Minivans get no respect. Compared with SUVs, they aren't cool. Compared with cars and trucks with hybrid gas-electric powertrains, they aren't innovative. Compared with Britney Spears, they don't move too quickly. There's no buzz about minivans.
And yet, out of the limelight, the leaders of this market segment keep on marching. As more manufacturers crowd in for a share of the 1.2 million units sold each year, the traditional makes have moved upmarket, with increasing refinement and a dazzling array of equipment and features.
Performance-as symbolized by the Honda Odyssey's 160-mph speedometer-will shock anyone unfamiliar with recent minivans. Safety-as demonstrated by the comprehensive passive and active systems on the Odyssey and the Toyota Sienna-is also a huge emphasis. And convenience-as in by the Chrysler Town & Country's Stow 'n Go seating-has evolved to a high art.
Keeping these things in mind, now is a great time to compare these three top models:
Convenience and Refinement
The minivan that led the way upmarket well before the Toyota and Honda were even available shows its refinement but also its age. Engineers have had a long time to tweak the Town & Country. Its strong suit is the effective way it suppresses road and engine noise, not to mention how interior squeaks and rattles have been essentially eliminated from the equation. Combined with the comfortable seven-passenger seating and the plush ride, the Town & Country is as serene as a clubroom, yet it corners with aplomb and never makes driving a chore.
Where the age shows most is under the hood. The 3.8-liter V-6 that's standard in the Touring and Limited models is outdated. (The short-wheelbase Town & Country base model that starts at $21,275 and the long-wheelbase LX models that start at $25,640 are equipped with a 3.3-liter V-6.). The large engine languidly discharges 207 hp and 238 lb-ft of torque to an older, four-speed automatic transmission. The engine drudges about its tasks and is coarse and recalcitrant when spurred; having a fifth ratio would help acceleration and fuel economy. At least regular unleaded is all that's required. EPA mileage is 18/25 mpg.
Inside the Limited model we tested (base price: $35,995), the small navigation display is squeezed into the center stack where it was never intended to be, and such features as second-row power windows are unavailable. As good as the instrument panel and center console are, a pastiche of LED and LCD displays create visual conflicts. Nevertheless, the leather interior is highly comfortable and functional.
The Town & Country's Stow 'n Go seating, which was introduced with the 2005 model, is dazzling and goes the furthest in distinguishing this minivan from the competition. In mere seconds and with nearly effortless, one-handed operation, the second- and third-row seats collapse and tumble through trap doors and settle into wells below the floor, providing a vast, flat load space. With the seats up, the wells can be used for secret storage; in fact, this may be the long-sought, ideal spot for hiding Christmas gifts.
Our Limited model's list of standard safety and security features is highlighted by antilock brakes, traction control, rear parking assist, a driver-side inflatable knee bolster, front air bags, and side-curtain air bags covering all three rows. Like the Toyota and the Honda, the Town & Country's front and power-sliding side doors are armored with high-strength steel impact beams. Glaringly absent from the Town and Country's options list is stability control, a system available on the Toyota and Honda that can help prevent skids and rollovers.