2008 Chrysler Town & Country minivan car reviews
Notes: Chrysler Town & Country Limited
|Personality||High tech entertainment center on wheels with boundless power|
|Why we’d buy it||Safety, family-friendly features, versatility, storage space, acceleration|
|Why we wouldn’t||Gas mileage, squealing tires|
|What we’d try||Putting on good tires|
|Gas mileage||EPA 2008, 16/23 (3.8 or 4.0 V6)|
The Chrysler Town & Country is the gadgety minivan to beat all gadgety minivans. It has halo lighting outlining the ceiling video, dual TV sets that can play different DVDs or satellite-TV, power folding rear seats, three power doors, seats that swivel around, a table, and a hard-drive-based stereo with both analog and USB ports. That’s not even getting into the HID headlights, second-row heated seats, satellite radio, rear view camera, or dozens of other gizmos and gadgets.
Gadgetry is where this van excels, though, with the 4.0 V6, it’s far more responsive than any prior generation. It seems less nimble than the 2007 models, which stuck to the road with surprising grip; our Town & Country Limited, hobbled by the weight of its many powered speakers, DVD system, and power seats and doors, could handle normal turns, but pushing it in “spirited driving” led to squeals of protest. One owner told us that this is probably because the wheels aren't aligned properly, but we also noticed that the Bridgestone Turanza 225/65R17 tires were classified as "B" for traction, which we’d say isn’t the best choice to go with that big engine and low first gear. (You can hear us squeal the tires in the video, below). Since the mini stayed well composed around sharp turns, even as the tires screamed, we think that a quick if expensive tire change would solve that problem, and cut the stopping distance as well.
The ride is better than in the past, handling serious potholes and rough roads with less fuss and without much noise; the interior isn't floaty, but it’s certainly comfortable. The interior is far quieter, to the point where a blindfolded journalist would start yammering about being in a Lexus, thanks to many hours in the wind tunnel. This refinement also increased gas mileage on the highway, despite lots of added weight.
Acceleration was excellent for a minivan, and pretty good for a car; the 240 horsepower, four-liter V6 was smooth and quiet, and the transmission shifted unobtrusively even under hard throttle. Shifts took an instant, though the V6 has nice low-end torque anyway; passing power was instantly on tap at any speed. The low first gear on the six-speed automatic required a little caution to avoid tire-squeal on takeoff, especially when starting around a turn, but also on smooth, good pavement with both wheels pointed straight ahead; we think they overdid the first gear. On the lighter side, both gearing and programming allowed for easy coasting, with quick downshifts when needed for passing, and the AutoStick feature was absolutely unnecessary.
The downside of this responsiveness is, as one might expect, gas mileage, rated as 16 city, 23 highway by the EPA according to the tougher 2008 standards (we got similar readings). This is still good compared with body-on-frame SUVs of similar size.
There are two other engines; the 3.3 apparently gets 1 mpg more, city and highway, and the 3.8 is EPA-rated at the exact same mileage as the 4.0. This may just prove that weight is far more important than horsepower. We do wish the six speed was standard across the line, since the 3.3 liter engine, which probably needs it most for acceleration, doesn't have it. Those who find gas mileage to be unattractive across the board may be more interested in the Dodge Journey, coming soon, or for that matter the 2010 Chrysler minivans, which most believe will have a combination of brand-new V6 engines and automated manual transmissions.
The Limited comes with two parking assistance systems, one of which is the usual "beep-beep" audible alert that tells you how far away you are from an obstacle, using five bumper sensors; the system is accompanied by a set of yellow and red LED lights that can be seen in the rear-view mirror, which provides enough differentiation to be worthwhile, and by auto-dipping mirrors that can help when backing into a painted parking space. The other system is ParkView, apparently named after a school district near Highland Park, Michigan, which routes a fuzzy color image from a small camera above the license plate to the stereo screen. The first system saves your bumper (or someone else’s), the second can save a child’s life; both are gratifying additions.
