A shocking number of marriages end in divorce. Once inseparable, loving couples can drift apart with time and age. Such has been the case in Automobile Magazine‘s long-running but recently estranged partnership with the Chrysler minivan. Back in 1986, a first-generation Dodge Caravan served ably as one of our first Four Seasons vehicles, and for about ten years thereafter, Chrysler’s minivan was one of our perennial favorites. It won nearly every comparison we threw at it and was sure to be mentioned any time we put together a list of cars we loved. In naming it to our first group of All-Stars, we concluded, “No one else, here or abroad, has built a minivan that looks, feels, behaves, or speaks to the prospective customer the way Chrysler’s minivan does.”
Times change. Only one full-time staff member from those days remains – editor-in-chief Jean Jennings – and Chrysler has long since gained stiff competition from both well-thought-out minivans and hip crossovers. As such, our relationship, once close and congenial, has grown increasingly distant. We haven’t given the Chrysler minivans an All-Star award since their ninth in 1998 (the second-generation came out the next year and went on to become a repeat winner). Like many Americans, we’ve come to think of the Mopars as useful, but hardly charming, appliances.
Chrysler, seeing its minivan sales dwindling, thoroughly reworked its vans for the 2008 model year, adding a claimed thirty-five new or improved features. Eager to see if the vehicle had gotten back its mojo, we signed on for a year with a top-of-the-line Chrysler Town & Country Limited.
Four seasons later, we can confirm that the Town & Country is still the easy-to-load, easy-to-own, family-friendly ride we remember from the good ol’ days, and it has even learned a few new tricks. But has it rekindled our lost love? Frankly, no.
The Town & Country arrived last spring and within minutes was on its way to northern Michigan with copy editor Rusty Blackwell and his posse. A year later, on the van’s very last weekend, technical editor Don Sherman reserved it so he could pick up a small motorcycle in Tennessee. And so it went for most of the Town & Country’s time in our fleet, with the minivan constantly on some adventure, be it to New York, Colorado, or circling the Great Lakes. The Chrysler racked up 32,880 miles – many of them loaded to the gills – and was often harder to reserve for a holiday than our . “Once again, utility trumps curb appeal when it comes to our Four Seasons fleet,” observed senior Web editor Phil Floraday.
And when it came purely to utility, the van received endless praise. “There’s nothing like a minivan when it comes to moving stuff,” wrote Jennings. “This weekend, our cargo included several suitcases and garment bags plus Bob, our caged, 72-pound Chesapeake Bay retriever.” The logbook is filled with tales of similarly impressive payloads, including from Blackwell, who carted home bulky antique furniture and was compelled to ask, “Who needs an SUV when you can have a minivan?” In fact, with its flat, low loading floor and clever packaging, the Town & Country made for a better family and cargo hauler than most similarly priced crossovers or full-size SUVs. And overall fuel economy, at 21 mpg, handily exceeded that of our most recent long-term three-row warriors.
So what’s the problem, you ask? In a word: manners. First, there are the driving dynamics. “The Town & Country just feels too soft and floaty going down the road,” opined one staff member. The top-spec, 4.0-liter V-6 and six-speed automatic proved plenty quick – 0 to 60 mph took 8.2 seconds – but few drivers felt compelled to try even moderate acceleration thanks to unexpected wheel spin and excessive torque steer, which are further evidence of an outdated, overly soft suspension. Towing brought out the worst in the van, despite our $600 towing package. “There’s simply no way I’d be willing to tow 3600 pounds with the Town & Country, even though that’s the published towing capacity,” complained Blackwell after hitching his 2000-pound pop-up camper for his Fourth of July vacation. “Exceptionally bumpy road surfaces caused the trailer to pogo the van, and successful passing maneuvers required lots of planning and a bit of luck.”
Once upon a time, we were willing to put up with such flaws because no vehicle that drove better offered nearly as much utility. No more. Now we live in a world where even some SUVs drive like sport sedans. The Town & Country needn’t be a canyon carver, but a minivan these days should offer carlike refinement.
