To say that Chrysler Corporation is the major force in the minivan segment of the automotive world is no overstatement. After all, Chrysler invented the genre in its contemporary front-wheel-drive, unit-construction, carlike form fifteen years ago. Despite ever- increasing competition, its Plymouth, Dodge, and Chrysler-branded minivans account for 45 percent of the North American minivan sales. The Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan do yeoman duty in the heart of the market; the Chrysler Town & Country is one of the few luxury minivans, and a very viable alternative to a premium sedan or sport-utility for anyone looking for a luxuriously comfortable, well- equipped, and extremely spacious vehicle.
The "Town and Country" name has been used intermittently since the early 1940s, when it denoted a limited-production luxury convertible with external wood trim. "Town & Country", with the ampersand, has been the premium Chrysler minivan since the 1990 model year. A second generation debuted in 1996. It received many interior and exterior upgrades in 1998. New to the Town & Country lineup this year is the top-of-the-line "Limited" model. It joins the existing SX, LX, and LXi versions, and has unique exterior trim and a more luxurious, leather and suede-upholstered interior. Power is from a 3.8-liter V6, and, as has been the case with premium Chrysler minivans since 1992, all-wheel drive is an option for all-weather traction.
A front-wheel drive Town & Country Limited has been my transportation for the past week. It has been comfortable and extremely useful. There's plenty of space inside, and plenty of American-style luxury comfort. It's practical, efficient, and easy to park. Minivans have been likened to the full-sized station wagons of the past. Maybe so, but this one has more interior room and comfort in less exterior size than any large-size wagon. Or any comparably-sized sport-utility.
APPEARANCE: The Town & Country does not look like the box it came in. There are no straight lines and no flat panels. This minivan is a long, long way from being any sort of panel truck. It has the same basic body shape as the Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan, but unique grilles and front bumper fascias give each a distinctive look. The Town & Country's large, chrome-trimmed grille, with the new corporate crest, gives it a strong kinship to other Chrysler-branded cars. A relatively long hood for a minivan prevents a one-box, industrial look. Privacy glass helps hide the sliding door tracks on both sides of the vehicle. The Limited model has chromed, multi-spoked alloy wheels, chromed door handles, body-colored lower cladding, and a roof rack.
COMFORT: Anyone torn between a luxury SUV and a luxury minivan like the Town & Country should note that the minivan has much more interior space for its size and better access due to a lower floor height. Standard sliding passenger doors on each side make entry and exit convenient, and a flat floor makes it easy to move around inside. Any seat may be accessed through any door. The Town & Country Limited is as roomy and versatile as any minivan, but appointed to American luxury standards. The seats have soft perforated leather seating surfaces and suedelike trim. The front captain's chairs are heated and power-adjustable. A second-row bench is standard; my test van has the optional reclining captain's chairs. They are equivalent to the front seats, but not heated, and can be flipped and folded or removed for extra cargo storage. An integrated child seat is available. The third-row bench seat is roomy and comfortable, and can be reclined, folded or removed. Grocery bag hooks in the rear cargo area are a convenient touch. Vents and cupholders abound, and there are plenty of useful storage compartments.
SAFETY: The 1999 Chrysler Town & Country Limited has standard antilock brakes, "Next Generation" lower-powered front driver and passenger airbags, and traction control.
ROADABILITY: A reasonable exterior size and luxury-specification load-leveling suspension make the Chrysler Town & Country Limited a versatile vehicle. It's easier to fit into a typical parking space than a large sport-utility, nimble around town with good visibility, and is a fine highway cruiser with no aversion to the scenic route. The ride is luxury-car soft, but well-damped with no bad manners for everyday driving. Its mass is always apparent -- this is a 4000-lb. vehicle, after all -- but handled well.
PERFORMANCE: A 3.8-liter V6 with 180 horsepower and 240 lb-ft of torque moves the Town & Country Limited well. It's matched to a very smooth 4-speed automatic transmission that uses adaptive electronics to adjust shifting to the driver's driving style. It's at least as quick as a full-sized, V8-powered wagon of the past, and much more economical. EPA ratings of 17mpg city and 24 highway fit well with my 20 mpg of mostly suburban driving. With a 20-gallon gas tank, long-distance, high-comfort vacation cruising should be a snap.
CONCLUSIONS: Family executive airplane? The 1999 Chrysler Town & Country combines spacious room and comfort for a first- class experience.
SPECIFICATIONS Base Price $ 33,765 Price As Tested $ 34,470 Engine Type 12-valve pushrod overhead valve V6 Engine Size 3.8 liters / 230 cu. in. Horsepower 180 @ 4400 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 240 @ 3200 rom Transmission 4-speed automatic with adaptive electronic control Wheelbase / Length 119.3 in. / 199.7 in. Curb Weight 4168 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 23.2 Fuel Capacity 20 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded regular, 87 octane Tires P215/65 R16 Michelin MX4 all-season Brakes, front/rear vented disc / drum Suspension, front/rear independent strut / tubular beam axle Drivetrain front engine, front-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 17 / 24 / 20 0 to 60 mph 11.0 sec Coefficient of Drag (cd) 0.36 OPTIONS AND CHARGES Fold and recline intermediate bucket seats with integrated child seat on right side $ 125 Destination charge $ 580