by David Zatz in October 2014
The first modern minivan was the Plymouth Voyager, followed a minute or two later by the Dodge Caravan. Now, Mopar buyers have a choice of the Dodge Caravan and, starting in trim and price where Caravan leaves off, the Chrysler Town & Country.
The Chrysler is mostly different from the Dodge on the surface, but the surface matters: Chrysler has nicer exterior and interior styling, good quality leather, and all sorts of gadgets and gizmos. Underneath both is the well-proven architecture from the 1990s, with a new powertrain and electronics architecture. But what’s it like to own and drive?
First, driving: if you’re used to the old minivans, be prepared for a surprise. Normally, the van feels tame, though the steering and brakes are both more precise than they used to be, even in the 2008-10 models. The transmission is smooth and gentle. Now go to the Interstate, and from about 5 mph, punch the pedal.
In the old vans, like my own 2006 (with the bigger 3.8 V6), the engine roars, but the slushbox automatic takes off the edge, and the power just isn't really there. It moves, but like a good minivan, not a car. Now try it in the 2014 Chrysler or Dodge minivans. You have much more horsepower and some more torque — and a new evolution of the same automatic, with six speeds instead of four, and variable fluid pressure to increase efficiency. The result is much, much faster acceleration — definitely more carlike — with a more refined, modern-sports-car engine sound. Cornering and braking are both better, too. But more on this later...
The 2014 powertrain seemed to be greatly improved over the 2013. Luck of the draw or upgraded software and hardware? We don’t know. The 2015 should be similar to the 2014.
The minivan has no “cheap points”; no sharp edges, rock-hard surfaces, or park-bench seats. The leather was soft and giving, and the seats were comfortable and supportive (if a bit firm in front and rear — apparently the center seats are the sweet spots). Our 2014, unlike the 2013, had contrasting stitching on the middle-row seats, though that’s a pretty minor point.
The colors have been carefully chosen to balance pragmatic issues (avoiding reflections in the windshield) with the desire for a spacious look (light pillars and roof) and style (two-tone seats with contrasting stitching).
The dashboard is classy, with chrome rings around the shifter, gauges, and climate control area; dull silver accents on the steering wheel are coupled with thin chrome outlines (to keep glare in check); and a two-tone interior scheme, with black seats, door panel inserts, and dashboard and light ceiling, pillars, door panels, lower dashboard, and console.
The gauge cluster has little round gas and temperature gauges within larger speedometer and tachometer circles, and the EVIC (trip computer) in between; the minivans are still relatively low-resolution monochrome setups, ironically easier to read than the new high-res, full-color versions with their smaller print.
The gauges have an elegant look, aside from the stubby red needles, with white backlighting (light blue at major speed and tachometer points). The green “headlights or parking lights are on” indicator is a pointless distraction which seems to be gaining momentum in modern cars.
The dashboard shifter has a manual override, dubbed Electronic Range Select, which allows you to choose lower gears or higher ones (e.g. starting out in second). It can be used for higher engine braking; there’s not much point in using it to increase acceleration, because under full throttle, you'll get pretty much the same reactions from the automatic transmission.
The dashboard shifter looks funky and takes some getting used to, especially with the semi-gating Daimler seemed to like so much; it’s pretty much de rigeur among minivans these days, because it saves space (don’t be surprised if the ’17s use “the knob”), and it works just fine once you've driven the van for a few days. It certainly works better than the all-too-electronic shifter used in 2011-2014 Charger and 300 V6 cars. We own one of those and still mis-shift at times.
The dual upper/lower glove compartments provide extra storage (and an extra USB slot), as do the dual front map pockets, under-stack roped-off handbag space, middle cupholders, or dual covered consoles. The latter have accordion covers with a push-then-move action; one has a pair of power outlets, the other has a coin holder. And all the storage areas have rattle-damping measures, usually removable rubber inserts.
It was possible, if not easy, to climb from the front row all the way back to the rear gate; though getting over the front-center console is tricky, the thing can be removed. The console, incidentally, has a rear slide-out portion with cupholders for center row passengers, and enough space for a big DSLR camera (this “super console” is not standard on all levels.)
The overhead console has the door controls, including the interior door power lockout. By turning this on, owners can open and close the doors manually from the inside and outside; they can still be power-opened or power-closed from the overhead console or the key fob. The doors open and close smoothly, easily, and quickly when not under power.
The climate control is easy to use, for a three-way system, though the buttons (de rigeur now) are awkward. You can set the front driver, front passenger, and rear temperatures separately, and choose the vent system, with a separate control for turning on the a/c compressor. Another button lets you lock in rear temperature and fan settings.
