury car this minivan makes, refined with fancy comforts, obviously liberated with exacting handling mechanisms and enthusiastic with its power.
The ultimate evolution
It was Chrysler, of course, that minted the first minivan, really a tall station wagon with three rows of seats for seven riders, all in a boxy package that resembled a van but emulated the driving manners of a conventional family sedan. Chrysler did it first, and for a long time, it did it best.
A dramatic remake of Chrysler's minivan for the 1996 model-year produced stunning improvements with new people-pleasing features, including dual sliding side doors, and in 1997, a version appeared with optional all-wheel-drive traction capacity. Today, the same basic minivan shows up under Dodge and Plymouth labels by different names. But it is with Chrysler's Town & Country badge that this minivan reaches its peak in all aspects of performance, paraphernalia and power.
1999 Chrysler Town & Country Interior
The Limited Chrysler minivan offers the luxury you’d find in a limousine – except the nifty champagne flutes.
The top-of-the-line Limited edition transforms the all-too-common minivan into a fancy people hauler whose appointments and ride quality beat an ordinary limo. It functions like a big car but measures small enough to park in a home garage. It also looks smallish, although the stretched-wheelbase Town & Country seats up to seven, with space left in the rear bay for luggage or sports gear. As a bonus, its smoothly shaped exterior elements flow together in streamlined fashion, so the package doesn't seem bulky.
Inside, a low platform affords minimal step-up height, so it's easy to climb aboard. A sliding slab door on each side immediately behind front hinged doors allows easy entry for back-seat riders. It’s flexible as well: The second and third tiers of seats can be removed for additional storage space. Following the flick of a switch, the bench seats roll on floor tracks for quick removal.
Piloting about town and country
Best of all, the Town & Country is easy to drive, thanks to responsive systems like power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering and a well-tuned suspension that produces the living-room-smooth ride quality that limousines get all stretched out of shape to achieve. A wide front track sets up a turning circle that's significantly shorter, too, which enables Chrysler's minivan to navigate paths as tight and narrow as those in a shopping center's parking lot.
For power, the Limited edition draws from a 3.8-liter 180-hp V-6 (it’s also available with LX trim). As the largest V-6 offered for Chrysler's minivan fleet, this plant feels gutsy in all gears of the four-speed automatic shifter, and it links to a standard traction control system. The standard engine for minivans below the Limited is a 3.3-liter V-6, rated at 158 hp.
An all-wheel-drive system is also available on the Town & Country Limited: Its viscous coupling locks under difficult conditions to automatically channel engine torque to both the front and rear axles. Under normal driving conditions, the smart linkage distributes about 90 percent of the power to the front wheels, so the minivan behaves similarly to a front-wheel-drive version. However, when on-board sensors detect wheel slippage at the front wheels, the coupling instantly transfers some of the power — up to 100 percent, depending on the amount of slippage detected — to the rear wheels to boost tire grip.
Added safety gear ranges from twin frontal airbags to steel door braces and anti-lock brakes. Standard equipment includes the leather-trimmed cabin with front heated seats and eight-way power adjustments, second-row bucket seats and rear bench, plus a leather-wrapped steering wheel, security system and power for everything.
Ultimately, Town & Country Limited scores as the minivan with the utmost appointments, but it also ranks on top of the price charts, beginning around $36,000. Even Mercedes-Benz would be hard pressed to make a better luxury minivan than this — but then again, it doesn’t need to now, does it?