The center table takes up little space in the storage wells aft of the middle row of seats; it installs easily and locks in with clear feedback. The tabletop is a bit flexible and very light; it is nicely positioned for playing cards, but it only overlaps the seats by a few inches, so it's not useful as an adult work table (we eventually moved the laptop onto our lap). Our kids were happy to draw on the table, though they had to lean over to reach it; playing cards was easy, too. With both forward and rearward facing seats, there was very little legroom at the table, even with the middle row pushed into the front seats; but there was enough legroom for four kids. With Stow n Go, there's more legroom for rear passengers, and everyone can watch the movies (Swivel passengers can watch movies, too, as long as they're facing forward).
Swivelling the seats around took very little effort, once we discovered where to push, and the seat belts were even easier to attach with the seats facing backwards. Likewise, the manual stow-n-go seats work easily and well. The rear seats can always be stowed, regardless of the configuration; there are optional power rear seats that stow or present themselves at the touch of a switch, with a 2/3 split so that you can stow just one seat or two seats, or all three at once. They also have a tailgating position, where the essentially flip over so that you can sit backwards, feet dangling out of the open rear hatch; it's surprisingly comfortable as long as you recline with the seat, and can probably be tolerated for a full Dairy Queen stop, though explaining the ice cream stains in the seat back might prove interesting. (Both power and manual stow options have the tailgate feature.)
The middle row of seats are pretty comfortable, regardless of which way they face; they are probably safest facing backward, since a panic stop or crash will press the occupant uniformly against the seat-back, while forward-facing seats toss people against seat belts that may or may not be well positioned. That's really the best reason to buy the swivel seats, though as long as the minivans are new, they're also great parking-lot conversation pieces. (Our minivan qualified for "really cool" status in parking lots, as of mid-September 2007.) Getting out of the van with the middle seats swivelled was not difficult for kids and lean adults, though it also wasn't quite as easy as with the seats facing forward. On the other hand, seats-reversed did make it easier for third-row passengers to get out.
The front seats are pretty adjustable, which is good; they could provide more support, but they probably strike a happy middle ground between supporting thin passengers and being comfortable for not-so-thin passengers. As in years past, both front seats have their own attached armrests, a nice feature.
The door-mounted armrest is made of softer, more pleasant materials than Chrysler has been using lately; most surfaces were nicely chosen, including the antiglare under-windshield area (keep the car wash people from glossing that up!). A few materials felt a little cheap - like the top lid for the center console, and the door map pockets - but on the whole, the minivan looked and felt surprisingly good inside. The instrument panel was particularly attractive, with well-chosen black lettering standing out elegantly from a silver background which becomes indigo green at night; it’s easy to read in just about any light, and is also attractive in just about any light. In addition, when the headlights are on, the green LED light around the roof-mounted video system goes on, an “ooh-and-ah” feature if there ever was one; and the cupholder and map pocket lights go on. The Town & Country is pretty attractive during the day, but it’s also quite attractive at night.
The rearmost seats are comfortable for some people and not so much for others; legroom could be better since there's so much space for cargo behind them. The huge cargo well behind them, though, is impressive and pretty useful. There are many other places to put things in this van, as one would expect; small cubbies in the rear, side seat pockets in the middle row along with door mounted cupholders and map pockets behind the front seats, the huge covered storage bins between the front and middle seats, and, up front, well, that's another story entirely. Both front doors have not one but two levels of map pockets, one of which is illuminated at night; four cupholders (six if you include two that are really for the middle row), all with bubble-type drink securing devices; overhead bins (all rows get these if you don't get the built in video, but if you do get video, there's one up front - which doubles as the rear-seat mirror); a huge bin underneath the center stack; two glove compartments; and the center console. The center console starts out with the twin sets of cupholders and a little-stuff bin; take off the little-stuff bin, and you get a larger storage area underneath. Slide off the top level of the console, and you get another huge storage bin. And then you can slide the entire thing back to the center row of passengers, easily - or, with some difficulty, remove the entire center console if you think it's more important to walk back to the second row.
Controls are generally sensible and well labelled, except for the climate control, which uses multiple presses of a button to change the vents or adjust the fan speed; it also had an unnecessarily fancy display, which was pretty but distracting. On the lighter side, the fan moved a lot of air quietly, and the vents were adjustable and easily closed, so that annoying drafts could be dealt with easily, which is not usually the case. Rear passengers had several vents mounted in the roof, again easy to close or redirect, as well as their own controls, which could be locked out from up front.
