2011 Chrysler Town and Country Van Review by Carey Russ +VIDEO


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Chrysler Town & Country mini van

DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD WITH CAREY RUSS

SEE ALSO: Chrysler Buyers Guide


Chrysler Corporation invented the minivan back in 1983, as an alternative to the full-sized wagon. The original Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager were solid middle-class vehicles, with more space than a large wagon on a smaller footprint, and with better fuel economy. What was a gamble turned into a win, and Chrysler's minivans have been the class benchmarks ever since.

Evolution happens, and one of the first steps was the debut of the first luxury minivan in the form of the Chrysler Town & Country in 1989. If it seemed strange to make a luxury version of what was and is one of the most popular family vehicles made, think again. The Town & Country's immediate predecessor was the last of the Chrysler wagons, and the minivan sealed its fate. The original Town and Country -- no ampersand, and before World War II -- was a woodie wagon made in small numbers, and used, among other purposes, to transport resort hotel clients to and from the local railroad station. Hence the name "station wagon". So there was luxury transportation in the minivan's background. With a major styling and mechanical makeover for 2011, it's very much an American-style luxury car with space galore -- which makes it a fitting heir to its 1940 namesake.

Under the freshened styling, the engine lineup was simplified, to one choice -- a new 3.6-liter V6, a contemporary twincam alloy engine with 283 horsepower routed through a six-speed automatic transmission. The suspension was re-engineered for better handling and comfort, and interior improvements included improved soundproofing, new seats, LED lighting, and (optionally) Uconnect® Web, which can turn the van into a mobile wifi hot spot. There are over 40 standard and optional safety features in the latest Town & Country, including SafetyTec™, incorporating a backup camera and blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic detection. The lineup is Touring, Touring L, and Limited models.


Watch the Chrysler Town & Country "exterior" promo video


My test car for the past week was a Limited. With all of the refinement, luxuries, and amenities -- power doors and tailgate, power-folding third-row seats, leather seating, entertainment, heated steering wheel and first and second-row seats, and more as standard equipment, and with only the trailer towing package, and upgraded audio system with navigation, and the power third-row seat, it was very much a replacement for the traditional American full-size luxury sedan. Which makes sense, as not only are minivans popular with families, they also sell well to what the marketing types call "empty nesters" -- likely to be grandparents. The new engine gives it plenty of power -- four-cylinder minivans are but a distant, unlamented memory -- and the suspension gives solidly middle-American ride comfort. Space inside is never going to be a problem, no matter how that interior is configured. This one is more likely to have a bumper sticker saying "Ask Me About My Grandchildren" than the little window stickers with Mom, Dad, kids, and pets, and good for Chrysler for that. Everyone will be un-cramped and comfortable, and, with the 3600-pound towing capacity, they can even tow a reasonably-sized boat to the lake.

My test van was a 2011 model, and model year 2012 is upon us. Since the Town & Country got a major makeover for 2011, you'd expect minimal change for 2012. Not quite - all models get leather seating and the rear-seat DVD system now, and the Limited gets a wood-and-leather steering wheel and upgraded leather on the seats.

APPEARANCE: Yes it is the box it came in, with a short hood for the engine. That was the original minivan formula back in '83, and it's still successful. Form follows function, and here function means maximum interior space in minimum exterior footprint. The newest Chrysler face includes a grille and front bumper fascia inspired by the latest Chrysler 300, and a new hood. Chromed outside mirrors and a liftgate with curved glass are further refinements. The grille sees the first implementation of the new, simplified Chrysler winged badge. The "Stow 'n Place" crossbars for the top luggage rack stow inside the roof rails when not in use.

COMFORT: Inside, not outside, is the important part of a minivan, and here the Town & Country shines. The interior is spacious and well-designed, with a premium look and good fit and finish. If the materials, all synthetic "woodgrain" and plastic chrome, aren't premium luxury, wood and aluminum, neither is the price. The seating surfaces and steering wheel rim are leather, there is stitched leatherette trim on the doors, and textured plastic for most other interior surfaces.

