Expectations were high that Chrysler would emulate Honda's celebrated stow-away rear seats, but it didn't happen. Without revealing all of their thoughts on the subject, the Chrysler crew stayed the course set in 1996, when roller-skate wheels were mounted beneath removable seats to facilitate their movement, both inside the van and to a parking spot in the garage. But they did at least take the ax to the third-row bench, every hernia surgeon's favorite friend. Splitting that seat into two equal-sized pieces not only diminishes the in-and-out drudgery; it also provides added flexibility when you're juggling people and packages.
While we appreciate the convenience of rear bench seats that disappear on cue, there are trade-offs to consider. There is no free lunch when it comes to packaging, so fuel capacity and spare-tire access become concerns. And it's important to remember that the interior space available with seats stored in the garage is inevitably grander than when they're along for the ride. Raising the floor to match the height of folded cushions is a fine idea as long as you don't mind sacrificing some cargo volume.
Would the lack of foldaway seats prove to be a hardship or just an inconvenience? To find out, we signed up for a long-term relationship with Chrysler's flagship Town & Country minivan. Ordered with LXi (mid-level) trim, cloth seats, and four-wheel drive, its window sticker totaled $33,995. The only extra-cost items were a $400 power liftgate and a $225 CD player for the stereo system, largely because the LXi edition is so lavishly equipped. Power assists galore, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, aluminum wheels, load-leveling rear dampers, and triple-zone temperature control are all included as base equipment at this trim level.
The instant we pressed Mini Driver into springtime service, the logbook started bubbling with commentary. The smooth ride and quiet powertrain impressed everyone. Acceleration was better than expected for a mom-mobile (10.1 seconds for the sprint to 60 mph). When the Sherman family loaded camping gear, a couple of four-legged friends, and a minibike for summer vacation, the trusty 215-horsepower V-6 shouldered the load without a whimper. The hop-in-and-go accessibility provided by seats that transport you at walking height and low-profile doorsills earned high acclaim. After a $1400 Mopar VHS entertainment system was added, the Automobile Magazine staff's child-care stress was halved. Ms. Driver had a date every weekend.
The vehicle also drew a few barbs. After praising the tasteful appearance of the vintage-style instrument cluster, most critics ranted about disappointing interior quality and an assortment of ergonomic foibles. Contributor Kirk Seaman called it "plain and uninspired, more Wal-Mart than Nordstrom." Several critics felt the eyebrow perched atop the dash for light-up indicators seemed like an afterthought. The designer who marked the tachometer with a 6500-rpm redline should someday meet the engineer who set the fuel-delivery cutoff at 5600 rpm. Our lanky design director, Darin Johnson, repeatedly bumped heads with the roof-mounted video screen, and everyone hated how it interrupted the rear-view mirror's sight line. Compounding that gripe, outside mirrors were deemed injudiciously small. Switch panels for climate control and entertainment systems and the front-seat cup holders are all lower than we'd like. The triple-zone HVAC panel seems intimidating at first glance, although it worked faultlessly throughout our experience.