The swivel seats require a single pull of a big, obvious handle before being pushed around; removing the seats entirely is a bit harder, and requires a hefty dose of effort (possibly by design, to avoid tampering by children), not to mention some caution to avoid squeezing your own hand by mistake. Door controls are all clearly labelled, and the rear seat recline buttons are easy to find by feel or by looking for big black arrows on the cloth seat sides. The power rear seat folding buttons are inactive unless the rear hatch is open, to prevent kids from shutting the doors on themselves; and the hatch and door buttons are all labelled and in sensible locations. The window controls, which are on the doors (but can be locked out by the driver), are duplicated as usual on the driver's door, in two sets: one for the traditional four windows, and another pair of buttons for the rear two buttons, which, as they did in the 1984 minis, fold out about an inch. If the driver decides that the rear passengers aren’t mature enough to control their own doors, s/he can override the rear door controls, so they have to be opened manually (which kids are less likely to find really amusing than power doors.)
Operating controls are generally conventional. The key goes into the dashboard, not the steering column, a nice feature that's slowly getting more common. The headlights are on the dash, with a knob that pushes for fog lights, and has separate automatic, off, parking lights, and on positions; the control for the halo (overhead green) lights is just below the rheostat/dome light control. Stereo controls are on the back of the wheel, and the initially confusing trip computer switches are on the front. Cruise is via Toyota-style ministalk, which is easy to operate; the parking brake is a traditional footbrake, though of the awkward push-to-release variety. The gearshift is the only real oddball control, since it is mounted up on the dash and has no markings except a small plus and minus; you navigate by feel, which is pretty easy, and can see the gears light up on the electronic dash display. The AutoStick control is almost unnecessary, given the six-speed automatic's mind-reading capabilities, but if you want to use it, just push the shifter right or left; to get out of AutoStick mode, keep pushing to the right. No, it doesn't make much sense.
The stereo controls were pretty good for a system with a screen; for some reason, adding a screen usually means sacrificing quick and easy adjustments, and this is no exception. Our unit did not have a navigation system, but it did have a 20 gigabyte hard drive and satellite radio; also, since our car had the video system, you could sit and watch movies on the screen, as long as you were in Park. The lack of a station-changing knob was awkward with the satellite radio, which has over a hundred channels; it takes a while to go through with your finger on a button. Changing bass, treble, or midrange took a press to the physical Audio button, then the virtual Equalizer button, then multiple presses on a virtual equalizer (though you could “click and drag” directly on the image of the equalizer knobs). For some reason, whenever we tried to listen to a movie, the system would make us re-choose video input, and then go into what kind of video input we needed, though we weren't using either of the two auxiliary input jacks. That sort of thing should be automatic, like starting up a video when you lower the screen. Likewise, we could easily transfer music onto the hard drive by selecting the CD and pressing Record, but couldn’t do it by going to Import Music and then pressing the CD icon. We suspect there will be a few updates to MyGIG as time goes on; but it was the first factory installed hard drive system, so it deserves a bit of a break.
Switching forms was perhaps inevitably compex; press once on Radio Media, and you get choices of AM, FM, Satellite, and Satellite TV (depending on what features your stereo has). It shows a list of presets at that point, four per screen, showing the names of the stations. Press again, and you get hard drive, Jukebox, disc, auxiliary (the little jack on front of the screen), VES (video system) - for playing movies over the speakers, complete with spooky-accurate spatial imaging - and, if equipped, iPod control, so that you can use your built in controls to navigate the contents of your high-quality music device. This might be nice for purists who put lossless files (or high-rate AAC) onto their iPods and aren't happy with the WMA format used by the MyGIG system. You can't put iPod files onto the hard drive, but you can copy from many generic MP3 players, and it also records from DVDs - fairly quickly. Regardless, the sound quality of this system was simply excellent with the nine Infinity speakers, regardless of the seating position.
The two overhead video screens presented a high quality picture, and the supplied headphones meant that kids could listen to their movies (or TV shows) without bothering the driver. They can also listen to different movies at the same time, though they have to be in different rows to do that.
