2009 Chrysler Town & Country (Dodge Caravan) minivan car reviews
Notes: Chrysler Town & Country LX
|Personality||Easy to drive, bland family hauler|
|Why we’d buy it||Safety, family-friendly features, versatility|
|Why we wouldn’t||Gas mileage, squealing tires|
|What we’d try||Good tires; opting for the 4.0 liter V6|
|Gas mileage||EPA 2009, 17/24 (3.8 lower, 4.0 V6 higher)|
Last year, we tested the high-end Limited; this year, we tested an entry-level LX model, which starts at $27,250 (about the same as a 300) before rebates and such; the Limited, in contrast, starts at $37,350 (similar to a 300C).
Our test 2009 Chrysler Town & Country had the base 3.3 liter engine, a fine powerplant that has been in the Chrysler lineup since the K-car days. It has been power-boosted numerous times, but remains reliable. That engine is hooked up to a four-speed automatic, a relic, but smooth and responsive. The engine was quiet, the transmission shifting unobtrusively and smoothing full-throttle shifts.
Both gearing and programming allowed for easy coasting, with quick downshifts when needed for passing, and the AutoStick feature was absolutely unnecessary - and also easy to use when needed, though not quite as easy to figure out. From Drive, AutoStick was activated (and a gear was added or dropped) by pushing the gearshift right or left; getting the system to go back into Drive was the tricky part. One could either bump-bump-bump up to fourth, or wait a while, or go to Neutral and back again.
This drivetrain, once top of the line for the priciest Chrysler minivans, has moderately good acceleration and is responsive, with a quick downshift bringing the engine into its wide power band. For most drivers, it will be more than adequate; around town the Town & Country moves comfortably enough, and getting onto highways is easy, with passing power when needed. Still, the four-liter V6, which comes with a six-speed automatic that boasts a nice low first gear, is much quicker, and gets better gas mileage. The 251 horsepower V6 gets 17 city, 25 highway; while the 3.3 gets the same 17 city, but just 24 highway.
Engines are tied to trim levels: base models come only with the 3.3 and four-speed automatic. The Touring model comes with the 3.8 liter V6 and a six-speed automatic, which gets just 16 mpg city, 23 highway, unless you pony up for the "L" package ($3,500 above the base Touring and $6,400 about the LX) and throw in $650 for the optional engine. Finally, the Limited comes with the four-liter to begin with.
The 2009 Town & Country seemed less nimble than the 2007 models, which stuck to the road with surprising grip; partly because the Yokohama Avid S33 tires — like the Turanzas on our 2008 — were classified as "B" for traction. With this rubber, you can easily squeal the tires on takeoff or hard turns regardless of the engine you get; they aren’t distinguished performers on water, either. Plan to spend a little cash on new tires after buying that new car, unless you can get the dealer to swap them out for you. The minivan stayed composed during sharp turns, though the tires screamed, indicating that the tires, not the suspension, are the problem.
The ride is fairly firm, handling potholes and rough roads with little fuss or noise, but without the luxury-car feel of past Chrysler minivans; there’s a close-to-the-road feel reminscient of the prior-generation Jeep Grand Cherokee. Poor road surfaces are well damped. Wind noise is not bad, but ambient freeway noise can get a little loud on the LX; the Limited seemed quieter.
Gizmos and gadgets and mobile Internet
The newest feature on our van was the mobile Internet. We were already familiar with cell-based Internet adapters, having a Verizon 3G USB adapter that provides us with a signal when we’re far from home (or when FIOS gives up), so we had a basis of comparison. Chrysler’s system is much pricier to start with, at nearly $500, but the monthly fees are much lower than Verizon’s, at around $30 per month (vs. $60 for a similar plan), so they should work out even if you keep them for two years — the length of Verizon’s contract. There are also differences in operation; the Chrysler AutoNet system can support multiple users at once, though not with a great deal of speed, and is designed for quick handoffs between access points. Systems like the Verizon card we normally use are designed for staying in one place.
