Last year, while most minivan competitors were being thoroughly redesigned or treated to bumper-to-bumper freshenings, Chrysler Corp. invested its limited budget in a revised platform that accommodates the company's exclusive Stow 'n Go seating, which allows the second- and third-row seats to fold flat into the floor without removing the headrests. The gamble has played off well in sales, with the Dodge Caravan still leading the category, though ground has been lost in technology, powertrain, and refinement to newer vehicles. Both the Caravan and Town & Country received this update for 2005, and the fraternal twins carry over for 2006 with only minor detail changes. The upscale Town & Country minivan is offered again in four models: the short-wheelbase Town & Country, the long-wheelbase LX, the upscale Touring, and the tony Limited.
Casting a familiar profile, the Town & Country is a handsome van with a distinctive front end, thanks to new-for-2005 headlamps and a large, signature Chrysler grille. The Limited has chrome-finished aluminum 16-inch wheels to distinguish it from its less luxurious stablemates. Base and LX models have 15-inch wheels and tires. Power sliding doors and liftgate are standard on the Limited and Touring. The short-wheelbase base Town & Country offers an optional powered passenger sliding door.
The most important part of a minivan, of course, is the interior. People buy minivans first and foremost to carry people and luggage, and, in that respect, the Town & Country is one of the most versatile minivans on the market. It has seating for seven passengers, with a pair of second-row captain's chairs standard in all but the base T&C and a three-person third-row bench. In the Limited, those seats are covered in leather. Chrysler has a positively dizzying array of seating configurations, thanks to the Stow 'n Go seats, which are standard on all models except the base short-wheelbase van.
Stow 'n Go allows both second- and third-row seats to fold flat into the floor for a vast amount of cargo space-perfect for antiquing-while the center-row seats also offer four inches of fore-and-aft movement. The only downside to this Rube Goldberg-esque seating arrangement is that the second-row seats aren't as roomy or well padded as those in many rivals, though most passengers may not notice.
Chrysler put a lot of thought into its innovative packaging, including cupholders galore, an overhead rail system (on the Limited model) that features three standard moveable/removable overhead storage bins, and a couple of spacious, covered storage bins that live beneath the center-row Stow 'n Go seats in models so equipped. The second-row seats also flip forward out of the way at the pull of a strap to allow for easier ingress to the third-row seats.
The Town & Country is nicely appointed inside, though we would argue that Toyota and Honda, particularly, have better-quality materials and fits. The Limited, though, is as luxurious as its Japanese-branded counterparts, with standard power front seats with memory, three-zone automatic climate control, and power adjustable pedals. The most desirable extra in the Limited model tops many parents' must-have lists-the rear-seat video system with seven-inch video screen and wireless infrared headphones. Bluetooth cellular-phone connectivity, a moonroof, and Sirius satellite radio round out the Limited's available options.
The Town & Country scores well in government crash tests (five star frontal), although it doesn't earn the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety's highest award. (Japanese rivals, the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna, do.) All Town & Country models have standard front airbags, and full-length head curtain airbags are standard on the Limited and optional on the other Town & Country models. A driver-side inflatable knee bolster is standard. A sliding-door alert system activates the external hazard lamps when the doors are activated. Anti-lock disc brakes are standard on all but the base model, while low-speed traction control is standard only on the Touring and Limited models. Stability control is unavailable-a glaring omission given that both Toyota and Honda offer it.
The base Town & Country and the LX are offered only with Chrysler's anemic and dated overhead valve 3.3-liter V-6 engine that makes 180 horsepower and 210 pound-feet of torque. The Touring and Limited benefit from a larger, if still old-fashioned, 3.8-liter V-6 that makes 207 horsepower and 238 pound-feet. Both engines are mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. Neither engine matches those of Japanese rivals for power or smoothness, but at least fuel economy is decent.
Behind the Wheel
No one is going to be intimidated by driving the Town & Country. Although, at 200.5 inches overall, it is pretty big, it drives small, thanks to precise, light steering, good brakes, and nimble responses. It isn't exactly sporty to drive, but most soccer moms and empty-nesters won't care about that-they'll be more interested in the well-controlled, smooth ride, and the refined highway performance. The only real flaw with the Town & Country is that the engines are wheezy and coarse at the top end, and the van doesn't get up and go with the same alacrity as the Honda and Toyota minivan offerings, which have more powerful, more modern V-6 engines. (Honda boasts 48 more horsepower and slightly better fuel economy.) The four-speed automatic transmission lacks the smoothness of the best five-speeds on the market, too.
One of the best features of owning the Town & Country, as compared with some of its competitors, is that there are plenty of Chrysler dealers around the country. And the company now offers a more enlightened warranty, with 70,000-mile coverage on the powertrain, more generous than its main rivals' warranties. No roadside assistance is available, however.
For minivan owners who embrace an active lifestyle-and we suspect there's many a family who uses their Town & Country for vacations and camping trips-this Chrysler has a decent tow rating. Both the short- and long-wheelbase vans can tow up to 2,000 pounds without the optional tow package, and a very useful 3,800 pounds with it, sufficient for a camper trailer.
Covering a wide price range, the Chrysler Town & Country brings luxury and storage innovation to the minivan segment. But while the T&C packs the features minivan buyers want, based on 20 years of owner feedback, it doesn't possess the polish of newer competitors.
For 2005, the Town & Country received freshened styling, Stow 'n Go seating, and more safety features. For '06, there are only minor trim changes.
The rear-seat video system is perfect for family outings, and a power sliding door is a useful option on the base model. Be sure to specify side curtain airbags and anti-lock brakes on models that don't come with these important features as standard equipment.
Others to Consider
Buick Terraza, Honda Odyssey, Mercury Monterey