As time went on, the Town & Country grew on us. It helped that kids went nuts over it, playing with all the various features and exploring; though they probably stop doing that after a few years. But there were a number of useful features that normal car buyers don't really see or experience, but which one discovers after some time. Some of these were minor things: the directional LED lights, for example, provided clear, usable bright light without interfering much with the driver's night vision. The halo light can actually be useful for passengers at night, without bothering the driver, and can be shut off. The multitude of storage bins up front will really make some people happy, and the twin glove compartments get around the old problems of fat owners manuals taking up all the space, and not being able to get into the glove-box without hitting your knees. (The upper glove box also has some very primitive coin slots.)
Numerous settings can easily be changed by the driver, using the easy trip-computer interface. The multitude of door controls provides a lot of flexibility, while the lockouts keep you safe - as do the door safety mechanisms. The attractive interior and elegant instrument panel can make driving a pleasure, and the front and middle row heated seats are quite nice in winter - having them available with cloth seats is an “about time” bonus. Big auto-dimming exterior rear mirrors and parking alert systems are gifts that keep on giving. The ride was nicely damped, and the interior was very quiet even at highway speeds, courtesy of better aerodynamics. We also appreciated the automatic hazard flasher activation, whenever the side doors were opened, and the power memory for the stereo and windows (user controllable up to 15 minutes).
On the down side, we were never thrilled about the front seats, and though cornering is pretty good, it could feel more nimble - like it used to, when the minivan was much lighter. The added weight also made itself felt in gas mileage, which was far less than we'd like - EPA estimates of 16 city, 23 highway were reflected in our experience. We’d love to see better mileage, and in 2009, perhaps we will. In the meantime, we can always be consoled with the fact that the minis still easily out-economize body-on-frame SUVs, despite often-larger, quieter, and more fully featured interiors. The squealing tires were more of an issue; Chrysler really needs to re-examine either their suspension tuning or, more likely, their choice of tire suppliers.
Our test Town & Country Limited started out at $36,400, which seems like a lot until you compare it with just about any SUV of similar size - not to mention similar features. It's far less than the pointless extravagance that is the Cadillac Escalade and Lincoln Navigator, with more to recommend it to anyone who doesn't travel on unplowed streets or tow heavy trailers. Standard equipment in the Limited includes side curtain airbags in all rows, tire pressure display, the two backup systems (video screen and beep-beep), stability control, antilock brakes, high intensity discharge headlights, power liftgate and dual power side doors, remote start on the key fob, power adjustable pedals, cruise control, three-zone climate control with thermostat, air filter, window shades, swiveling reading lamps, rechargeable flashlight, MyGIG, wheel-mounted audio controls, Infinity stereo system, 115 volt AC adapter, dual glove boxes, heated front and second row seats, satellite radio, fog lights, roof rack, and that old favorite, exterior mirrors with integrated turn signals. Also included are the four-liter V6 and six-speed automatic, a combination which provide instant get up and go from any speed.
Just to make sure you have all that - the Limited includes as standard features the hard-drive stereo, video backup system, HID headlights, all those power doors, and Infinity stereo. When you pay $36,400, you get a fully loaded vehicle that really has few imaginable options. Try getting a deal like that with an SUV; it’s rather hard to do.
Here are the unimaginable options our vehicle had: the dual DVD stereo, with two eight inch video screens, each having a separate DVD player, headphones, remote control, and satellite TV: $2,020. Power folding rear seat, $595. And Swivel 'n' Go, with the swivelling/removeable second-row seats and the table, at $495.
Overall, the new minivans have an incredible number of new features, which can outweigh the Hobson’s choice between effortless, smooth acceleration and reasonable gas mileage. We look forward to taking a base model out for a spin, and seeing how they do with the 3.3 liter engine and four-speed automatic (keeping in mind that there is also a 3.8 liter alternative, with that nice new six-speed.) Maybe we can even convince the IRS to allow a trip to the UK, to test out a diesel-powered minivan?
If you’re in the market for a minivan now, the Town & Country Limited provides an incredible set of options, and is nicer to drive than the Toyota Sienna, and more comfortable than the Honda Odyssey; reliability rankings generally put the Chrysler and Honda together, in the “average” category, but the new “lifetime” powertrain warranty might help nervous prospects to give some more credence to the Chrysler. Either way, this generation once again leapfrogs the competition - and perhaps Chrysler will surprise us again in a couple of years, instead of making us wait until 2012.