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by David Zatz in March 2013 (3.5)
For years, Chrysler minivans were the top of the line for the corporation; then in 2001, the Chrysler Town & Country moved downmarket to fill the gap left by the death of Plymouth. Starting in 2011, though, Chrysler returned to the top of the corporate minivan line, so that the base model Chrysler Town & Country is as well outfitted as the top of the line Dodge.
The Chrysler and Dodge, along with minivans from Toyota and Honda, all jockey for the #1 U.S. sales position each month.
(In Canada, there is no contest, as Dodge dominates each and every month, without fail.) Often, Dodge wins; sometimes, Chrysler wins; and sometimes the prize goes to Toyota and Honda.
What makes the Chrysler different from the Dodge is largely on the surface: sheet metal, interior styling, high quality leather, gadgets and gizmos and features and chrome and such. Underneath both Chrysler and Dodge is essentially the same tried and true chassis and suspension architecture that Chrysler has used since the 1990s, albeit with a new powertrain and electronics architecture.
There is no question but that the underlying core van has been successfully covered over by a Chrysler veneer. 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, a pleasant surprise after the hard seats of the 2008s and the not-quite-right cloth of our personal '06 Chrysler Town & Country.
The sore spots of the 2008-10 minivans have largely been addressed, particularly sharp edges on the door map pockets; these are now comfortably rounded, with rounded ridges inside for added strength. Textures have been changed throughout the car, and the colors have been carefully chosen to balance pragmatic issues (avoiding reflecting 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 with thin chrome outlines (enough for class, not enough to cause too much glare); 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 overall appearance is far more attractive than the “penny pinched” look of the prior model. It helps that all the tolerances are very tight, with consistently good workmanship.
The gauge cluster is the new Chrysler corporate standard, with Swiss-watch-inspired gauges-within-gauges; little round gas and temperature gauges sit within the larger speedometer and tachometer circles, with the EVIC (trip computer) display in between. The gauges have an elegant look, aside from the stubby red needles, with even white backlighting (light blue at major speed and tachometer points).
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 2nd). (Setting it to 1 keeps you in first, 2 gives you first and second and lets you start out in second, 3 keeps in you first through third, etc; it can be used for higher engine braking.)
The dual upper/lower glove compartments provide lots of storage, as do the map pockets, overhead sunglass holder, under-stack CD-or-whatever holder, middle cupholders, or dual covered consoles. The latter open easily with a little downward press, and use convenient accordion covers instead of the old lift-up doors; and all the storage areas have rattle-damping measures, usually removable rubber inserts. The overhead console has the door controls, including the interior door power lockout, which lets owners 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 climate control is simple enough and easy to use, for a three-way system; 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, which is automatically activated on defrost regardless. 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 very 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 eschewed other minivans' long rack of drop-down consoles in favor of oversized rear-seat video screens for each row; with the two standard sets of wireless headphones (and perhaps more from the dealer), kids in middle and in back can watch completely different shows. The overhead system included snazzy white LED lighting, with an equally snazzy green neon outline that could be dimmed or shut off entirely from a rheostat up front. The only downside to this was the vastly diminished rearward visibility when the video screens were used.
The last time we tested a Dodge minivan was in 2011, and the seats in our 2013 Chrysler were a definite step up, in all three rows. In this people mover, the center are rear rows were not afterthoughts. The level of trim is the same in back, and so is the comfort. Admittedly rear passengers don't get adjustable lumbar support, but then, neither does the front passenger.
The six-speed Chrysler automatic in the Chrysler Town & Country was an interesting contrast; driven gently, it 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 will quickly downshift, putting you into the 3,500-and-higher 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.
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 were not up to the standards of the powertrain; avoiding squeals on quick launches was difficult, as the front tires tried to grab for traction. 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.
An “econ” button switches to gas-mileage mode, which upshifts earlier; that makes a visible difference in mileage, though the transmission can get confused by aggressive driving while in “econ” mode (for that matter, if you accelerate hard and then let off the gas, for passing or achieving cruising speed, it seems reluctant to upshift from regular mode as well).