All buttons are large enough for control with gloves, logically placed, well labeled, and backlit at night, to minimize distraction. The fan is loud on its top setting but is more reasonable at other settings; unfortunately, there's no “automatic-medium” setting, and pushing the Auto button puts the rear climate control onto auto, along with the front.
The one major annoyance was setting the vents; rather than have different buttons for main (a/c), split/bilevel, and floor (heat), a single button cycled through the modes. However, this was somewhat compensated for by having physical seat and steering wheel heater buttons integrated with the rest, along with front and rear defroster buttons. We would also have preferred knobs for setting the temperature, rather than up/down buttons.
Overhead, our test car used oversized rear-seat video screens for each row; with the two standard sets of wireless headphones, kids in middle and in back can watch completely different shows. The overhead system included snazzy white LED lighting, with an equally snazzy blue-green neon outline that could be dimmed. The only downside to this was the vastly diminished rearward visibility when the video screens were used.
In this people mover, the center and rear rows of seats were not afterthoughts; the middle row is as comfortable as the front row. The level of trim is the same in back, though the seats seem a bit thinner. A handy flip-down mirror lets the driver view a baby or other passenger in the right-side passenger seat and the rearmost seats without turning around. Huge windows provide a fine view of the outside as long as the video screens are up, and the massive windshield and low beltline give excellent access to the front and sides regardless.
Powered by the award-winning Pentastar V6, with a standard six-speed automatic, both Caravan and Town & Country have good acceleration — far better than you’d think a minivan would need; but economy has fallen from best to worst in class. Compare the Chrysler minivans’ 17 city, 25 highway to Odyssey at 19/28, Sienna at 18/25, and even Nissan Quest at 19 city, 25 highway. True, Chrysler is extremely close to Dodge, but the gap is in city mileage, which is arguably more important than highway mileage, especially for those who use them to take kids to school. As one might expect in such a large vehicle, speeding is particularly nasty for gas mileage.
It’s no surprise, then, that the next generation will switch to a nine-speed automatic, and add a hybrid-electric variant. But that’s not due until the end of 2015 or so. For those who lease, the fuel usage may be insignificant, but it’s an issue for long term buyers who care about economy.
Driven gently, the six-speed automatic was smooth and unobtrusive, with nearly imperceptible shifts. The engine rarely revved past 2,000 rpm with such treatment, except when getting up to speed on a highway.
Push your foot down further, and the transmission quickly downshifts, putting you into the 3,500-and-higher main power band of the Pentastar Six.
The engine has good torque at low rpm, allowing the transmission to stay in higher gears most of the time, and providing a “kick” when needed, even before the always-rapid downshift. Again, one can drive around town all day long and rarely pass 2,000 rpm; there's lots of extra power, and on the straights, you can maintain good highway speeds at surprisingly low rpm.
Just as a side note, take a look at the power and weight of the Charger and minivan. We weren't able to test the minivan’s speed, but the Charger does 0-60 in 6.6 seconds. Deduct some points for weight, the transmission, and slightly lower horsepower, and you still have the makings of a pretty fast van.
Hit the gas hard, even at highway speed, and the engine will quickly rev up; starting with 3,500 rpm, you can feel those 283 horsepower. When roused, it sounds like a sports car far more than a minivan; and if you slam the pedal to the metal at low speed, e.g. for a 20-to-65 highway merge, there’s a definite but not dangerous sensation of torque steer.
There is plenty of power on tap,
and when the driver hits the gas, it does not take long before the speedometer starts to fly up, no matter what speed one started out at.
The tires are not up to the needs of the powertrain, and squeals are all but inevitable on quick launches. Under-specified tires also reduce traction somewhat, though that might be intentional, to avoid driver overconfidence.
The low first gear, which would have been handy with weaker engines or stronger tires, simply makes it harder to burn rubber at launch. Buyers should consider a visit to Tire Rack along with their Town & Country purchase, while being aware that a top-heavy vehicle can still cause problems around sharp turns even if the tires don’t squeal.
An “econ” button switches to gas-mileage mode; the system seemed to be more refined and less annoying in 2014 than 2013, though this might be the individual minivan we were given, since the transmission learns driving habits. Once you press the econ button, the car remembers where you set it on future trips, a convenient touch.
The ride is firm; it handles potholes and rough roads with little fuss or noise, but without some of the luxury-car feel of past Chrysler minivans. Bumps are felt, not heard. Wind noise is somewhat high at 65 mph, but not noticeable at lower speeds. There seemed to be an overpressure in the cabin, which may only be noticed by people with sensitive ears.
