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Chrysler retains its luxury Town & Country minivan
There's another way to help troubled automaker Chrysler besides handing over tax dollars in a bailout package. Buy a minivan.
Chrysler was the company that debuted America's first minivan in the early 1980s during an earlier brush with bankruptcy. Its minivans caught on with young families and led industry sales for more than two decades, helping fuel the automaker's health.
Today, the 2009 Chrysler Town & Country van still is a roomy, comfortable vehicle with top government crash test ratings and unique features, such as satellite TV and second-row seats that swivel to face the rear.
And with leather-trimmed seats, power sunroof, power sliding doors and rear liftgate, trailer tow package, power folding third-row seat and rear-seat entertainment center, the Town & Country remains a top luxury minivan.
But how many people today will pay more than $40,000 for a vehicle that's no longer considered trendy? And how many are willing to overlook a Consumer Reports reliability rating of "poor"?
To be sure, not every Town & Country is high-priced. Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $27,500 for a base LX with 175-horsepower V-6, and the Town & Country twin, the 2009 Dodge Grand Caravan, starts at $25,305.
It's the flagship 2009 Chrysler Town & Country Limited that has a starting retail price, including destination charge, of $37,600 with 251-horsepower V-6. The price includes curtain air bags, antilock brakes and electronic stability control as well as three-zone air conditioning, 115-volt electrical outlet, heated front and second-row seats, power liftgate and shades for the second-row, power sliding doors.
With rear-seat DVD entertainment system, enhanced by dual screens and Sirius backseat TV, the price is nearly $40,000.
Town & Country prices are competitive with other minivans, including the 2009 Honda Odyssey, which starts at $27,025 and goes to more than $41,000, and the 2009 Toyota Sienna, which starts at $25,285 and goes to more than $41,000.
The Town & Country, like other Chrysler minivans, was redesigned as a boxier vehicle for 2008, and the sharp edges at the corners continue for 2009. But the look isn't as rich as the predecessor, which had a rounder, more flowing shape. And the change has made the Town & Country less distinguishable from other minivans.
But the 4-liter, single overhead cam V-6 -- the most powerful engine offered in Chrysler's minivans -- provides good power to the front wheels. Chrysler dropped its all-wheel drive offering years ago, but Toyota still offers all-wheel drive in its Sienna.
The Town & Country Limited's 251 horses and peak torque of 259 foot-pounds 4,100 rpm compares favorably with 250 horsepower and 245 foot-pounds of torque in the Odyssey and 265 horsepower and 245 foot-pounds of torque in the Sienna.
In the test Chrysler van, the engine power was managed with nary a noticeable shift point by the six-speed automatic transmission. The ride was well-insulated and mostly quiet, save for acceleration sounds from the engine. I didn't notice wind noise, even on the highway.
Best of all, fuel economy in the Town & Country with 4-liter V-6 is equal to or better than Honda and Toyota.
Specifically, the federal government rating is 17 miles per gallon in city driving and 25 mpg on the highway and is the best of all three V-6 engines offered in the Town & Country.
This means that a 20-gallon tank full of regular unleaded is good enough for some 400 miles of combined city/highway travel.
Steering could be better tuned for a more confident feel, and this 5.7-foot-tall vehicle leans in the turns.
Passengers ride smoothly over most road bumps, but some road patches, potholes and humps can be jarring.
Wide door openings -- especially for the second row -- are appreciated by anyone with mobility concerns. The openings are great for loading items like child safety seats into the vehicle, too.
And because the Town & Country, like other minivans, doesn't ride real high above the pavement, elderly and small children don't have a big step up to get inside.
Note, though, that passengers must walk between the second-row bucket seats to get to the third row. Views out of the Town & Country provide looks above many cars, though pickup trucks and other vans still can block forward views.
The rear park assist audio warning and rearview camera help show what's behind the vehicle when it's backing up.
The front seats in the tester felt more welcoming and comfortable than the shaped second-row bucket seats, though passengers liked the ease with which the second-row swiveling seats turned rearward and locked into place.
This created a conversation area with people in the third row. And all this can become a craft and game area when a small table is secured into a spot in the floor between second- and third-row seats. No other minivans have this feature.
It was easy to get spoiled by all the power-operated equipment in the test van.
Even the third-row seats folded flat into the floor with the touch of a button. Best of all, I could fold down the entire third row, or select one side or the other to fold down. These seats rose from the floor and positioned themselves to accept passengers with the touch of a button, too.
Still, there were some interior trim pieces that could have looked more refined, and Consumer Reports' poor reliability rating of the Town & Country is troubling.
In addition, the Chrysler brand as a whole ranked well below average in the 2008 J.D. Power and Associates' Initial Quality Study.