Once you press the econ button, the car remembers where you set it on future trips, an unusual and convenient touch. Either way, don't expect too much from a heavy minivan. EPA ratings are good (ours was rated 17 city, 25 highway), but we found them impossible to match; the Town & Country is very sensitive to highway speed, and if you exceed 65, you will not get 25 mpg.
The ride is firm, handling potholes and rough roads with little fuss or noise, but without some of the luxury-car feel of past Chrysler minivans. Poor road surfaces are well damped, and bumps are felt, not heard. Wind noise is somewhat high at 65 mph, but is not noticeable at lower speeds; it is not excessive, but it also is not up to current Chrysler car standards. We suspect that is one of the targets of the next generation, arriving in 2015 or 2016.
Cornering is mixed; 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 emergency maneuvers. The Town & Country is, after all, a full sized minivan. It can handle very well for a vehicle of its size but, in the end, it is a vehicle of its size.
We have gotten used to Chrysler cars with the fancy new 8.4-inch touch-screens, cars designed to have big infotainment systems. It was odd to go back in time a bit to the last generation of stereos, with standard sized screens, with CD players hidden behind the screen (which tilts out of the way as needed). The unit in our test car was the RHR, dubbed Media Center Something; despite the now-small screen, it does just as much as the newer units, and sounds just as good.
This unit has some peculiarities, but performs well overall. The stereo sound was far superior to what Chrysler was selling just two years ago, and absolutely beyond comparison with the late-2000s units. That said, there's something odd about having two different USB ports with two different uses, and two different optical disk readers, again with two different uses.
The unit's own CD player can be used to record songs to its 30-gigabyte hard drive, or just to play music; we do suggest that rather than adding one CD at a time, you “rip” the music onto your computer, copy it to a thumb drive, and add it all at once. It's likely to be much faster that way. You can also simply shove a USB thumb drive into the upper glove compartment, and play it from there rather than using the built in hard drive. Newer Chrysler cars eschew the hard drive completely, and allow either a thumb drive or SD card to be inserted. Either way, the practical limit seems to be 32 gigabytes.
If you want to play a DVD on the overhead video units, you have to use the unit that's below the stereo — well below the stereo— and above the pull-out cupholders. (The pullout try also includes places to store two sizes of coins.) So two USB ports, and two optical drive units, with different functions. You can also run an old fashioned analog audio cable into the auxiliary port, though then the steering wheel controls won't work.
The RHR hard-drive stereo accepts USB thumb drives holding MP3 and AAC files (including iTunes Store purchases), using the remote port; the on-unit port is for adding MP3 format music from thumb drives. Amusingly, the remote USB port does not understand Mac resource files, and displays them as unplayable files starting with ._ , while the copy-to-hard-drive function ignores invisible Mac files and just copies the music over. (Mac experts can describe numerous ways to easily deal with the invisible file problem.)
The satellite radio system was well integrated into the stereo, as was the optional video player. The satellite sound was not terrible but far from the quality of the USB or CD player, as seems to often be the case for satellite radio.
The 30 gigabyte hard drive holds a lot of music; and 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), which is a little more awkward than the similarly inane ways it's done on newer Chrysler cars with bigger screens.
Switching modes required pressing both hard and soft buttons (or using the wheel-mounted mode button): press once on Radio or Media, and you get touch-screen choices of AM/FM/Satellite, or Disk/DVD/AUX/VESA. For radio, it shows a list of presets, four per screen, with the names of the stations. The hard drive/disc has hard drive, disc, auxiliary (the little jack on front of the screen), VES (video DVD), and USB control, so that you can use your built in controls to navigate the contents of your high-quality music device. You can't put iPod files onto the hard drive, but you can copy from thumb drives, and it also records from DVDs - fairly quickly.
The overhead video screen had a high quality picture, and the supplied headphones let kids could listen to their movies (or TV shows) without bothering the driver. While the screens, pulled down from the roof, are well out of danger from kids' feet, their massive size essentially eliminates the driver's view through the rear window.
The full 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 relatively quickly, though there was more button-pushing needed than on newer systems from the same company.
The navigation system had slightly older graphics but worked quite well; indeed, the predictive keyboard (which only lights up possible letters) was a nice touch that's missing from the newer systems. In some ways, including making it easier to cancel navigation and faster routing, it seemed superior to the newer units.
As one would expect, the entire system can be controlled by voice, with the voice-activation button right on the steering wheel; voice control extends to the stereo and cell phone as well as the stereo and navigation system. The voice control works about as well as they usually do.
Optional safety features — all standard on the Chrysler version — include blind spot monitoring, rain-sensitive wipers, mobile Internet, and rear cross path systems. Our car also came with a standard backup camera and distance-sensitive backup alert; the camera had a clear color picture, with a guide line and red-yellow-green distance indicator, and a decent view at night.
Power sliding doors and hatches are de rigeur now for minivans, and our Chrysler had both. Opening and closing minivan doors manually is not hard, and Chrysler allows this, though it's not quite as easy as it was before 2008; the rear hatch can always be operated manually, while the sliding doors can be slid by hand if the rear door/window lock is on, or if the person pulls twice on the door handle. Even with the lock on, the doors can be opened from the key fob or from the front-overhead buttons.
The sliding doors used to be much harder to slide open and closed; we were surprised at how easy it was to manually slide the doors on our Town & Country open and closed. While this isn't something most people do, we were happy to see Chrysler make it easier.
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 full or “mini” trip computers ever since. As each new car is redesigned, it has been getting a full color trip computer, generally as part of a configurable dashboard; the minivans were redesigned just before that started, so they get 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 each tire individually), coolant temperature, oil temperature, oil pressure, engine hours, messages, or, if in Park, car customization. My only complaint about this system is that there's a lot of forward-and-backward button pressing; it could cycle more things at once, and if one sacrificed graphics, it 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 easy enough, using four buttons on the steering wheel.
Otherwise, it's a fine setup.
As with past minivans, 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 is an interesting piece, since you can slide the top back to reveal a big storage area — more than big enough for a 35 mm camera, it can take an iPad laying flat. You can slide that back as well, so that middle row passengers can use the cupholders on back, or can fill up the front cupholders for the driver.
This “super console” is not standard on all levels.
Getting in and out was easy, thanks to a nicely engineered floor height; unlike many SUVs, the Town & Country minivan required no climbs to get in. 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 far more comfortable than the 2008s, and even more than the 2006 Chrysler Town & Country we actually own. 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 affair; first you have to move the front row seat far forward (a bit slow if you have electric seats) and lift the cover of the storage area. Then lift a single lever and the headrest springs down, the seat folds, and it pivots right into the space; it's considerably easier than in past iterations, and you can't forget to put the headrest down.
The rear seats were always easy to stow; while an electric rear seat system was available, it took more time than doing it manually. The electric system does boast a “tailgating system” for thems that wants it.
Above the van, the roofrack crossbars were folded into the side supports, increasing the aerodynamic efficiency of the Caravan and minimizing the cosmetic intrusion of the rack.
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, let's get started.
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. Traditionally minivan interiors have been surprisingly tough and capable of withstanding a lot of abuse.
Controls were sensible and well labeled, generally with backlighting. The left hand stalk had controls for both front and rear washer/wipers, with the four-button cruise control on the steering wheel, and audio controls on the back of the wheel.
Door controls were at each door, on the key fob, and in an overhead row of buttons, in logical order; the buttons were larger and more clearly marked than in the past. Our car had the keyless ignition, with a pushbutton installed in the spot where the keys would normally go, but it also had the same keys as the standard vehicle. The button (or key slot if you have one) is on the dashboard, a nice feature that's becoming more common since Chevrolet revived it; headlights have a knob and rheostat in Chrysler's traditional location. The parking brake is a traditional but awkward push-to-release pedal.
Headlights were powerful and had a good spread, but in a way we're cheating on this one because our test car had the HID headlights, the bright blue things that started out on luxury cars and can now be obtained on Dodge Darts. Even the standard headlights are strong and better than on past minivans.
The Town & Country has useful features that prospective car buyers don't usually experience until after taking the plunge, such as the ability to change preferences using the easy trip-computer interface, or the numerous places to put stuff. 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 LED-plus-neon interior on our car (which might be standard and might be part of the rear seat video package) is 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.”
We appreciated having the hazard flashers go on whenever the side doors were opened and the key was in the ignition. We also appreciated the dual LED taillights, a safety upgrade. Even the low end Dodge Caravans has many standard features, and the Chrysler is surprisingly well equipped; it seems that instead of tossing massive rebates on the hood, Chrysler is throwing in lots of gadgets and higher grade materials, with a lower price.
Chrysler still needs to re-examine their choice of tires; with the low first gear of the transmission and torque range of the engine, we sometimes had traction issues when starting out, especially when starting on a curve (as in getting onto an old-fashioned highway from a stop sign, or when turning onto a main street from a wet or dirty street).
The base price of the Town & Country Limited (the top of the line) is $40,990 including shipping. That's not an exceptional price for a minivan, which might explain why sales aren't quite what they used to be, but the base Town & Country Touring is just $31,390. Even that car includes leather seats and steering wheel, 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 integration with 6.5 inch touch screen and six speakers, rear backup camera, third-row tailgate seats, eight way power driver's seat, 17 inch wheels, automatic headlamps, fog lamps, fancy roof rack, seven passenger seating, seven airbags, and three-way automatic climate control.
The Touring L adds the SafetyTec package (blind spot monitor, rear cross path detection, parking assist, rain sensitive wipers, intelligent headlamps, tire pressure monitor, better leather, power passenger seats, chrome mirrors with turn signals, auto-dimming side mirrors, remote start, alarm, and window shades). This setup might be the best bargain of the entire minivan line, at $34,390, especially when you toss in the $430 convenience group (heated front and middle seats, heated steering wheel, keyless driving, adjustable pedals, bright door handles). A premium group adds more gizmos and the load leveling/height control system.
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 DVD players, navigation, 506 watt amp with nine speakers, keyless driving, driver memory, power folding mirrors, nicer wheels, adjustable pedals, HID headlamps, bright handles, and the “super console” between the front seats.
Our test minivan had the luxury group, which included the power sunroof, load leveling and height control, mini overhead console, dual rear overhead consoles, fancy floor mats, and removable center super console — all for $1,795, which is probably pushing it. The second row removable but fixed-in-position bucket seats (replacing seats that slide back and forth), with third-row stowage, was $320; the UConnect Web system for Internet access everywhere was $650. The total price came to $43,755, a bit more than a base Chrysler 300C with SafetyTech and the same engine. Judged by “dollars per cubic foot,” the minivan was a deal.
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; 82% 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 — for a 400 mile range. The overall crash-safety score is 4 stars — five stars for side crashes, four for frontal and rollover.
Chrysler's new quality systems and standards are promising; while their minivans have generally achieved average or better quality ratings, the current goal is to “much better than average,” and measures are being taken to achieve that. Many are old ideas from the pre-Daimler years, such as being able to stop the line when a problem is found, or sending advisors to suppliers, or tracking problems more closely and publicly, or empowering workers, or doing more preventive maintenance.
Overall, we found the Town & Country to be an interesting mix. It felt as though someone had taken our 2006 Town & Country, made the brakes grabbier, supercharged the engine, and added a thick layer of luxury to the inside and outside. Underneath it all is an aged chassis, but it still competes on equal terms with Honda Odyssey. I don't think I'd trade in my '06 for it — much as I do like the backup camera, stability control, easy-slide doors, and numerous other features — but if you need a minivan now, it's a good deal, especially in Touring L form.
We road tested the Volkswagen Routan too...
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