The details of the AutoNet system are rather interesting, and somewhat irrelevant to most users. In essence, the system uses three radios, two of them EVDO systems and one 1xRTT system, to try to get a signal no matter where it is; it includes Ethernet and USB ports, so you can plug directly into the system, and a wireless router, which seemed a little slow to announce itself. We found it very easy to connect to the twin-antenna wireless network, which provided a strong signal within the van and (we’re told) for around 100 yards outside the van, as well; the system quickly brought us to a signal strength screen, which gave us a reading of 37%, the exact number given by our Verizon EVDO system.
Performance of the system was a little slow for EVDO, in our experience, but not intolerably so. When you’re within reach of an EVDO transmitter, and most people will be as long as they’re in moderately populated areas, you get a connection somewhere between modem and DSL, enough to get your work done, and just good enough to really frustrate younger kids (but why are you letting them surf without supervision, anyway?) When you’re out of reach of EVDO, you will often be within a 1xRTT antenna, which provides roughly the same access as a modem. Mobile warriors will most likely find that to be far better than the alternative, which is no signal at all. For normal browsing and e-mail, it’s enough. (Details: 3G download speeds are between 400-800 Kbps/sec; upload speeds average 400 Kbps).
Security for the system is the easily-cracked WEP protocol, but if you mainly use it while driving, that’s probably no problem unless there’s a cracker in the car next to yours. The system shuts off when your car does, so you don’t have to worry about people taking advantage of your car hot-spot while it sits in your driveway. On the downside, cars were just about the only haven some people had from the Internet... not to mention the pervasive wi-fi signals.
Back down to Earth, our LX also had the optional ParkView system, which routes a fuzzy, wide-angle color image from a small camera above the license plate to the stereo screen. The system can save a child’s life (the largest cause of car-based child fatalities is getting backed over - usually in their own driveway), which is well worth the money. ParkView can be purchased in a $2,000 package with the rear seat video, a hard-drive based stereo with satellite radio and DVD player, and the ParkView system. It worked well and was useful not only for detecting obstacles (such as cars, kids, and telephone poles), but also for figuring out where to stop when backing into a space; the camera is right by the bumper, so if you stop when the line looks as though it's just behind you, you're right there in the space.
Another “accident avoidance” safety feature was the tire pressure alert, which appeared underneath the speedometer. That area can also be used to show distance to empty, average mileage, or temperature and compass heading. Our test vehicle did not have new safety gadgets that prevent lane-change collisions and reverse-related accidents.
Minivan seats and interior features
As with past minivans, it was possible, if not easy, to climb from the front row all the way back to the rear gate; that’s made easier if you remove the center console (which is easy enough to do). Getting in and out was easy, thanks to a nicely engineered floor height; unlike comparable SUVs, the Town & Country minivan required no climbs to get in. Grab handles are still supplied at all the doors just to make sure, but they probably won’t be needed; and if you have wheelchair-bound relatives, Chrysler can set you up with an aftermarket wheelchair loader installer.
Our test car had the swivel seats, with a portable table that stows in the little space in the storage wells aft of the middle row of seats; it installed easily and locked in with clear feedback. The tabletop was nicely positioned for playing cards, but it only overlapped the seats by a few inches, so it was not as useful as a work table. With both forward and rearward facing seats set up, 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 small kids. With Stow n Go, there's more legroom for rear passengers.
The comfortable middle row of seats are safest facing backward, since a panic stop or crash will press the occupant uniformly against the seat-back. Facing the seats rearwards also made it easier for third-row passengers to get in and out; they were easy to swivel, not quite so easy to remove.
The table seemed a bit firmer than we remembered from the 2008 models, and it was attached to the pole by Velcro tape loops, making the package easier to live with. It also seemed easier to get in and out of its storage compartment than in 2008, though perhaps that was just experience.
The manual stow-n-go seats (in the rear row for swivel-equipped minivans, and in both rear rows for other minivans) worked easily enough to make powered stowing seats seem like a silly idea; no instructions were needed to operate the clearly numbered, easily found straps. Rear seats also had a tailgating position, where they flip over so that you can sit backwards, feet dangling out of the open rear hatch; it's comfortable as long as you recline with the seat.
