Since their introduction way back in 1984, Chrysler minivans stayed ahead of the competition - sometimes, by a very slim margin, as is the case today. The last generation managed to stay ahead until the new Honda Odyssey, but even then it was just a little better than the Chevrolet and Toyota counterparts (though quite a bit better than the aging Nissan and Ford minivans). With the 2001 model, Chrysler pulled ahead of the Odyssey by a slim margin.
If reliability is your only concern, look to the Sienna - we have heard many reports of problems with the Odyssey (particularly the transmissions), and, indeed, a certain magazine’s reliability ratings put the Odyssey and Chrysler minivans into the same category. Allpar readers will know how little stock we put into Consumer Reports, but it is an interesting outcome.
From the outside, the new Town & Country looks like the old one with new plastic appliques on the underside, and the lack of a “sliding door ridge” on the sides, thanks to a new door transport mechanism. There was also a new load-leveling shock option; cupholders were on hinges so tilting the seat didn’t cause spills; the Infinity stereo was retuned; and the driver’s side mirror had auto-dimming on some models. The leather seats were changed for better wear.
The most radical change, seems to be that now three doors can be powered — the two sliding doors, and the rear hatch. The system works well and is designed to prevent injury from people getting in the way of the closing doors. It's also easy to operate, with buttons in the cab, next to the doors, and on the key fob.
The instrument panel was reworked to look more like the 300M/LHS setup, with classy black on white gauges and Timex-style Indiglo backlighting [editor’s note: unfortunately, this did not last to 2006]. At night, there are no dark or light points. The gauges are easy to read day or night, and are pleasing to the eye. Centers are white on black to provide metric numbers. (Presumably export and Canadian versions are reversed, with kilometers on the white part and miles on the black part). Bright trim rings around each gauge complete the effect and make looking at the speedometer an enjoyable experience.
Carrying forward from the last generation are the 2.4, 3.3, and 3.8 liter engines, with substantial power boosts. The base 3.3, now with about 180 horsepower, is quieter and does not seem to work very hard. Power is more than satisfactory, with fast, smooth, quiet acceleration on tap from any speed, though the transmission sometimes tends to shift a little early.
We believe that the transmission is losing some of the engine's power; to be fair, our test vehicle was practically brand new when we got it, and the engine had not yet broken in entirely. Likewise, the transmission is adaptive, so the more you drive it, the more it shifts when and how you want it to shift. Shifts are very smooth, and the transmission does not hesitate long or hunt for gears. It also learns how you want it to shift (electronically), which is good if only one person drives it, or if two people with similar driving styles share it. We suspect a couple with very different driving patterns might confuse the transmission - perhaps in the future Chrysler can add personal programming of seat positions (common on luxury cars) and hook the transmission computer into it, so it can remember two or three shift patterns.
A 3.5 liter, 230 horsepower engine was announced, but never arrived.
Generally, the base 3.3 liter engine is more than sufficient for this van, providing sprightly acceleration and good torque for acceleration while climbing hills, despite air conditioning.
Handling is excellent for a vehicle of this size. With stock tires, the minivan always felt comfortable and in control around turns, though screeching of tires told us when we were being foolish. The Town & Country is easily one of the most nimble minivans we've driven, including the smaller Nissan Quest, and it does outhandle some cars. There was no feeling of top-heaviness.
Wind noise is about the same - louder than a car of the same price, quieter than the Honda Odyssey, acceptable regardless. The LXi’s standard Infinity stereo easily overcomes wind noise, providing good, clear sound with speakers throughout the cabin. Even under heavy winds, the minivan did not feel pushed around by the wind, underlying a good suspension and some attention to aerodynamics.
Controls are clear and logical for the most part, and have a quality feel. The hand-operated brake release is now far away from the hood release, and uses a different shape control to avoid accidental hood opening. Chrysler fitted a column shift to free up space between the seats. The foot operated emergency brake saves space and allows drivers to apply the brake more firmly and with less effort than a handbrake.