The interior likewise could use a trip to finishing school. Our van was filled with economy-car plastics dressed up with faux wood trim that, in Blackwell’s words, “reminds me of the trim in my 1993 Plymouth Sundance Duster.” Staff members also complained about difficult-to-read climate controls and hard, uncomfortable armrests. The shortcomings are made all the more frustrating by the fact that under the unattractive facade lies thoughtful, likely costly, functionality. “It’s almost as if Chrysler has two groups of interior design engineers, one of which comes up with all kinds of clever ideas, and another that undermines them with relentless cost cutting,” noted senior editor Joe Lorio.
Cleverness has long been a hallmark of Chrysler minivans. In the past, its innovations – dual sliding doors, fold-flat second-row seats with storage compartments in the floor – have been enough to win us over and fend off challengers. This time, reviews were mixed. For the not inconsiderable price of $42,570, our van came with all the latest goodies, including Swivel ‘n Go second-row seats, satellite radio and TV, and navigation. The gizmos were instant winners among one all-important demographic – staff members’ children, who likely would have voted for the Town & Country as Automobile of the Year with unanimity if given half a chance. “When I pulled up with the minivan my son, Tommy, and his pal (ages eight and seven) were so excited that they wanted to eat their dinner sitting at the in-cabin table,” Lorio enthused. After a road trip to New York, he added, “If in-car DVD viewing is like cocaine for the pint-size minivan rider, in-car TV watching is a potent new strain of crack. Over five hours, Tommy neither spoke nor ate nor drank.”
Adults, too, appreciated the novelties in the Town & Country’s cabin – at first. “The deep pockets in the doors are a perfect place for a wallet, cell phone, or sunglasses,” said executive editor Joe DeMatio, who also sang the praises of the smooth Bluetooth interface. As time wore on, though, most of us tired of the awkwardly swiveling seats (which swing out toward the doors, rather than inward, as one would expect) and the table, which was fun to sit around but most often took up space in the underfloor storage compartment. Worse, Swivel ‘n Go precludes Stow ‘n Go, meaning each 95-pound second-row seat had to be yanked out the old-fashioned way, which was “an onerous chore” according to DeMatio and several others.
Looking beyond the merit of any individual option, we’ve found that the segment has advanced to the point where Chrysler can’t simply use some clever features to disguise its vans’ increasingly obvious flaws. We would much rather have seen Chrysler spend money on nicer, softer interior materials and a more refined suspension than on another batch of tricks and gadgets. Most of us agreed with the writer who said, “The features and the table are cool, but I can’t say I’d pick this over the better-driving, better-looking, better-built Honda Odyssey.”
Thankfully, some of our issues already have been remedied for the 2009 model year. Due in large part to the refinements made for the related Volkswagen Routan, upper-level Dodge models now get a retuned suspension that provides somewhat improved driving dynamics. Also, fuel economy has been boosted even more, to an EPA-rated 17/25 mpg, which leads the minivan class.
We experienced no major reliability problems during our time with the Town & Country. The main mechanical issue came at about 30,000 miles, when the front brakes started squealing due to worn pads. Aside from scheduled maintenance visits, we also took the Chrysler to the dealer to address niggles like misbehaving power sliding doors (they sometimes wouldn’t fully close by themselves) and loose weather stripping.
But the relatively clean service record doesn’t tell the entire story, in particular the way the car aged. The combination of a flexing body structure and a cost-cut interior began to make itself heard before we’d reached the 12,000-mile mark and eventually grew into a cacophony. “Yikes! We have developed some nasty rattles, specifically in the center console,” Jennings noted at 27,000 miles. Ride quality, especially when we had the rear compartment loaded with cargo, began to diminish at about 5000 miles, and we had practically chewed through the all-season tires at 20,000 miles. By the end of the year, our Town & Country felt as if it had been on the road for quite a bit longer. Admittedly, an entire staff’s worth of family vacations, moves, and towing probably resulted in harder use than most consumer-owned vans would have experienced, but many other vehicles have served as our fleet workhorses without suffering such deterioration.
