by David A. Zatz | Video reviews embedded in this page (scroll down)
It's not often we get asked to give tours of a vehicle. Sometimes it's the “hot” cars, like the Challenger and Chevy SSR; sometimes it's the unique cars, like the 2001 PT Cruiser. The Town & Country is the first minivan we've been asked to show off — multiple times. The uniqueness can be summed up in this photo:
Spectators are hooked by the reverse-facing seats, and reeled in by the halo lighting, three power doors, and power rear seats that fold to make a flat floor. The Town & Country Limited is quickly revealed as the king of the gadgets. It has dual TV sets that can play satellite TV or different DVDs, three power doors, seats that swivel around, a table, HID headlights, heated second-row seats, rear view camera, rear path alert, and a hard-drive-based stereo with analog and USB ports. That is by no means a complete list.
In addition to the gadgetry, it has a smooth, quiet V6 that gets better mileage than any past gasoline-powered Chrysler minivan and, for that matter, any minivan sold in America.
Let's repeat that. The 2009 Chrysler Town & Country, with its biggest engine, had the best gas mileage of any 2009 model-year minivan. It beat Honda and Toyota and its own smaller-engined versions. What it won't beat is the diesel version sold in Europe, or the electric minivans built in the 1990s, or the ones that will be built around 2010. Still, if you can match the EPA estimates of 17 mpg city, 25 highway, you're doing pretty well for a big van. We doubt you'll be able to match the city mileage, at least until the engine breaks in, and even then it'll be an achievement; but the highway mileage is reasonable. (The 3.3 may do better in real city driving.)
Acceleration in our test car was excellent for a minivan, and good for a car; the 240 horsepower, four-liter V6 was smooth and quiet, and the transmission shifted unobtrusively even under hard throttle. Shifts were fairly quick.
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; 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 transmission was smooth and almost always in the right gear, with no lurching, overrevving, rough or delayed shifts, or other quirks.
While it seems less nimble than the sharp-cornering 2007 models, our Town & Country Limited could handle normal turns, but spirited driving led to squeals of protest; and launching on a turn (e.g. turning right after a stop) could easily result in a squeal. The Bridgestone Turanza 225/65R17 tires used in both our test vehicles — a 2008 and a 2009 — were classified as "B" for traction, which 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, a quick if expensive tire change should solve that problem.
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 comfortable. Poor road surfaces are well damped. The interior is very quiet, to the point where a blindfolded journalist would start yammering about being in a Lexus. Hours in a wind tunnel slashed wind noise and increased gas mileage, despite lots of added weight. Indeed, the 2009 Chrysler Town & Country had the best gas mileage of any minivan in the 2009 model year.
There are two other engines; the 3.3 and the 3.8, both of which use more fuel, according to the EPA. We wish the six speed was standard across the line, since the 3.3 liter engine should get the best real-world city mileage. Those who really value their gasoline may be more interested in the Dodge Journey, or the 2012 Chrysler minivans, which will have brand-new V6 engines that should boost mileage.
Even with the big 4-liter V6, it looks like there's plenty of room under the hood. Maybe that's for crash protection, or ease of repair, or to make room for the European diesel option. Regardless, it should make maintenance and repair easier.
The Limited comes with two main 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 main parking guidance 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.
If you get the optional blind-spot and cross-path protection system, you will have two more parking assists that can prevent a sideswipe, but that's not their primary purpose. They're mainly there to stop you from having a serious accident — hitting someone lurking in your blind spot, or from backing into someone who is driving by (a perennial problem in areas where people ignore stop signs, swinging around the corner without paying attention as others back out of their driveway).
On the highway, you can see the blind spot protection work; the orange triangle lights up whenever someone is in your blind spot. It's easy to use, and is clever enough to ignore vehicles that you can clearly see through your center rear-view mirror or front-door windows. The system can be shut off, but there's no reason to do it.
Our test vehicles had swivel seats, which move with little effort; and the seat belts were even easier to attach with the seats facing backwards. With both forward and rearward facing seats, though, there was little legroom; enough for four kids but not four teens. With Stow n Go, there's more legroom for rear passengers. If you don't go on long trips, by all means stick with the non-swivel seats.
Swivel seats come with a center table that can be stowed under the floor, in one of two large storage areas that are used, in Stow n Go vans, for the middle row of seats. The table is light and locks into place easily; it is nicely positioned for playing cards, but it overlaps the seats by a few inches, so it's not useful as an adult work table. Our kids were happy to draw or play cards on the table; the 2009 model seemed to have a stiffer, more usable table, and it fit more easily into the storage space. It seems that in addition to being reinforced, it became more rectangular, helping kids to use it and making it easier to stow; the down-side is that the third-row passengers have a longer reach.
