New Car/Review

Chrysler

The Chrysler Town and Country LXi, For the Ballet or the Ballgame

by Larry Weitzman

Daimler/Chrysler Full Line factory footage (39:14) 28.8, 56k or 200k Part 1 and 200k Part 2

Since Chrysler introduced the minivan concept in 1984, it has been the leader holding as much as 50% of the minivan market, in a field crowded with as many as 15 different makes and models. There is a reason for their continued leadership and it's more than good salesmanship.

For a short period, Ford's Windstar had bested the Chrysler design, until Chrysler reinvented the minivan with the introduction of their 1996 model line. I had the pleasure of spending some serious time with the best of the best, the Chrysler Town and Country LXi.

The Chrysler minivan is the absolute trendsetter in style. Its pleasing lines, shapes and curves make not for just an attractive package for a minivan, but for a package that is beautiful in its own right. The new grille, which flows right into a hood line, is an example of the cohesiveness of the overall design. This is a great looking car and to hell with the minivan stigma.

Also new for 1998 and continuing in 1999 is a more powerful 180 horsepower (@4,300 rpm), 240 lb-ft of torque (@3,100 rpm) overhead valve (OHV) 3.8L V-6. This is an improvement of 14 horsepower and 13 lb-ft of torque over the previous version of the 3.8L V-6 and it comes with no fuel mileage penalty. This added snap is just what the doctor ordered in the zip department. It definitely adds to the fun and enjoyment of the minivan experience.

The LXi has only the one engine and it is the most powerful engine that is available in any Chrysler minivan product. It propels the LXi from 0-60 in 10.9 seconds. It accelerated from 50-70 in 7.3 seconds and going up hill slowed that time to 11.2 seconds. Pretty decent performance for a 4000-pound vehicle that has more cubic capacity than a Chevy Tahoe. But interestingly, this LXi feels snappier than the numbers indicate.

The engine is very smooth and responsive. It never acts as if it's working hard and is seldom heard in the passenger compartment. The engine is always willing, generates strong power at any RPM and pulls strongly to its rev limiter. It is also rated to tow up to 3,500 pounds that could be a 20-foot day cruiser.

With its 20-gallon fuel tank, expect a range of 400 miles in El Dorado County and close to 500 miles on the highway. Try that without a pit stop. The power front disk brakes with antilock will do a great job of that.

More important than the power is how this luxury car goes about its business. Ponderosa road made me an immediate believer. The bumps and harshness didn't even phase this van or bother its occupants. It was very smooth and quiet. No shakes, rattles or rolls. Cornering was accurate, with little body lean or sway. It's steering had just the right amount of feel without having to work at it.

At higher speeds on Green Valley and Bass Lake Roads, the Town and Country was at ease and capable. Its extra wide track of 63 inches front and 64 inches rear makes this a very stable platform. On the highway, the LXi is very relaxed and silent. Little if any wind, road and tire noise is present and its plush ride makes travel a pleasure. It acts so car-like that you forget your driving a minivan.

This is not a small vehicle. At a 199.6 inches long, 75 inches wide and 68.5 inches tall, its exterior size approximates a Ford Taurus (except for height). Its wheelbase however is longer at 119.3 inches. It has over 160 cubic feet of passenger and cargo space. The idea of the minivan is to maximize interior space with a minimum of exterior size.

The van that I drove had standard leather interior with quad bucket seats. The third row of seats was a three-place bench. Behind the rear bench seat is an amazing 20 plus cubic feet of cargo space. The seat back even has seven hooks specially designed to hold grocery bags so they cannot spill.

The quad seats are some of the most comfortable seats I ever sat in. The leather was soft and the shape was just right. There are armrests on each seat and the front seats have standard eight-way power with lumbar control, the second row can recline to any position. The third row need not take a back seat in comfort. The cushion and back make it a comfortable place to spend several hours. Leg room, shoulder room and head room in any seat are large enough for any basketball team, even the Kings.

The floor of the van is flat and covered in a rich, soft carpet. The rear seat can be easily removed or folded flat if extra room is required. The step in height is low, meaning running boards need not apply. Getting in and out is no different from an ordinary sedan, in fact it's easier. Besides the left and right front entry doors, this car has two very large sliding doors and a rear hatch. Access couldn't be easier, the left and right sliders work effortlessly and when open, lock in place.

The track for these doors was ingeniously designed below the rear window and appears to be invisible. The rear hatch also opens to allow full and unencumbered access to the rear. There is a 12V-power port located in the rear of the van, just inside the hatch. Other features make this vehicle attractive. It has storage space everywhere. There are drawers under the seats, up to twelve cup holders, glove boxes for the third seats, reading lights for every seat, three way electronic controls for garage, lights in the house or the gate to your private driveway, separate temperature controls for the driver and passenger and separate rear air conditioning controls.

The standard power operated rear vent windows are another slick idea. When they are open very little wind noise can be heard in the front and they are very helpful in cooling down the van after sitting in the hot sun. Just turn the on a/c to maximum and open those rear vent windows to quickly replace the hot stagnant air with fresh cool air.

The quality of this van shows everywhere. The fit and finish were flawless and the quality of materials appeared very high. The switches, knobs and controls all worked smoothly, and I especially like the way separate temperature controls worked.

The handsome dash has an instrument pod containing a large tach and speedo along with a smaller temp and fuel gauge to the left and right. The controls for the excellent sound system and air conditioning are in a pod just below the dash in the center. There is no question that the designers at Chrysler thought about everything before committing it to production.

This vehicle is offered with an all-wheel drive option that residents of our county may want to consider. It is a full time system that feeds power to the wheel with the most traction.

The price of admission for this kind of luxury and versatility isn't cheap. Remember this car that I drove came equipped with about every conceivable "option" including leather and a trip computer. It lists for $27,560. Besides the 3.8L V-6 ($335) and quick order package 29F ($3715) the only extra cost option on this car was a special, gorgeous golden pearl tri-coat paint ($200). Otherwise after adding the mandatory Cal emissions ($200 and destination ($580), the total was $32,590.

There are substantially less expensive models of this Chrysler product starting at prices below $19,000 and many models in between. I would opt for a long wheelbase model with the 3.3L V-6 or 3.8L V-6 with mid-level trim and the quick order package 25K or 29K which includes front and rear air, the trick stereo and C/D. That will list out at about $27,000.

After you drive this minivan you will have a different attitude about what these cars can do and how they drive. You will end up taking it camping or to the ballgame and then in the evening, you will feel equally at home handing it over to the parking valet at Morton's Steak House or the ballet Try one, you'll like it.

SPECIFICATIONS

Price               $18,900 (Dodge or Plymouth version)
                    to about $36,500 (maxed out Limited 4X4)
Engine
   3.8L V-6         180 hp @ 4,300
                    240 lb-ft torque @ 3,100
Transmissions
                    4-speed automatic 
                    electronically controlled
DIMENSIONS

Wheelbase           119.3 inches
Length              199.6 inches
Width               75.0  inches
Height              68.5  inches
Curb Weight         3,951 pounds
Fuel Capacity       20   gallons
Tow Capacity        3,500 pounds

PERFORMANCE

0-60                10.9 seconds
50-70               7.3  seconds
50-70 (uphill)      11.2 seconds 
Top Speed           Well into the superfluous triple digits
Fuel Econ           17/24 city/hwy, my estimate is about
                    19-21 in El Dorado County driving,
                    mid to high twenties at 65-70 on the highway

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