Can this marriage be saved? We think so. “The minivan that won America still has fantastic and clever features that need only a bit more solid engineering behind them,” advised Jennings. Perhaps more important in these cost-constrained times, we also believe that the Chrysler vans – still far and away the sales leaders in the segment – are worth further investment. Twenty-five years after its invention, the minivan remains a uniquely ideal solution for hauling lots of people and all manner of cargo. If Chrysler hopes to once again improve its flagging fortunes, it can start in no better place than with the one vehicle it can truly call its own.
3-yr/36,000-mile roadside assistance
5933 mi: $38
11,472 mi: $58
17,233 mi: $58
29,553 mi: $58
11,472 mi: Replace right front axle seal
17,233 mi: Reseal windshield weather stripping; update software to fix sliding-door malfunction
29,553 mi: Check ABS light; replace second-row seat handle
31,691 mi: Replace defective steering-column clock spring
24,615 mi: Purchase, mount, and balance four Michelin Latitude Alpin HP winter tires, $822
31,172 mi: Replace brake pads and rotors, $375
EPA city/hwy/combined: 16/23/18 mpg
Observed: 21 mpg
Cost per mile
(Fuel, service, winter tires) $0.19
($0.92 including depreciation)
Prices & Equipment
Price as tested
ABS; traction and stability control; adjustable pedals; HID headlamps; power liftgate and sliding doors; remote start; backup camera; three-zone auto air-conditioning; MyGig media system; 115-volt inverter outlet; heated first- and second-row seats; front and three-row side curtain air bags
Power sunroof, $895; navigation/Bluetooth, $1300; Sirius Backseat TV, $2020;
Swivel ‘n Go, $495; second-row bucket seats with child boosters, $225; power folding third-row seats, $595; towing package, $600
*Estimate based on info from kbb.com and edmunds.com
2008 Chrysler Town & Country
- 3.5 / 5 Stars
- body style 4-door van
- accommodation 7 passengers
- construction Steel unibody
- Engine 24-valve SOHC V-6
- Displacement 4.0 liters (241 cu in)
- Horsepower 251 hp @ 6000 rpm
- Torque 259 lb-ft @ 4100 rpm
- Transmission type 6-speed automatic
- Drive Front-wheel
- Steering Power rack-and-pinion
- lock-to-lock 3.1 turns
- turning circle 39.1 ft
- Suspension, front Strut-type, coil springs
- Suspension, rear Trailing arms, coil springs
- Brakes f/r Vented discs/discs, ABS
- Tires Bridgestone Turanza EL400
- Tire size 225/65TR-17
- headroom f/m/r 37.3/37.3/37.9 in
- legroom f/m/r 40.6/36.3/31.8 in
- shoulder room f/m/r 63.0/64.7/62.0 in
- L x W x H 202.5 x 78.7 x 68.9 in
- Wheelbase 121.2 in
- Track f/r 65.5/64.8 in
- Weight 4780 lb
- weight dist. f/r 55.1/44.9%
- cargo capacity 32.3/83.7/140.1 cu ft
- (behind 3rd/2nd/1st rows)
- towing capacity 3600 lb
- fuel capacity 20.0 gal
- est. fuel range 340 miles
- fuel grade 87 octane
- Our Test Results
- 0-60 mph 8.2 sec
- 0-100 mph 27.5 sec
- 1/4-mile 16.6 sec @ 86 mph
- 30-70 mph passing 8.8 sec
- peak acceleration 0.45 g
- speed in gears 1) 37; 2) 55; 3) 69; 4) 109;
- 5) 112; 6) 100 mph
- cornering l/r 0.77/0.76 g
- 70-0 mph braking 179 ft
- peak braking 0.96 g