By Chris Haak
Chrysler Group had a busy offseason between the 2010 (which we’ll call the “treading water” year) and 2011 model years. Though the lineup is not yet fully updated, with a handful of dowdy, uncompetitive vehicles, the company spent a decent amount of its precious cash to improve the competitiveness of its lineup through an series of intense mid-cycle enhancements. Rather than the Honda-style taillamp redesign after year three, several key Chrysler vehicles received new engines, new interiors, and some new front and rear sheetmetal. The vehicle we’re talking about today, the company’s flagship luxury minivan, underwent suspension surgery as well. The result is a vehicle that retains the 2008-2010 Town & Country’s utility while improving refinement and perceived quality. It’s also quite spry for a minivan. (Yes, that’s kind of like saying a six footer is short – for a basketball player).
My wife and I own a minivan (a 2008 Toyota Sienna Limited AWD) and I’ve earned the reputation around the Autosavant offices as a “minivan guy.” I prefer to think of myself as a more highly-evolved automotive enthusiast who can appreciate minivans for their utility and space (especially relative to their footprint, physically and environmentally). (Joking is hard to convey in the written word sometime, but that last sentence was very tongue-in-cheek).
Shortly after we bought our Sienna, I reviewed the 2008 version of today’s test subject, and I wasn’t particularly thrilled by it. When the 2008 Town & Country hit the market, Chrysler had clearly devoted a lot of energy into getting the utility part of the minivan experience right, with ample storage, kid- and family-friendly features like dual overhead video screens and power sliding doors. But the attention to detail in the 2008 T&C’s interior was terrible, with hard plastic everywhere, stark right angles on the dash, door panels, and instrument panel, sub-par plastics, and a giant, scary-shiny steering wheel. Fuel economy also wasn’t great, and I noted at the time that the van had a propensity to spin its tires when accelerating from a stop.
And so we now welcome the 2011 Town & Country. While the 2008 T&C was a victim of Daimler’s accounting department, the new one is surprisingly benefitting from the work that Cerberus did to unleash much-needed product improvements on these vans. A mild exterior freshening offers small hints to the changes inside and beneath the skin while cleaning up the exterior shape. You can spot a 2011 and newer Town & Country by its new headlamps and taillamps, new bumpers, and a new tailgate design. Left intact is the somewhat-awkward D-pillar treatment that is a form-follows-function kind of thing to maximize interior space at the expense of anything resembling sportiness.
In place of the hard plastic and awful, lowest-bidder parts of the old van, you’ll find a completely new one-piece upper dash panel that, while still made of hard plastic, has a more pleasing organic shape and more importantly, a much better perceived quality because it has no random [often ill-fitting] seams. The gauges are surrounded by nice metallic trim, and between them is a useful trip computer. The downside of the trip computer is that its operation depends on the user’s understanding of cryptic buttons on the steering wheel spokes. The steering wheel is the new Chrysler corporate design that has a premium feel with nice, low-gloss leather and a thick rim, with lots of buttons on its spokes. Buttons and switches are improved dramatically over the old Town & Country’s stuff, and are now up to par with the rest of the class. Since Honda and Toyota now put a lot of hard plastic into their vans’ interiors, there’s nothing particularly wrong with the Chrysler’s material selection anymore.
Just to the right of the new gauge cluster is the new gearshift lever. Ditching the previous straight-track design (which, in every 2008-2011 Grand Caravan or Town & Country I ever drove, felt like it was going to fall off in my hand), the vans now get a meandering style path with a much-sturdier that makes At the front and center position on the new dashboard of the Town & Country Limited, you’ll see the Chrysler parts bin radio featuring UConnect (music hard drive, Bluetooth, etc.) and navigation. Unlike the similar-looking unit found in the refreshed Chrysler 200, the van’s head unit features Garmin navigation software, which is far better and easier to use than the old Chrysler navigation software. Otherwise, the radio tuning in terrestrial and satellite bands is a bit cumbersome.
Interior improvements extend to the door panels, which are now finished in soft-touch plastic in their upper areas so they’re a more pleasant place to lean your arm. The former Swivel-N-Go seats (and their gimmicky between-rows table) have been tossed due to a low take rate, but the stalwart Stow-N-Go seats have returned again, and this time with a new design that makes them look and feel more like real seats than they used to. I only sat in them for a brief moment (I was driving otherwise, and we had car seats installed on top of them most of the time), but they seemed to be thicker and more comfortable.
Chrysler’s floorpan design has large storage wells to accommodate the folded second-row seats, and although the seats cannot be stowed or unstowed without moving the appropriate front seat all the way forward, the underfloor storage bays are huge. Just goofing around in the driveway one day, both of my children were able to crouch into the bins completely below the floor level. More practically, you could keep quite a bit of your vacation necessities there, or tall people could leave the lids open and enjoy nearly unlimited legroom beneath their seat.
