I do not have children, but I am not embarrassed by minivans. So, when my niece Sarah DeMatio-Hodges was set to graduate from osteopathic medical school in Kirksville, Missouri, Automobile Magazine's Four Seasons Chrysler Town & Country minivan seemed like the perfect chariot for me; my brother Greg; my brother Dave; Dave's wife, Jennifer; and their seven-year-old daughter, Danielle, to drive to the commencement ceremonies. After all, what are minivans for, if not to haul loving siblings together in harmony to a milestone family event?
We left Ann Arbor on Friday morning with about 635 miles ahead of us. Dave did most of the packing, and with the 60% section of the third-row seat folded into the floor, there was more than enough room for all of our gear, so at the last minute I packed a cooler with ice, yogurt, bottled water, and a couple bottles of white wine, figuring that I would need to unwind with a drink at the end of the long drive. Dave held the removable picnic table in his hands and asked, "Are we really going to use this?" "Oh, yes," I replied. "We have to give the Swivel 'n Go seating configuration a full test!" So the table was shoved into the back, its aluminum leg crammed between a couple of duffels.
Danielle had brought along a couple of DVDs but was thrilled to learn that our Town & Country is equipped with satellite TV and the Kids Channel. I don't think we had even made it the two miles to I-94 before she had her headphones on and the rearmost ceiling-mounted screen folded down. She would remain there in the third-row seat (the 40% portion), contentedly gazing up at the video screen, for the bulk of the trip. Praise be to the Lord. Now I know why parents are so eager to have these DVD setups in their vehicles: aside from a couple of weak-willed "Are we there yet?" queries on the first day, we hardly heard a peep from young Danielle for the entire drive.
I have little exciting to report from the drive itself, which is just as well: you don't want excitement when you're on a road trip with your extended family, you just want peace. The Town & Country was exceedingly comfortable, and we all found the 4.0-liter V-6 engine to be plenty powerful for merging and passing. I quelled any notions I might normally have to "make time" and set the cruise control to between 74 and 76 mph, which returned us an average of about 23 mpg over the course of the 1500-mile trip, quite acceptable for a big, comfortable box that is hauling five people and their belongings. I believe the gasoline bill for our trip was about $260, or $52 per person.
None of the family members with me had previously spent much time in vehicles with navigation systems, so they were all surprised by how accurate and useful they are. I neglected to give everyone a tutorial on the navigation system before we left Ann Arbor, though, so as we drove through Indianapolis, Dave at the wheel, looking for a lunch spot, I was lunging forward from the second-row seat, poking at the navigation screen in a vain attempt to find a suitable restaurant that was not a chain. My brother Greg, who was riding shotgun, doesn't have the sharpest eyesight and was continually punching the wrong buttons on the navigation screen, usually one just below or just above the one he was aiming for. After I convinced Dave to pull over for a minute so that all the navigation search functions would be available (they go dark when the vehicle is in Drive to avoid driver distraction), I punched up Point of Interest, Restaurants, and found a nearby place called the Unleavened Bread Café. This sounded suitably interesting and potentially healthful, so we asked the nav system to send us there, about a mile away. We ended up in the middle of the ghetto, and the address was a boarded-up house. Oh, well. We made our way downtown and ate at a Subway near the War Memorial Park.
Overall, though, the navigation system was very helpful. After our late-evening arrival in Columbia, Missouri, we quickly checked in at the Econo Lodge, which was so nasty I considered simply sleeping in the Town & Country. Hungry and tired, we needed dinner, and we needed it quick. The nav system sent us to a nearby Chevys Tex Mex which fit the bill. Later in the weekend, after touring the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, we all piled into the Town & Country and wanted dinner. I used the nav system to select nearby Italian restaurants and found The Old Spaghetti Factory. I then used my BlackBerry to find reviews and ratings, and we were on our way within two minutes. It will be nice when nav systems are tied in with roaming wireless and can fold that function into their tasks. Don't worry; that day is not far away. In any case, this is when nav systems are really useful: You're in an unfamiliar city, it's dinnertime, there's a hungry seven-year-old in the car, and you don't want to aimlessly drive around looking for a suitable eatery.
Power-sliding doors and power-operated tailgates are nothing new in minivans, but I really appreciated those in the Town & Country, and I tried to get everyone in my family to use the power buttons to close them rather than doing so manually. I had about a 75% success rate with that; it was easy for them to forget and close them manually. The T&C's power-folding and flipping third-row seats are also very handy, especially for women and the elderly who don't want to manhandle seats into submission. One of the bonuses of choosing the Swivel 'n Go seating is that there are then spacious storage bins in the floor below the second-row passengers' feet (in models without Swivel 'n Go, this space is used to store the folding second-row seats). We found these bins to be especially handy for camera bags, briefcases, computer bags, and other valuables that you want at hand but out of sight.
On the return trip, a highly annoying, high-pitched rattle started to emanate from the center of the dash. Initially we thought it was related to the climate control system, because it had the sort of shrill, piercing sound that is sometimes the result of, say, an errant leaf trapped in an air duct. But no amount of fiddling with the climate control system, the radio, or any of the other controls in the center stack would quell the noise. And then, suddenly, it would disappear, only to reemerge an hour later.
Other than that, the Town & Country performed its intended tasks admirably. Those who have mistaken Chrysler's new minivan for a sport sedan will, understandably, be disappointed in it, but for those who evaluate it as it should be evaluated (is it a good people hauler? Is it versatile? Is it a good trip vehicle?) cannot help but be impressed. A lot of brilliant design work went into this vehicle, with an eye toward anticipating and meeting the needs of families and group travelers. The Town & Country might not be cool, but it works. Very well.