The stereo had knobs for balance, fade, and volume, with sliders for bass, midrange, and treble. The vent system was fairly easy to figure out, despite the three zones (right front, left front, and rear), each of which is controlled by its own infrared sensor. The rear vents can be shut off, left on automatic, or controlled from the rear passengers, via a simple knob. The fan, controlled by a knob with an unusually generous number of positions, is relatively quiet even at high speeds. Heat comes very quickly, thanks to a fast warmup. Airflow is easily controlled, as well.
Windshield washers are large but effective, augmented in winter by both front and rear electric defrosters (the front defroster is only for the windshield wipers themselves - for 2003, they dropped the special windshield-wiper defroster). Visibility is good in each direction for the most part, though the dark tint on middle-side windows can reduce vision under some conditions. The rear window is kept clear by its own wiper and washer. Headlights are reasonably powerful, with low-mounted foglights actually designed to cut through fog rather than to blind oncoming traffic.
One of the clever touches of this easy-to-use vehicle is the key fob. Yes, it has a lot of buttons on it, but there are three remote-opening doors in addition to the usual lock and unlock issues. When you press the unlock button once, the lights on the driver's side blink to show that the driver's door is unlocked; press it again, and all the lights blink. Press the right hand door opener, and the right hand lights blink. It's a clever little touch, like having remote-opening doors in the first place.
The power doors were well designed [note: they did turn out to have some issues with power lock and motor longevity. The locks were shared with Honda, ironically]. The rear hatch beeps a few times before opening or closing, so people can get out of its way. The doors all move slowly under power, and can be intercepted for manual control at any time. Manually opening and closing the doors feels completely normal, as though there was no motor at all. The doors also stop when they sense a fairly slight pressure, so they are fairly safe, especially when compared with some competitors. Finally, there are buttons inside the van which let people open and close the side doors - both next to the doors and in an overhead console - far enough away from the doors that children cannot reach them from their child seats.
Each seat has at least one cupholder, as we expected. The front cupholders could be better, and, in past versions, have been better (the ratchet has been taken out), but they are at least on par with competitors. The entire van is well lit from a variety of dome lights, which are easy to switch on and off. The headlights and night lighting are also good. Rear view mirrors are a foldaway design.
Seats are easy to adjust and remove, as in past versions. Now, the seat removal levers are numbered, to make removal easier for novices or people who just don't change their seats very often. Unlike the Honda Odyssey, seats do not fold out of the way, but we prefer removal anyway. The seats do fold forward, so you can put large or heavy objects over them, making foldaway seats largely unnecessary. Front seats, at least in our test model, had two-position seat warmers. The jack is easy to reach - the spare tire less so.
The removable center console can be placed in two positions - between the front seats and between the middle seats. It takes only a moment to pull a lever and lift it from one position, then push it down into another. The console includes both a power outlet (cigarette lighter) and an internal light which stays on whenever the headlights are on. It also has two separate compartments, one of which has a lock and a removable tray - so in a sense there are three compartments, each fairly large. The front compartment of the removable console has a cleverly designed cell-phone holder. The clever touches continue with a tissue holder molded into the underside of the console lid.
If the console is not handy - for example, if it was put in the center row of seats so the people in front could easily climb in back to fasten child seats and such - there is a handy storage space designed into the center stack of the dashboard. It is fairly large and deep, hinged so that large objects can easily and securely be placed in it. A replaceable coin holder is included. The bottom of all such compartments are lined with rubber to avoid rattles.
As always, the rearmost windows can be opened a crack - for models with power, by two switches up front. We've looked for this feature in SUVs, but don't usually find it. Rear passengers also have their own vents, coat hooks, and dome light. Center passengers have vents, coat hooks, and personal lights (which they can control), as well as handles to help them in and out of the minivan if needed.
Chrysler has again leapfrogged the competition with (as others have noted) the best minivan ever. How long they maintain that lead is another question, but, for the moment, Chrysler is ahead of its rivals in performance and convenience. Hopefully, Chrysler's ongoing and successful quality improvement program will also put the Town & Country ahead of the pack in reliability as well.
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