Rear seats can be stowed with either Swivel or Stow; optional power rear seats 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 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 power and manual stow options have the tailgate feature; but the stow version takes much longer to move into place. Fortunately, you only have to press the switch once, and the seats will do their thing. (Our videos)
The middle row of seats are surprisingly comfortable. Facing backward probably makes them much safer, since a panic stop or crash will press the occupant uniformly against the seat-back, instead of tossing people against seat belts that may or may not be well positioned. They're also great parking-lot conversation pieces.
The front seats are very adjustable in the Limited; both front seats have their own attached armrests, a nice feature. The shoulder area is now a nicely done, softer leather. The armrests are a textured plastic that are fairly comfortable and can fold up and out of the way.
Now that Daimler is gone, there are very few cheap-feeling materials or plastics in the minivan. There have been some quiet upgrades, which help to spiff up the interior and improve its feel; that's especially true for the Dodge version, which has been upgraded with gauges more like the Chrysler. In our 2008 model, a few materials, like the top lid for the center console, felt cheap; those issues were resolved in our 2009.
There were other un-announced changes, too. New features have been added to the stereo/navigation system, not just live traffic updates (nicely integrated into the display as green, yellow, and red stripes) but also new menu preferences and navigation aids. I was able to navigate the insane number of satellite radio channels by voice - calling out the name or number of the station - and while the system is a bit slow, it works. What's more, you can now lock out stations with a virtual child lock — just the thing to keep your kids away from voice radio or explicit punk.
Throughout the van, there were small, hard-to-notice touches that nevertheless would make a big difference in an owner's life.
The instrument panel remains 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, in vehicles with the LED interior lighting package, the green halo light around the roof-mounted video system is an “ooh-and-ah” feature if there ever was one; and the cupholder lights are a nice touch. The Town & Country is pretty attractive during the day, but it's also quite attractive at night.
The optional LED lighting package with halo lights is very attractive; each row gets their own LED spotlights, so that middle row passengers can aim their lights and not interfere with the driver's night vision. With the dual TVs, though, the halo lighting is split up between two video units. (Halo lighting comes on automatically with the lights, including the parking lights.) Door pocket lights illuminate the map pockets and double as warning lights for oncoming traffic, while brightening the interior when lit.
The rearmost seats are comfortable for some people and not so much for others; legroom could be better since there's so much space behind them. The huge cargo wells are impressive and useful.
There are many other places to put things in this van: 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.
Both front doors have 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. In the 2008, you could take off the little-stuff bin, and find a larger storage area underneath; in 2009, the bin was hinged, and felt more solid.
Slide off the top level of the console, and you get a huge storage bin, big enough to hold two sets of headphones and a big DSLR camera with a zoom lens, or a box of tissues. You can slide the top back to the center row, or remove the center console and put it in your garage. Stow ‘n' Go models let you move it between the middle seats, too.
Controls are generally sensible and well labeled, except for the climate control, which uses multiple presses of a button to change the vents; it had an unnecessarily fancy display, which was pretty but distracting and could get washed out in strong sunlight from the big sunroof. On the lighter side, the fan moved a lot of air quietly, and the vents were adjustable and easily closed, so that 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 labeled, 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 labeled and in sensible locations. Our one gripe is that, in the past, Chrysler and Dodge minivans have let people open and close the power doors manually; this year, like the Honda and Toyota systems, everything must be done via the power systems. If you try to start doing it manually, the system will override you.
Window controls come in two sets: one for the traditional four windows, and another for the rear two windows, 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. The HID headlights are, as one would expect, very bright and well sharply focused.
Stereo controls are on the back of the wheel, which is good given the lack of a tuning knob on the radio itself, and the 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, of the awkward push-to-release variety.
The overhead console contains a logically laid out set of door opening switches for the power side doors and power hatch; the lights go on when you press them, and the “child-minder” mirror opens with a press as well. The sunroof opens all the way or closes all the way with one press of the switch.
The gearshift is mounted up on the dash and has no markings; the gears light up on the electronic dash display. The AutoStick control is 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.
Adding a navigation system usually means sacrificing quick and easy radio adjustments. Even without the nav system, some cars come with a similar screen and similar navigation difficulties. The main problems are the lack of a tuning knob, which could double as an audio control knob; without this, drivers must navigate through menus to change bass, treble, balance, and fade, which is awkward and time consuming, while a knob can be used by feel. It can take a long time to remember what is controlled from where, especially with the new choices of hard drive, satellite TV, satellite radio, and DVD along with the traditional AM, FM, and CD.
The satellite radio generally worked well, though it seemed a little more prone to dropouts than some systems we've used. The lack of a station-changing knob was awkward with satellite radio's hundred-and-some channels; it takes a while to go through with your finger on a button. Fortunately, the system includes a voice control which lets you dictate the name of the channel you want; after a pause of recognition, it states the channel it thinks you selected and takes you there. It works rather well. There are also traditional presents.
Our first unit did not have a navigation system, but it did have a large hard drive-based sound system 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.
Switching forms was perhaps inevitably complex; 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.
