Lifestyle

Chrysler's Tony Town & Country


Towncountry_2008
Editor's Rating: star rating

The redesigned T&C is not only a great family hauler, it's also an incredibly smart and surprisingly well-engineered vehicle

Up Front Everyone knows that minivans are dying out, right? U.S. sales dropped to under one million in 2006 for the first time in years and have continued to plunge this year. Numerous models—including the Buick Terraza, Saturn Relay, Ford (F) Freestar, and Mercury Monterey—have been dumped and replaced with more popular, sportier, smaller, and more fuel-efficient crossover vehicles.

Yet, here comes financially troubled Chrysler—the inventor of the modern American minivan back in 1983 and onetime king of the genre—introducing a minivan, the '08 Town & Country. Could it be that, as in the mid-1980s, the minivan will give Chrysler at least a little help in forging a turnaround? "Long live Chrysler!," I say. "Long live the minivan!"

Minivans, like station wagons, have gotten a bad rap because so many people consider them clunky and unhip. But they remain highly practical. They can carry seven people in comfort and can be turned into voluminous cargo haulers by folding down the rear seats. Their rear-seat entertainment systems keep the kids occupied during long drives, and they even get relatively good gas mileage considering their size. (You could take a family of seven on vacation in two Toyota Priuses, but you wouldn't save much on gas.)

The new Town & Country makes Chrysler again highly competitive with Toyota (TM) and Honda (HMC) in minivans. It comes in three trim levels: the LX, starting at $23,190; the mid-range Touring, starting at $28,430; and that the fancy Limited starting at $36,400. Whichever version you go with, it will have a lower base price than the previous model and comes with more standard equipment.

Even the LX comes with standard stability control, keyless entry, side-curtain airbags, and an overhead console. The Touring model adds such standard gear as a power liftgate, driver's seat, and sliding doors, plus "Stow 'n Go" and optional "Swivel 'n Go" seating (more on that later). The Limited boasts a bigger engine, a backing-up camera and alarm, leather upholstery trim, high intensity headlights, heated second-row seats, and a hard-disk-based, MP3-capable audio system.

There are three choices of engine. The LX comes with a 3.8 liter, 175-horsepower V6, and the Touring with a 3.8 liter, 197 hp V6. But you have to step up to the Limited to get a newly available 4.0-liter V6 rated at 251 hp. Both larger engines come with a six-speed automatic, the small engine with a four-speed automatic. (I just wish Americans could get the fuel-efficient 2.8 liter turbo-diesel engine available on the Chrysler Grand Voyager minivan in international markets.)

Still, the '08 Town & Country gets decent mileage considering its size. With the two larger engines, the '08 model is rated to get 16 miles-per-gallon in the city and 23 on the highway; with the small engine it's rated at 17/24. I got 23.3 mpg in mainly highway driving in a Town & Country Limited with the 4.0 liter engine, the same mileage I got in the new Honda Accord (BusinessWeek.com, 11/19/07).

Early signs are that the new Town & Country will do well. In the first 10 months of this year, U.S. Town & Country sales were down 19% to 111,311. But with the '08 model in the showrooms, sales soared 26% to 12,177 in October. By contrast, the Chrysler's sister model, the less expensive and less fancy Dodge Caravan, saw its sales fall 23% to 141,477 in the first 10 months and 12% to 11,005 in October. Chrysler's decision to drop the entry-level, short-wheel-base version of the Caravan helped weaken sales.

The Town & Country's strongest rival is the Honda Odyssey, which saw sales fall by only 4.2% to 144,718 in the first 10 months of the year and jump by 24.4% to 14,451 in October. The other strong performers are the new—and small-selling—Hyundai (HYMZY) Entourage, which saw sales jump 73.6% to 16,260 through October, and the Chevy Uplander, whose sales climbed 19% to 60,019. (General Motors (GM) is expected to replace the Uplander next fall with a crossover.)

The other remaining minivans are all faltering. In the first 10 months of 2007, the Toyota Sienna's sales dropped 13.9% to 115,522, the Kia Sedona's 26.4% to 34,777, the Nissan (NSANY) Quest's 8.3% to 24,821, and the Mazda5's 19.6% to 11,623.

Behind the Wheel "Family room on wheels," is how Chrysler describes its '08 minivans, and there's considerable justice to the slogan. These vans set a new standard in family friendliness.

The Town & Country drives the way you'd expect a high-end minivan to drive. Its ride is on the soft side, and steering and handling are in no way sporty. While the emphasis is on comfort, this van is no slug. I repeatedly —and inadvertently—squealed the front tires in the front-wheel-drive Town & Country. I also clocked my test Limited with the big engine accelerating from 0 to 60 in as little as 8.3 seconds, much faster than I expected.

Although Chrysler has improved the Town & Country's exterior styling, it still looks like a minivan—which is to say, big and dumpy. What sells this van is its interior, notably the available multimedia audio/video/navigation system and handy seating options. There are also numerous domestic touches, such as dishwasher-safe, removable cupholders, integrated second-row child booster seats, and third-row vent windows that can be cracked open automatically by the driver. There's even an umbrella holder in the scuffing mold on the floor next to driver's seat.

The big innovation in the '08 Town & Country is its optional Swivel 'n Go seats ($495). These are rear captain's seats that can be turned sideways to make getting in and out of the third row seats easy and then turned completely around so the second- and third-row seats face one another. There's even a little stowable table that can be anchored to the floor between the seats so rear passengers can play cards or games. The downside of this option is that the second-row seats don't stow under the floor boards as the third-row seats do.

If hauling is a priority, you can stick with the Stow 'n Go seats, which fold down into storage bins under the floor, creating a huge, flat, interior space. There's an optional automatic version that stows the third-row seats at the push of a button ($595), but you don't really need it.

Another big attraction is the optional entertainment system. There's a three-zone video/audio system with separate screens for the second and third rows that allows the driver and passenger to listen to the radio or CD while the second and third-row passengers have their choice of watching different DVDs. You can also add Sirius satellite TV (part of a $2,020 entertainment package on the Limited or $495 à la carte on the other trim levels) so the kids can watch TV, too.

Buy It Or Bag It? The '08 Town & Country is a relative bargain. Its recent average selling price is $29,680, according to the Power Information Network, which includes a $1,500 cash rebate Chrysler is offering through Dec. 3. That's about the same average price as a Toyota Sienna ($29,173) but considerably less than a Honda Odyssey ($34,654).

If you're on a budget, the Dodge Caravan sells for an average of $27,091. Another domestically made alternative is the Chevy Uplander at $23,806. There are no numbers yet on the '08, but Korea's Hyundai has been selling its '07 Entourage for an average of $25,686, according to PIN (which, like BusinessWeek.com, is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Cos.).

Remember that a Town & Country with all the bells and whistles will set you back $35,000 or more, even if you go with the Touring trim level with the mid-size engine. But also keep in mind that a loaded up Town & Country only looks like a minivan from the outside. On the inside, it's a lot like home.

Click here to see more of the 2008 Chrysler Town & Country


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