Minivans tend to have perhaps the most inviting third-row seats of any passenger vehicle, and that includes behemoths like the Chevrolet Suburban. The third rows in vans are generally easy to get to, have an adequately-tall ceiling, and decent legroom. The Town & Country is no exception, except that the T&C’s third row seat has an odd ‘jackknife’ shape when open, such that passengers’ buttocks will be about six inches lower than the backs of their knees. I didn’t honestly spend enough time back there to see if it is a problem on longer drives, but I’d imagine that it was done to improve headroom. I’d also imagine that it could make installing a child seat flat on the back row could be difficult.
When Autosavant reviewed a 2011 Dodge Grand Caravan back in February, we noted that there were a number of steps required to stow the third row seats into the floor. That is not the case with the Town & Country Limited because it was equipped with power folding third row seats. You simply press a button on the inside D pillar to stow or unstow the appropriate (or both) seats, and they automatically do so. It’s very easy to do and works well. As with all minivans that have a rear storage well, the well must be empty in order for the third row seats to fit into it when they are being stowed. With a robot stowing the T&C’s seat, it would probably be a mistake to assume that the motor will stop before whatever’s back there is crushed.
There has been an LCD screen arms race in the minivan segment for the past few years, ever since Chrysler introduced the dual screen (second row and third row) setup in 2008. Toyota and Honda rolled out optional widescreen displays that can stretch or center a single image on a wide, normal-height screen or display two separate images (if you bring the second source with you, such as an Xbox or PS3). Chrysler continues to use two discrete screens, which I prefer. However, if you want to display something different between the screens, you need to either connect a portable DVD player or a video game system. While I prefer the two single screen layout in the Chrysler, the downside is that if you only use the second row for seating most of the time (as we do for our young kids), they’re forced to watch the same thing, and we as parents are forced to broker settlements between them.
I haven’t even touched on some of the biggest improvements to the Town & Country, and those are related to its driving experience. The Pentastar V6 is transformative, both for this van and for Chrysler as a company. With the Pentastar V6, Chrysler finally has a very competitive engine. It’s smooth, efficient, and powerful – and has a ton of upside as well. While V6 engines are becoming an endangered species in some vehicle classes (such as midsize sedans), the next-generation Town & Country due for 2013 will certainly continue to offer a descendent of the 2011 van’s engine, if not the exact same one. Thanks to low rolling resistance tires and class-leading horsepower, the Town & Country has no trouble spinning its tires from a stop.
Under full-throttle acceleration, the van’s six speed automatic shifts at the redline with authority, but under lighter load conditions, it shifts as quickly as it can to maximize fuel economy. If you activate the van’s Eco mode via a large center stack-mounted button, throttle response is a bit muted and shifts come even earlier. Nevertheless, despite the additional power that the new V6 brings to the table, fuel economy is a full two MPG better than the 2008 version with the 4.0 liter V6. The EPA rates the 2011 Town & Country at 17 city/25 highway (versus 16 city/23 highway for the 4.0 liter 2008 van). Of note, incremental changes in gearing, etc. got the 2010 Town & Country with the old 4.0 liter V6 up to the same 17/25 ratings that the Pentastar earns, but without the extra power and refinement. Look for a nine-speed automatic in the coming years to help the new V6 wring further improvements in performance and efficiency.
Mainstream Chryslers developed during the Daimler era were not known for their handling prowess. Poorly-tuned (perhaps poorly-designed) suspension systems were capable of neither good handling nor good ride; with most cars, it’s often an either-or proposition, but for the old Town & Country, it was more like a neither-nor one. No longer. If the Dodge Grand Caravan R/T “Man Van” is going to have stiffer suspension so that it handles better than the standard T&C/Grand Caravan, it’s not necessary. They have this van dialed in the right way, to the point that it’s arguably the best-handling minivan on the market. Steering is well weighted and accurate, and body roll is minimal. How did they manage to transform the minivans’ handling while the 200 is improved, but not quite as good as the vans? They’re either focusing more energy/resources on their bread-and-butter family haulers, or they’re looking at the suspension changes that VW’s engineers applied to the same van to improve the Routan’s tuning beyond its older brethren’s capabilities.
For about forty grand out the door ($40,090 more specificially, destination charge included), you can get a van exactly like the one I’ve described on the prior paragraphs. Heck, with a little wheeling and dealing, you might be able to do even a little better, but Chrysler cut into their dealers’ margins with this latest generation, making the $5,000 and $10,000 discounts of years past a bit less likely. And frankly, discounts are less necessary than they were in years past. At invoice, the loaded Town & Country Limited (which only had a single option in our tester – the $595 power folding third row seat), it’s $816 cheaper than an Odyssey Touring Elite. However, take the extra equipment that you get with the T&C into account (heated steering wheel, keyless entry and ignition, knee air bag, satellite TV, heated second row, etc.) and the difference balloons to $2,247 at invoice. At MSRP, the disparity is $2,360 at face value and $3,885 when accounting for equipment differences.
The company that claims to have invented the minivan – and certainly has sold more of them than anyone else – has given their flagship family hauler a much-needed series of improvements that bring it into the thick of its competitors and offers a better driving experience and more features, all for less money. What more could you ask for in your family hauler?
Chrysler provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.