Someone at Chrysler must have kids, because there is a remote-control lockout button now — and a headphone mute — up front.
As time went on, the Town & Country grew on us. Kids went nuts over it, playing with all the features and exploring; they probably stop doing that after a few years, but there were a number of useful features which one discovers after some time.
Some of these “surprise and delight” features were minor things: the directional LED lights, for example, provided bright light without interfering with the driver's night vision, and had integrated switches so they went on or off when pressed. The halo light is useful for passengers at night, without bothering the driver, and can be shut off.
The many storage bins up front will really make some people happy, and the twin glove compartments get around the old problems of owners manuals taking up all the space, and not being able to get into the glove-box without hitting your knees. The button for the upper glove box is cleverly hidden beneath it, which neatens the appearance but may confuse newcomers.
For middle-row passengers, the sun blocks — which still provide visibility — can greatly increase comfort in the hot sun and even out passenger and driver sides of the van. Being able to slide the center console back is another help for families; and being able to fold the rear seats into the floor (along with the middles on non-swivel models) makes the minivan versatile indeed.
Numerous settings (particularly locks and lights) can easily be changed using the trip-computer interface. Multiple door controls provides a lot of flexibility, while lockouts and anti-pinch mechanisms keep you safe.
The attractive interior and elegant instrument panel can make driving a pleasure, and the front and middle row heated seats are 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 quiet even at highway speeds. 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 10 minutes).
On the down side, while cornering is pretty good, it could feel more nimble - like it used to, when the minivan was lighter. The squealing tires were more of an issue; Chrysler really needs to re-examine their choice of tires. With the navigation system, a tuning knob would dramatically reduce the “distraction factor,” and make it easier and faster to adjust the audio and change stations. Those who really want to can find “cheap feeling” parts to nitpick; but that's true on just about any reasonably priced vehicle.
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 of the Cadillac Escalade or other luxury SUVs; and the minivan has more advantages 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 for the 2008, 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 2008 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/removable second-row seats and the table, at $495.
Now, for the 2009, the price was a little different. The base price was $37,350 with destination; subtracting local rebates we got to the same $34,600 we found last time. That included, again, the airbags for every row, ABS, two rear park assist systems, stability control, HID headlights, three power doors, remote start, garage door opener, adjustable pedals and wheel, rain-sensitive wipers, cruise, three-zone automatic a/c, 115 volt AC adapter, heated front-row and second-row seats, power windows (two rows), window shades, surround lighting, light package, satellite radio, and hard-drive stereo. Wow.
We had numerous options. The special paint ($225), power folding third-row seat ($595), and Mopar running boards ($700 and they just got in the way), were rather pointless. The blind spot / cross-path protection ($515) and integrated booster seats ($225) were probably well worth the expense — a single avoided injury over ten years of ownership would easily cover that.
Some of the options are highly individual. For example, we would easily go for the $600 trailer tow group, even though we never tow. It included a wiring harness, but more importantly, had the heavy duty cooling and heavy duty transmission cooler, which can extend engine and transmission life and prevent problems. This also included the load-leveling, height-control suspension, which seems to lower the minivan quite a bit when parked — rather handy for loading, ingress, and egress. This is one you may want if you don't like climbing into vehicles.
A much more dubious investment is the $2,020 dual-screen video system with satellite TV. Frankly, I'm not fond of a lot of the programming aimed at kids, much of which makes Bullwinkle look like a high-budget operation and makes Gilligan's Island look like Masterpiece Theater. There are only three channels, though they come in pretty well. I understand that people with a lot of kids may want to put the younger ones in the middle and the older ones in back and let them be entertained more age-appropriately, but really, this is still a stretch. Bad enough that you can't even escape from the TV when in the car... in any case, this option includes two nine-inch video screens which can show separate DVDs, or a DVD and one satellite TV station. It includes a remote and a year of the TV service.
The power sunroof takes away the overhead storage rack, replacing it with dual rear overhead consoles and a mini overhead console; it costs nearly $900. It's one of the better sunroofs.
Finally, the navigation system — which includes an iPod interface, phone integration, auto-dim rearview mirror, and live traffic integrated with the display, including a one-year subscription — adds a whopping $1,300. That's a lot of TomToms (though it's hardly fair to compare the two.)
All told, then, our van came in at a whopping $44,945 — far less than a luxury SUV, for a far more practical vehicle than most luxury SUVs (and a more enjoyable one than the Escalades). After the rebates, it came in at $41,945; and I'm sure we could bargain a dealer down below $40,000. Dropping the sillier options would also help; the running boards would be the first to go.
When it comes right down to it, we preferred driving (and riding in) the previous-generation minivans, but you can't get those any more, at least not with new car warranties. If you want the latest features and gadgets, the 2009s are the way to go.
If you're in the market for a minivan, 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, at least in features; and perhaps Chrysler will surprise us again in a couple of years, instead of making us wait until 2012 for their new engines.
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