The Town & Country normally felt stable and cornered well, but the screechy tires were not confidence inspiring, and there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of margin for emergencies. The Town & Country is, after all, a full sized minivan. It handles well for a vehicle of its size but, in the end, it is a vehicle of its size. That said —
We went to a 1969-construction racing track in West Virginia for a Dodge event, and the track instructors showed us where to accelerate and where to brake using Dodge Caravans. In the rain. I was amazed at what they could do with the vans, just as much as I’d been amazed by the acceleration in a straight line. These are not your father’s minivans.
Now that we are used to Chrysler cars with 8.4-inch touch-screens, it is odd to go back to the prior generation, with CD players hidden behind the tilt-screen and a DVD player below for the overhead video players.
Our test car had the RHB stereo; it does as much as the newer, larger units, and sounds as good when the car is parked, though sound quality suffers a bit from wind noise at highway speeds.
It is harder to choose music using a tiny single knob and on-screen buttons, on the old interface; Chrysler’s top-rated newer systems have big physical knobs for browsing, and in any case can fit more information onto the screen (and, if you select by artist, more modern systems arrange music in album order, while the van still does it in alphabetical order).
If you fill up the 30 GB hard drive, or use a nice big USB drive, navigating while driving becomes dangerous, despite the ability to choose by artist or album or playlist.
The unit’s CD/DVD player can be used to record songs to its 30-gigabyte hard drive, or to play music directly; rather than adding one CD at a time, it’s probably faster (though still rather slow) and easier to “rip” the music onto your computer, copy it to a thumb drive, and add it all at once. You can also simply shove a USB thumb drive into the upper glove compartment, and play it from there, a cheap and easy solution. The unit moves files from USB and CD into its own hard drive rather slowly.
The hard-drive stereo plays USB thumb drives with MP3 and AAC files (including iTunes Store songs, except the old copy-protected ones), using the glove-compartment port; the on-unit port is for importing music from thumb drives. The remote USB port shows Mac resource files as unplayable, while the copy-to-hard-drive function conveniently ignores them. (Mac experts can describe numerous ways to easily deal with the invisible file problem.)
The satellite radio system was well integrated (though the number of stations, again, makes it awkward, unless you select a few as favorites), as was the video player. The satellite sound was not bad but as usual it was far from the quality of the USB or CD player.
Changing bass, treble, or midrange took a press to the physical Audio button, then the virtual Equalizer button, then presses on a virtual equalizer (you can drag the equalizer knobs). It seems odd to have such cost-cutting (a tiny single knob) in a van this costly, but that’s a holdover from the Daimler days.
Switching modes required pressing both hard and soft buttons, or using the wheel-mounted mode button. For radio, it shows a list of presets, four per screen, with the names of the stations.
The nine-inch overhead video screens (the same size as old Mac screens!) had a good picture, and the headphones let kids could listen without bothering the driver. The roof-mounted screens are well out of danger from kids’ feet, but their size gets in the way of the rear window.
Nearly the entire UConnect system was available on our van, including navigation and Travel Link, which provides sports scores, weather and ski info, fuel prices, and movie information from the car. The system worked quickly, though there was more button-pushing needed than on newer systems. Our minivan did not have traffic reports.
As one would expect, the entire system can be controlled by voice, after pressing a button on the steering wheel. Good luck with that — on any car. It is getting better, but again, the Town & Country still has the old system.
Safety features include blind spot monitoring, rain-sensitive wipers, mobile Internet, and rear cross path alerts (the latter warns you if you’re backing out while someone is driving by). Our car also came with a backup camera and distance-sensitive backup alert; the camera had a clear color picture, with a center guide line and color distance indicator, and a good view at night.
The mobile Internet system has a high initial cost but low monthly fees are low; Chrysler AutoNet can support multiple users at once, and is designed for quick handoffs between access points. It was easy to connect to the network, which provided a strong signal within the van. When within reach of a fast signal, count on something between modem and DSL; slower signals are roughly modem speed.
Chrysler boasted the first trip computer in a mass production car, and has tended to include trip computers ever since. As each new car is redesigned, it has been getting a full color trip computer; the minivans were redesigned just before that, so they have a monochrome panel between the speedometer and tachometer instead of the fancier color ones.
The trip computer always tells the temperature, compass heading, and odometer, with the driver’s choice of displays: nothing, gas mileage (average, distance-to-empty, and instant are all on one screen), speed (in mph or km/h), trip odometers and timer, tire pressure (for all four tires, separately), engine hours, messages, or, if in Park, car customization. There’s a lot of forward-and-backward button pressing; it could cycle more things at once, and could display more than one thing on a page (e.g. coolant, oil temperature, and oil pressure could all be in one display). Controlling the display is easier than in the past, with four buttons on the steering wheel.