Both front seats had attached, soft flip-up armrests, which work better than the Toyota models that have a ratchet mechanism.
Storage and such
There were 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 had not one but two levels of map pockets; six cupholders, two of which have bubble-type drink securing devices; a single overhead bin (a multiple overhead bin system is optional); a huge bin underneath the center stack; two glove compartments; and, if you took out two or four of the front cupholders, a center bin. This, cupholders and all, could be removed and placed between the middle-row seats.
The middle seats had individual cupholders in the doors, and rear seats had the old-style molded-in-sides cupholders carried over, it seems, from 1984.
Controls were generally sensible and well labelled, though the profusion of features led to a proliferation of switches. The left hand stalk had controls for both front and rear washer/wipers, while the cruise got its own ministalk; door controls were at each door, on the key fob, and in an overhead row of switches, in logical order. The touch-screen stereo on our test car was harder to deal with than a conventional unit, especially for audio modifications (which required two touches to the screen, diverting attention from the road); this stereo is optional, but if you want the rear video camera or DVD player, you have to get the it.
The heat was noisy and the engine was a bit slow to warm up, though air conditioning was quiet and effective. The base model’s three-zone climate control, with three fan knobs and three hot/cold knobs, took a little getting used to, but was logically laid out. 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 window controls are on the doors, and can be locked out by the driver; they 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.
The instrument panel was attractive enough, with well-chosen black lettering standing out elegantly from a dull silver background which becomes indigo green at night; it was easy to read in just about any light, and was best looking at night, when the markings seemed sharper and the dull chrome rings were hidden.
Controls were mostly conventional, aside from the dash-mounted gearshift; without any markings, you navigate by feel, which is pretty easy with just four detents. The AutoStick control is usually unnecessary, given the automatic's mind-reading capabilities (in either four or six speed varieties); to get out of AutoStick mode, keep pushing to the right.
The key goes into the dashboard, a nice feature that's becoming more common since Chevrolet revived it a decade ago; headlights have a knob and rheostat in Chrysler's traditional location. The parking brake is a traditional but awkward push-to-release pedal.
Our unit had a 20 gigabyte hard drive for music storage, and satellite radio; 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). The DVD system quirks we noted in our first review seem to have been addressed now.
Switching modes required pressing both hard and soft buttons: press once on Radio Media, and you get touch-screen choices of AM/FM/Satellite (and Satellite TV if equipped), or Disk/DVD. For radio, it shows a list of presets, four per screen, with the names of the stations. The hard drive/disc has hard drive, Jukebox, disc, auxiliary (the little jack on front of the screen), VES (video DVD), 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 is nice for those who aren't happy with the WMA format used by the MyGIG system; the iPod’s default AAC format reportedly has better sound, though it might not be noticeable in a car. 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 excellent with the nine Infinity speakers, regardless of the seating position; and pretty good with the audio system in our 2009 model.
The overhead video screen presented a high quality picture, and the supplied headphones meant that kids could listen to their movies (or TV shows) without bothering the driver. Perhaps more important, the screen, which pulled down from the roof, didn't interfere with the rear-view mirror, as some other video systems do.
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 also useful features that prospective car buyers don't usually experience until afte taking the plunge, which go far beyond the incredible multitude of storage spaces, such as the ability to change preferences 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 various dome and map lights did a surprisingly good job of lighting up the entire minivan at night; while the optional LED-plus-Neon package is mondo cool and lets people have personal lights without much driver distraction. And, of course, there's the ability to carry your whole personal music collection in the dashboard via “the system formerly known as MyGIG.”
