General Motors and Ford are quitting minivans in favor of crossovers, but Chrysler, the company that invented the modern minivan, is bringing out its fifth generation of the family favorites. Chrysler's outgoing vans ushered in fold-into-the-floor second-row seat stowage (dubbed Stow 'n Go) - a meaningful advantage, particularly for those who regularly carry large pieces of cargo. Other than that, though, the last-generation Chrysler minivans seemed like a halfhearted update. They didn't look very different from their predecessors, and they lost ground to top-flight competitors from Toyota and Honda (note that those companies' interest in minivans does not seem to be waning). The 2008 Chrysler/Dodge vans are an entirely more convincing effort, narrowing the gap in mechanical refinement and bolstering the company's historic penchant for innovation.
Unlike the fourth-generation vans, the new Chrysler and Dodge minivans at least look new. The roof and the sills have been widened, creating flatter sides, and the nose has been pulled out, making it more distinct from the body. The whole effect is to make the vans more squared-off and trucklike, moving them away from their egg-shaped predecessors and, perhaps, making them a bit less emasculating for dads who have to be seen in them.
Underneath the new skin, the basic chassis design carries over, with key alterations such as a longer wheelbase and a revised suspension. The new top engine, an enlarged version of Chrysler's 3.5-liter V-6, displaces 4.0 liters and cranks out 251 hp. Both the 4.0-liter V-6 and the 197-hp, 3.8-liter unit use a new six-speed automatic that gives the whole powertrain more polish. The taller top gear helps make highway cruising quieter - as does the im-proved drag coefficient and the thicker side glass - although the engines' sound quality still isn't as refined as that of the best Japanese competitors. The six-speed has Chrysler's AutoStick manual shift capability, but the movement of the dash-mounted gear lever felt sloppy in the preproduction examples we drove. The base engine soldiers on with a four-speed transmission, although it has a revised cam profile that helps extract more power and torque from its 3.3 liters.
The vans ride on a wider track (2.5 inches at the front, 0.8 inch in back), their steering has lower effort, and the damper-strut front and beam-axle rear suspension has been retuned for a smoother ride. Our fears that these priorities would deliver one-finger steering and woozy body motions proved unfounded. (Still, we did prefer the slightly firmer setup that is exclusive to the 4.0-liter Dodge, which suffers no real degradation in ride quality - at least none that we could feel on the smooth byways of our test route in San Diego County.)
For all the mechanical upgrades, Chrysler engineers really concentrated their efforts on adding new features. The headline-maker is the new Swivel 'n Go seating option. Available on all trim levels, Swivel 'n Go consists of second-row seats that can spin around to face rearward and a removable table that stows in the underfloor storage compartment when not in use. Seat-mounted seat belts allow riders to face rearward while the car is in motion. It's a neat - and unique - setup, but it has two downsides: the swiveling seats can't stow in the floor (although underfloor storage remains), and the front seats can't slide all the way back when the seats are facing rearward. Buyers who opt not to swivel and go instead get Stow 'n Go seating - except on the base trim level, which has a second-row bench. In all cases, the third row is a split bench that tumbles into the floor (now with available power operation) and also can face rearward for tailgating.
With rear-seat DVD players now a family-car necessity, Chrysler wisely made a special effort to put its new minivans on the leading edge of in-car entertainment. The DVD player features two large, eight-inch diagonal screens that can play two different videos or two different media. In addition to videos, Chrysler offers Sirius satellite TV, with three channels of kid fare (Nickelodeon, Disney Channel, and Cartoon Network). Up front, you can get Chrysler's MyGig hard drive, onto which one can download 20 gigabytes of music. And, yes, Mom and Dad can listen to their own tunes (or satellite radio, or CDs) while the kids remain transfixed by their electronic screens.
The full features assault continues in many lesser ways as well, with Chrysler picking up items first seen on competitors, such as roll-down windows in the sliding doors, a convex inside mirror, and side-window sunshades. The interior surfaces, particularly in the Town & Country, aren't as depressingly cheap as some of the company's recent efforts. Overall, the new minivans make modest strides in refinement and design but significant upgrades in family-friendly features. At a time when Chrysler's corporate ownership is in flux, it's nice to see this once-again-American manufacturer return to form as an innovator in the segment it created.