Front seat comfort is very good, with a comfortably-upright seating position. The front buckets are power-adjustable. The second-row captain's chairs match the fronts for comfort, and are adjustable fore and aft. They fold and tumble, and can fold into the floor as part of the "Stow 'n Go Seating and Storage System". When in use as seats, the floor well doubles as extra under-floor storage. The three-place third-row seat is split 60/40 and folds into the floor, optionally under power control. It's not a penalty box, as there is good room for two adults or three children. When it's up, there is a useful well behind, all the better to keep groceries in place so you don't find a "science experiment" several weeks later… There are also multiple grocery bag hooks on the third row seatback. Reconfigurability is easy, especially with the power third row, and the flat floor (and leather hidden beneath) adds convenience and usefulness. Power doors and liftgate are expected in premium minivans, and are convenient. Access for any purpose is great. And the siding door windows go partway down, for fresh air. All Town & Country models feature power rear vents, also good for fresh air.

Instrumentation is easily seen, cabin electronics are useful and non-distracting, and both rear rows have their own video screens.


Watch the Chrysler Town & Country "interior" promo video


SAFETY: The Town & Country gets a 5-star frontal and side impact and stars for rollover from NHTSA. The "SafetyTec" system, including blind spot monitoring with cross-path detection (to detect otherwise invisible vehicles approaching while backing), the Park Sense rear sonar assist system, rain-sensitive wipers, and Smartbeam headlights, plus the ParkView® backup camera, front, front side, and full-length head curtain airbags plus a driver's knee bag are all standard in the Limited.

RIDE AND HANDLING: It's built for comfort, not for speed, so the Town & Country's MacPherson strut / torsion-beam axle suspension is tuned fairly softly. But it's well-damped, so bumps are dealt with and forgotten. Highway and city comfort is very good, with minimal road noise thanks to improved soundproofing. When the road gets twisty, there's plenty of body roll - but this is a minivan, not a sports car. Brakes are very good, with four-wheel discs with twin-piston calipers up front. Of course they're antilock, and stability control, traction control, and brake assist are standard.

PERFORMANCE: The new "Pentastar" 3.6-liter V6 is a perfect match here. An aluminum alloy design with 24-valves, dual overhead cams with variable phasing on all to improve power delivery and efficiency and reduce emissions, it makes 283 horsepower (at 6400 rpm), with maximum torque 260 lb-ft at 4400 rpm on unleaded regular. The transmission is a six-speed, with lower low gears and higher overdrive sixth to improve both acceleration and highway economy. It shifts well, and Autostick™ manual-shift mode is rarely necessary, really only on slow, twisty roads. With a 0-60 time around 7.6 seconds, merging into traffic is not a worry. The towing package includes load-leveling and height-control suspension, possibly adding to comfort. More importantly, it also has a transmission oil cooler and heavy duty radiator, good for life in warm climates even if you don't haul a trailer. If you do, it increases towing ability from 1600 to 3600 pounds.

CONCLUSIONS: With the newest Town & Country, Chrysler ups the bar in the premium minivan class.


SPECIFICATIONS

2011/12 Chrysler Town & Country Limited

Base Price $ 38,660

Price As Tested $ 41,670

Engine Type dohc 24-valve V6 with variable cam phasing

Engine Size 3.6 liters / 220 cu. in.

Horsepower 283 @ 6400 rpm

Torque (lb-ft) 260 @ 4400 rpm

Transmission 6-speed automatic with AutoStick™ manual mode

Wheelbase / Length 121.2 in. / 202.8 in.

Curb Weight 4652 lbs.

Pounds Per Horsepower 16.4

Fuel Capacity n/a gal.

Fuel Requirement 87 octane unleaded regular gasoline

Tires P225/65 R17 100T m+s Michelin Energy Saver A/S

Brakes, front/rear vented disc, twin-piston calipers / solid disc, single-piston calipers, ABS, ESC, TC standard

Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / semi-independent torsion-beam axle Drivetrain transverse front engine, front-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon

city / highway / observed 17 / 25 / 18

0 to 60 mph 7.6 sec

Towing capacity 1600 lbs, 3600 with towing package

OPTIONS AND CHARGES

Deep Cherry Crystal Pearl Coat exterior paint $ 295

Customer Preferred Package 29X - includes: Trailer Tow prep group: trailer tow wiring harness, load leveling and height-control suspension, heavy duty engine cooling, radiator, and transmission oil cooler $ 620

Power-folding third-row seat $ 595

Media Center 730N - includes: premium GPS navigation, SIRIUS traffic $ 665

Destination charge $ 835


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