OCEAN SPRINGS, Miss. — It’s hour eleven of a thirteen-hour road trip. Six other passengers are stowed safely in back, all but one asleep. A light’s on in back in case one wakes up; a bottle of water sits patiently in a cupholder for another. And as Tropical Storm Barry slaps water at the windshield in gallon waves, the Town and Country needles effortlessly through the darkness.
It’s here, somewhere between New Orleans and the panhandle of Florida, that I realize the essential goodness of the minivan and Chrysler’s mastery of it. Only a minivan could handle a duty like this. And even if every family doesn’t always need seven-passenger capabilities, it’s the special occasions like vacation shuttling that makes the minivan the hands-down winner in utility and driveability.
And when it comes to the Town and Country, you can add luxury to the list of superlatives. It is the ne plus ultra of minivans, if the prosaic machines ever needed a foreign description. And while Honda may be stealing some of Chrysler’s innovation thunder, what with its gymnastic foldaway back seat, Chrysler has undoubtedly the most luxurious one on the market, all $35,185 of it.All-access pass
Minivans are about access – getting people and things inside, stowing them properly for safe and secure travel, and disgorging them without the limb-mangling antics required of a fewer-doored vehicle. The Chrysler vans have enough doors and power feature to ensure that’s never an issue: two sliding side doors can be powered, as can the tailgate. And though you might deem both a frilly unnecessary accessory, try closing them all during a blinding tropical rainstorm from a dry condo. The only downside is the school-bus-like beeping the tailgate emits before it closes — reinforcing the notion that minivan drivers are also qualified to pilot public transportation.
Minivans are secondly about safety, and if protective equipment were a fetish the T&C would be in therapy. There are four airbags, anti-lock brakes, and traction control. Chrysler just missed five-star safety ratings from the government (it received four for frontal crash safety, five for side-impact safety), but it’s hard to judge if the Chrysler’s more nimble feel would be safer in the end over the five-star Ford Windstar’s portly handling. Also, Chrysler calls 50-percent larger headlamps a safety advance. We’d call them long overdue and finally here.
We didn’t test the all-wheel drive model, which adds weight and cost, but for the extremely road-squeamish, it’s worth considering. After all, can you name one Subaru that holds seven?
2001 Chrysler Town and Country
Elsewhere inside, there are plenty of bins, cupholders, and a removable center console. In back, a nifty cargo organizer that lifts like a clothes-drying rack and notches into place like a cargo cover, creating a lower storage area for suitcases or sodas, and either a flat loading surface or three bins for miscellaneous toys, groceries and such. The body-color roof rack creates a virtual jungle gym for luggage and carry-ons upstairs.
What you need to know about the T&C’s handling and performance can be summed up in a word: “invisible.” The mark of a good minivan (until someone builds an AMG or M or Type R version) is lack of concern if you’re going to tip, or be too slow to merge.
The drivetrain is noticeably more refined than the previous generation of vans. The engine is a distant hum, even at the top of the rev range. The transmission shifts utterly unobtrusively. In a sports sedan you’d curse the lack of feedback, but here it’s a minimal offense. A 3.5-liter V-6 with 230 hp will be available soon, and may be a mild refinement on the 215-hp, 3.8-liter’s slight groan.
Dynamically, the T&C is pretty wonderful for a vehicle about the dimensions of a standard bathroom. It hustles unobtrusively down the highway, and steers with a precision that SUV drivers would shoot their fictional horse for.
The styling may not have made a great leap forward, but then the Chrysler vans already were the handsomest family transportation with five doors. Our T&C sported some snazzy side strakes that telegraphed the organic, pleasingly rounded style of the vehicle. Better yet, the materials inside are hugely finer than the last generation of van; of course, in a $36,000 vehicle you’d expect real wood, but that’s a lonely gripe amidst the four-disc in-dash CD changer, leather seating and triple-zone air conditioning.
You’d never substitute a minivan for an enthusiastic driving experience. And you’d be forgiven if you forgo the Chryslers and flip for the Honda and Mazda minivans. But if you’re looking for luxury and skip over the Town and Country, it’s time to put yourself behind the wheel and reconsider.
2001 Chrysler Town & Country Limited
Price: $35,185; as tested, $36,490
Engine: 3.8-liter V-6, 215 hp
Transmission: Four-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 119.3 in
Length: 200.5 in
Width: 78.6 in
Height: 68.9 in
Curb Weight: 4488 lb
EPA (city/hwy): 17/24 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, side airbags, anti-lock brakes
Major standard features: Air conditioning, power windows/locks/mirrors, 10-speaker Infinity sound system with CD player, Homelink garage door opener
Major options: Power side sliding doors, cargo organizer, four-disc in-dash CD changer
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles