Thumbs Up: Blends luxury with practicality; exponentially better than the previous model
Thumbs Down: Damn, that’s a lot of chrome; least user-friendly infotainment interface
Buy This Car If: You really want a Chrysler 300, but have 5 kids to haul around
In 1984, Dodge introduced a vehicle called the Caravan, followed by a similar model from Plymouth called the Voyager. No one knew it at the time, but we were witnessing the birth of an entirely new segment (in North America, at least) called the “minivan.” At a time when Baby Boomers were cranking out offspring like hormone-dosed rabbits, Chrysler found a way to blend value and versatility into a single package, creating the ideal vehicle for the growing family. Minivans could carry up to seven passengers, or they could be configured to haul an impressive amount of swag, making them the darlings of the Saturday-morning garage sale set.
Unlike full size vans and SUVs, minivans featured a lower floor height and a lower center of gravity, so they drove more like a car than a truck. Most came with economical four or six cylinder engines, meaning that care and feeding of a minivan was far less impactive on a family budget than gassing up a full size SUV each week. Like housing developments, tract homes and Chinese food take-out joints, minivans spread across American suburbia like wildfire.
By 1989, Chrysler was looking to expand its phenomenally successful range of minivan offerings, so the automaker launched a “luxury minivan” under it’s own badge. Dubbed the Chrysler Town & Country, it offered buyers all the practicality of a Dodge Caravan or Plymouth Voyager, but with a heavy dose of luxury amenities added into the mix. Leather seating was standard, and only the more powerful V-6 engines were offered. Early models rocked an impressive faux-woodgrain panel running the length of the van, and buyers were treated to such amenities as an Infinity audio system and dual front and rear air conditioning.
Over the years, Chrysler has pioneered some innovative designs in its minivans. Stow ‘N Go seating, launched in the 2005 Dodge Caravan, allowed second and third row seats to fold flat into storage compartments in the floor, creating a cavernous cargo area. Swivel ‘N Go seating, introduced in 2008 (but dropped in 2011) allowed second row seats to face the third row, and even included a table that sat between the two rows.
By 2010, the Chrysler Town & Country was getting outdone by competitors from Honda and Toyota. Although redesigned for the 2007 model year, build quality wasn’t on par with vans from other manufacturers, and neither was the ride quality. Chrysler, facing bankruptcy, couldn’t do much to defend their once-dominant market position, so the Town & Country dropped to the bottom of many consumers shopping lists.
For 2011, however, things have changed. Chrysler has introduced a heavily revised version of the Town & Country, and the changes are dramatic. Gone is the drab and outdated interior, replaced by one that’s both more stylish and more comfortable. The cabin gets more sound insulation and acoustic glass, so cabin noise is substantially less than in previous models. All interior material are stepped up a notch or two, and hard plastic is generally replaced by soft-touch vinyl.
The biggest changes, however, come in the suspension and powertrain. All 2011 Town & Country models get Chrysler’s superb Pentastar V6, mated to a six-speed automatic transmission instead of the previous (and outdated) four-speed. Suspension tuning is heavily revised to improve handing, so the 2011 Town & Country gets a lower ride height, a larger front sway bar, a new rear sway bar and new spring rates. Behind the wheel, the difference between the 2010 and 2011 versions is night and day, and the 2011 Town & Country is a prime example of what a car company can achieve, even on a limited budget, with a bit of focused effort.
A minivan has to be adept at both in-town and long-haul journeys, and the 2011 Town & Country won’t disappoint here. The front seats are comfortable and supportive, blending stout leather with a microfiber panel for improved ventilation. Front seats are heated, as is the steering wheel for gloveless driving in the winter months.
Jumping back a row, the middle seats are captains chairs, and also blend leather with microfiber. Second row seats are heated as well, and offer an impressive amount of headroom and legroom. For easy access to the third row, the second row seats fold and tumble forward. If you need the maximum amount of cargo room possible, the second row seats can be easily removed.
The third row seats are impressive, and offer considerably more long-distance comfort than most others I’ve seen. My press fleet tested came equipped with Chrysler’s “Super Stow ‘N Go” third row seats, so folding them into the floor for added cargo area was as easy as pressing a button. The only drawback to the third row seats I could find was their lack of heat, but since the Town & Country offers front and rear climate controls, third row passengers won’t be cold for long.
The redesign for 2011 really shines in the dash, which is considerably more upscale than the unit it replaces. The soft touch materials add to the perceived quality, as do the revised instruments. The single weak point is the infotainment system, which is among the least intuitive and least user-friendly in the industry. Changing radio stations, or assigning presets, is far more difficult than it needs to be. The same goes with entering a destination on the navigation system; until you’re used to the specific input requirements of the touch screen interface, the system will frustrate you to no end. The good news is that Chrysler is using a vastly improved version (now one of the industry’s best) in late 2011 and 2012 model year vehicles.
All 2011 Town & Country models get Chrysler’s 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6, good for 283 horsepower and 260 ft-lb of torque. That’s better than the outgoing 4.0-liter V6, but the fuel economy remains unchanged. The EPA rates the 2011 Town & Country at 17 mpg city and 25 mpg highway, and I saw an indicated 19.3 mpg in mostly city driving. As for performance, the V-6 has a substantial amount of weight to haul around, so the run from 0 to 60 will take just north of eight seconds. I don’t suggest you throw down against a Honda Odyssey at a traffic light, but I seriously doubt that acceleration from a standing start is an important criteria on most minivan shoppers’ checklists.
On the road, the Town & Country is a fairly big vehicle. Safety and convenience features like blind spot detection, parking sensors and a rear view camera make driving and parking the T&C easy, even if you’re stepping up from a much smaller vehicle. Thanks to the revised suspension, there’s far less body roll in corners, and the 2011 Town & Country handles much like a big sedan. You’ll feel rough roads and railroad tracks a bit more than in the 2010 version, but the ride quality is never objectionable, even on poorly paved roads.
Chrysler provided the 2011 Town & Country Limited for my evaluation. Base price for the Limited trim level is $39,495, including a destination charge of $835, and the options on my press fleet tester included the $295 Deep Cherry Red Paint, the $995 Preferred Package 29X (sunroof, dual overhead consoles, mini overhead console) and the $595 Power Folding Third Row Seat, for a total sticker price of $41,380. For comparison, a similarly equipped Toyota Sienna Limited would sticker at $47,248, while a comparable Honda Odyssey Touring Elite would list for $44,335.