The optional front and middle row heated seats were quite nice in winter, as was being able to get them with cloth seats. We appreciated having the hazard flashers go on whenever the side doors were opened and the key was in the ignition, and the power memory for the stereo and windows (up to 15 minutes). The coin racks in the pull-out cupholders were designed to prevent rattles, and rubber inserts in cubbies could be pulled out and cleaned; our camera fit right into the middle cubby and was pretty much out of sight, hidden by the removeable cupholders (the cubby itself could be moved to between the middle-row seats). Kids liked the variety of swivel seats and we liked the extra safety (the van, incidentally, got five-star ratings in all NHTSA categories except resistance to rollovers, where it got four stars).
Even the LX model had a huge number of surprisingly standard features, from a side airbags for various rows to stow-and-go seats to small, cushioned storage spaces for all manner of items. Not every car provides us with a place to store our camera, not to mention an upper glove compartment with can molds. ...
On the down side, we were not thrilled about front seat comfort, and though cornering is good enough, the minivan felt more nimble in prior generations. Gas mileage was far less than we'd like, though normal-to-good for a minivan and great for a similarly sized SUV. Chrysler really needs to re-examine their choice of tire suppliers, too; after the horrific Goodyears on our PT Cruiser GT (which many owners noted tend not to last 20,000 mles, and have poor traction compared to cheaper, more durable tires), we have to wonder if anyone's actually testing these things, or whether decisions are being made by an inexperienced junior MBA somewhere.
Most minivan owners (like most car and SUV owners) don't seem to need performance-car handling and acceleration; many will never notice the issues we had with the tires. For these people, the 3.3 is more than enough, as is the four-speed automatic; it has the most important feature of an engine propelling a heavy vehicle, which is ready torque throughout the range of engine speed.
Our 2008 Town & Country Limited started out at $36,400, which seems like a lot until you look at the standard features list or compare it with an SUV of similar size. 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.
Our 2009 Town & Country LX had a far more reasonable price, starting at $26,500 — though as ours was set up, it ran to a hefty $31,185. (Amusingly, the capacious, feature-laden Town & Country prices parallel those of the smaller, more bare-bones Chrysler 300.) That included a surprising array of standard features: side curtain airbags in all rows, electronic stability control with four-wheel antilock brakes, tire pressure monitor, power locks and windows, cruise control, three-zone air conditioning, rear wiper/washer and defroster, dual sliding doors, two rows of Stow ’n’ Go seats with tailgating on the rear row, trip computer, removeable floor console, all sorts of map and dome lights, tilt wheel, four-speaker CD stereo, tachometer, floor mats, front and rear power outlets, and dark glass.
Are there cars with all those features in that price range? Perhaps, but they won’t be able to seat seven people.
Our test car actually rang in at the cost of an upper-level Touring model (which gets the worst gas mileage of the range, having a 3.8 liter V6 and six-speed automatic without the fuel-saving features of the 4-liter V6). The swivel seats, with portable table, added $500 to the price, which is reasonable enough. The only real problem with the swivel seats, other than their cost, is that you give up on folding them into the floor; on the lighter side, the “folding bays” are still there.
The power convenience group added $1,600. This is a fairly frivolous item, adding power opening and closing to all three of the big doors, and, oddly, throwing in the eight-way power driver’s seat and manual lumbar support.
Then there’s the big cost - $2,120 for the DVD system. That’s a bit disconcerting because, along with the nine-inch roof-mounted screen, it includes the backup camera, 115 volt AC outlet, hard-drive based music system, six-speaker stereo, satellite radio, and two pairs of wireless headphones. In contrast, there are two eminently sensible options we would usually recommend: $250 for flexible fuel capacity (it can take 85% ethanol), and $225 for the integrated child booster seats. These are only good for older kids (perhaps six to eight years old) but they sure save a lot of hassle.
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.
In every case, you get a three year or 36,000 mile basic warranty with towing assistance and, as long as nobody forces Chrysler into bankruptcy, a lifetime powertrain warranty. The minivans are all made in Windsor, Ontario now, and use engines and transmissions built in the United States.
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 are generally in the “average” category, but the new “lifetime” powertrain warranty might help nervous prospects to give some more credence to the Chrysler. Negotiations with the dealer might get the price down quite a bit, and perhaps they’d throw in a more appropriate set of tires, too.