Power sliding doors and hatches are de rigeur now for minivans, and our Chrysler had both. Opening and closing minivan doors manually is easy, if the rear door/window lock is on, or if the person pulls twice on the door handle; they slide open faster and more easily than in past models. The doors can be opened from the key fob or from the front-overhead buttons, as well as (if you don't turn the lock on) from buttons in the middle row. Some competitors don’t let you operate the power doors manually.
The rear hatch can always be operated manually, which is often easier and faster than using the power option, though not if your hands are full of groceries or luggage.
Getting in and out was easy; grab handles are still supplied at all the doors (except the driver’s), 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.
The front seats are too firm, without enough bolster; they are still more comfortable than the 2008s. Around a tight turn, center and rear passengers can feel a bit unstable due to the lack of “sink-down” into the seats.
Both front seats and both middle seats had attached, soft flip-up armrests, which work better than the Toyota models that have a ratchet mechanism. The rear row is comfortable and there is plenty of legroom as well.
Folding the middle row is now a one-lever deal; move the front seat forward (slowly, if you have electric seats) and lift the cover of the storage area, which you can do without removing the carpet (which is now sort of plugged into the floor so it stays in place). Then lift a single lever and the headrest springs down, the seat folds, and it pivots right into the space, getting there with its own momentum; it's much easier than the 2006-07 versions.
The rear seats were always easy to stow; the slower electric system boasts a “tailgating system.” Either way, you have to pull a strap to flip the headrests down first.
Above the van, the roofrack crossbars were folded into the side supports, increasing the aerodynamic efficiency of the Town & Country.
Both front doors two levels of map pockets; there were six cupholders, four of which had bubble-type drink securing devices, and two of which could hold ceramic mugs; a huge area underneath the center stack; two glove compartments; and a huge center bin. This, cupholders, power supply, and all, could be removed and placed between the middle-row seats.
The middle seats had individual cupholders in the doors, with mesh seat pockets on the back of the front seats; rear seats had the old-style molded-in-sides cupholders carried over from 1984.
Both middle and rearmost rows could take advantage of manually activated sunshades, a very useful idea for summer trips, especially since they were mesh — the driver could still see out.
As in the past, the interior is cavernous, and folding down various combinations of seats allows for a great deal of storage capacity. With the seats up, one can use the compartments they would go into if they were stowed.
Controls were sensible and well labeled, generally with backlighting. Door controls were at each door, on the key fob, and in an overhead row of buttons, in logical order. Our car had the keyless ignition, with a pushbutton installed in the spot where the keys would normally go. The parking brake is a traditional but awkward push-to-release pedal, making it easy to fully activate.
Door controls include a mirror folding button, front and middle window up/down, passenger window control lockout, and rearmost window openers — they open at the back, by around an inch, a feature from the 1980s that is still useful. The headlight control is simple and easy to use, and provides access to automatic headlights, parking lights, headlights on, and headlights off, with push-for-fogs — more control than most cars give — with separate rheostats for dome lights and those blue LED effects. The setup is good enough for Maserati.
Headlights were powerful and had a good spread, but we're cheating on this one because the Limited has HID headlights. Even the standard headlights are strong and better than on past minivans.
The Town & Country has useful features that owners tend to discover over time, such as the ability to change preferences using the trip computer, or the various door safety stops. The dome and map lights did a surprisingly good job of lighting up the entire minivan at night; the LED-plus-neon interior on our car lets people have personal lights without much driver distraction.
We appreciated having the hazard flashers go on whenever the side doors were opened. Even the low end Dodge Caravans has many standard features, and the Chrysler is even better equipped; instead of tossing massive rebates on the hood, Chrysler is throwing in lots of gadgets and higher grade materials, with a lower price.
Generally, we've been pretty positive, and for good reason. However, we do have a few complaints.
The hazard flashers are in a small button between the large economy mode and 115V power buttons. We understand that’s mainly for labeling, but the red triangle could be brighter — say, as bright as the heat buttons.
Buttons are used all too often where there should be knobs — for the temperature controls, to change radio stations, to navigate through music. We already noted the driver-distracting issues with the touch screen stereo. Of course you can use the voice command system for that. [Insert laughter here. Seriously, just try it. On any car. I will admit I got the system to understand a street address...once.]
The EVIC is an odd mix of excellent and foolish design. Most of the time, to move from one thing to the other, we have to go back, then up, then in. Why? There are several information displays in one menu, but most of the time, we have single-item menus. It's like an old Windows Start menu, where each manufacturer decided they needed their own folder hierarchy even if they only made one program (e.g. Perseus > SurveySolutions> Perseus SurveySolutions). Why not put “vehicle info” into one menu so you can travel between gas mileage and tire pressure and messages more easily? No, three separate menus, thank you. On the lighter side, you can see oil, coolant, and transmission-fluid temperatures separately, always nice in cold weather or when towing.
The stereo hard drive records music absurdly slowly, even from USB drives. Perhaps it has to transcode from MP3 and AAC into some odd internal format? And why does it understand that Mac invisible files should not be imported, yet still gets confused by them when you play directly from a USB drive? (Which has to be plugged into the glove compartment. Quick hint: you can buy small USB drives which stick out by just a few millimeters, yet hold 32 GB of data.)
Did we complain about the seats yet? It’s an endemic problem in cars now. One used to sink into seats a bit, that held people in place (regardless of their size) and provided some cushioning. The bench seat in my Valiant has similar if not better support, thanks to its weak springs, and more cushioning. These seats do admittedly look a lot better, but you can get a Fiat 500 or Dodge Dart with more comfortable seats. We have come down a long way down from the 300M. (On the other hand, Chrysler still provides fine flip-up center armrests in front and middle seats, which, unlike some other brands, always seem to be level.)
Finally, the automatic day/night mirror is like all automatic day/night mirrors: much less effective than the old fashioned manual variety.
Overall, though, the pluses outweigh the minuses. Minivans remain an excellent choice for those who need a large vehicle. They have better storage and seating options than most crossovers, cost less than many equivalent choices, handle well in snow and on dry ground, and overall are just the sensible, if not the fashionable, option. Unlike competitors, Chrysler lets you operate the side doors and rear hatch manually, saving time, and has that invaluable Stow ’n’ Go seating — either move the seats out of the way, or store stuff in the seat-wells, it’s your choice. The carpet “plugs” in the center row are a nice plus that keep them in place, while still letting you access the storage areas or put the seats away entirely.
The fancy interior and gadgetry of the Town & Country Limited tend to impress “visitors,” overcoming any minivan stigma.
The base price of the Town & Country Limited (the top of the line) is $42,990, including shipping — $2,000 more than in 2013. That’s not exceptional for a minivan, but it is over $10,000 more than the base Town & Country Touring, and Grand Caravan is under $22,000.
Even the Chrysler Town & Country Touring includes leather seats, DVD player (with second-row video screen, remote, and wireless headphones), fold-flat seats, dual power sliding doors and liftgate, UConnect stereo/voice control/phone, backup camera, eight way power driver’s seat, seven airbags, and three-way automatic climate control.
The Touring L adds perforated leather seats, remote start, and the SafetyTec package (blind spot monitor, rear cross path detection, parking assist, and such). This setup might be the best bargain of the entire minivan line, at $35,460. (There is also an S and a 30th Anniversary for 2014.)
The Limited adds Nappa leather seats — Nappa leather is a high-end leather, not merely a Chrysler trade name — heated front and second row seats, wood-and-leather heated steering wheel, dual Blu-ray/DVD players, navigation, 506 watt amp with nine speakers, keyless driving, driver memory, power folding mirrors (a single button folds all mirrors; they come back out when you switch into Drive), nicer wheels, adjustable pedals, HID headlamps, bright handles, and the “super console” between the front seats.
Our test minivan had the luxury group ($1,995), which included the power sunroof, automatic load leveling, mini overhead console, dual rear overhead consoles, and power folding rear seats — not a package for the faint of heart. The total price came to $44,985, putting it into the same league as the 300C V6.
Every Chrysler minivan has the 283 horsepower V6 and six-speed automatic transmission. They come with a three year or 36,000 mile basic warranty with towing assistance plus a 5/100 powertrain warranty and 24-hour towing. They are made in Windsor, Ontario, and use engines and transmissions built in the United States; 75% of the content is from the US and Canada. (Some engines may come from Mexico.) The official gas mileage rating is 17 city, 25 highway — 20 overall — or five gallons per hundred miles.
Chrysler’s new quality systems and standards are promising, and their minivans have generally achieved average or better quality ratings.
The overall crash-safety score is 4 stars — five stars for side crashes, four for frontal and rollover.
The Town & Country has another year or two in this form. There is still a lot of 2001-07 Caravan underneath the luxury trim, but there’s also better brakes, more power, better sound insulation, many more conveniences, numerous safety features, and that thick layer of luxury to the inside and outside. Oh, and it still competes on equal terms with a Toyota Sienna. If you need a minivan now, the Town & Country remains quite competitive — as its consistently strong sales figures show. But if you can wait until the 2017s...
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