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Chrysler’s new minivans demand respect

The Town & Country packs more luxury and comfort per dollar than any other car on the road, our reviewer says.
The Town & Country packs more luxury and comfort per dollar than any other car on the road, our reviewer says.Chrysler

Minivans can evoke cultural misunderstandings. Van people know that they are the best, most practical and efficient way to move people and belongings in comfort. Non-van people see them as soul-sapping appliances that signal the surrender of style, ambition, hope and libido.

To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a van is just a van, but with their new line of family vans Dodge and Chrysler want to change that perception. They’re aiming to position the Chrysler as a virtual luxury limousine for those looking to be pampered, and the Dodge as a rough-and-ready sporty utility vehicle for the mountain biking and kayaking set.

The good news is that these vehicles achieve the goal of staking credible claims to these capabilities. Unfortunately, non-van people will never see them for their virtues because they are blinded by their preconceptions. But if shoppers surrender their prejudices, they’ll find that the Town & Country packs more luxury and comfort for the dollar than any other vehicle on the road. Finished in black, with the optional chrome wheels, the Chrysler looks the part too.

The Dodge is meant to play the sporty role. With its tall, aggressive grille, broad shoulders and gaudy red paint, the Grand Caravan tries hard to look like something an SUV buyer could love. It provides all of the toting capacity the most dedicated extreme sportsperson could want, but in the end it still looks like a van. Van people don’t mind, and the non-van people will never be able to get past that.

Seeking to retain its hold on the van market lead, Chrysler has introduced several useful innovations in this latest generation of vehicles.

Most notable is the company’s back-seat advance — “Swivel ‘n Go” seating. This lets you spin the second-row seats around to face backward and mount a table in the middle of the floor for a dinner table configuration that recalls the old VW Camper. The seats also include the “Stow ‘n Go” capability that Chrysler introduced 2004, which lets the seats fold flat into the floor. As before, the seats’ stowage areas double as storage spaces when the seats are upright. The kids absolutely adore the swiveling seats and table, though when the seats are arranged to face each other the rear-facing seats are unsuitable for kids who are prone to car-sickness.

Seat must be locked in forward or rearward mode while vehicle is in motion. Child restraints must only be used when seats are in forward facing mode. Table top must be installed to base at all times when in use. When not in use, table and base must be properly stowed. Never drive with table installed without properly using your seat belt.

The other problem with the rear-facing seats is anyone sitting in them can’t see the screens of the available video entertainment systems. That video system is the new vans’ other big innovation because it includes the world’s first satellite video system. The Sirius satellite video adds $7 a month to the $13 a month satellite radio bill and it includes three popular children’s channels: the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon Mobile and Cartoon Network Mobile. 

One shortcoming of the video system is the lack of headphone jacks for passengers to use their own headphones. The vans include two sets of wireless headphones, but there are five seats in the back of the vans, and as Chrysler marketing manager Becky Blanchard explained in a marketing presentation, “three is the new two” when it comes to the number of kids in families.  But without the ability to plug in cheap wired headphones, parents will have to cough up $62 per set of wireless headphones (at the dealer) for that third kid, or any friends.

For a real limo-like interior experience the vans have LED spot lighting and “halo” indirect cabin illumination that conveys an expensive feel. For maximum comfort the Chrysler vans also match the competition with the addition of windows that open in the sliding doors and built-in sunshades in all the rear windows.

These nifty family entertainment systems supplement the already available raft of luxury and comfort features common to the modern van, and they make the new Caravan and Town & Country absolutely irresistible as cross-country family haulers.

Underneath all this gingerbread there remains a driving machine, like any other car. In this case, Chrysler has added the larger 4.0-liter, 251-horsepower version of its established 3.5-liter overhead cam V6 engine, which debuted in the Pacifica crossover vehicle for 2007. This optional engine contributes a much-needed boost in both power and civility compared to the pushrod engines in the outgoing model. The vans also get an optional six-speed automatic transmission, which further enhances the luxury feel.

What’s puzzling is Chrysler’s insistence on continuing to offer the unappealing, coarse, underpowered 175-horsepower 3.3-liter pushrod V6 and four-speed automatic transmission as standard equipment. The company sells more than twice as many vans as its nearest competitor and needs the cheap powertrain option for those price-sensitive customers who drive sales volume at the low end of the segment, explained Steve Jakubiec, Chrysler’s senior manager of vehicle synthesis.

But customers who are willing to pay for it can get a better engine — either the 3.8-liter pushrod engine, which makes an adequate 197 horsepower, or the new, smoother and still more powerful 4.0-liter OHC engine. The six-speed automatic transmission that comes with these engines boosts efficiency so that even with more power, the gas mileage is about the same with the bigger engines.

If the company really wants to offer an array of engine choices, rather than three different gas-powered V6 engines, a fuel-efficient diesel option would be a worthwhile choice. Chrysler already builds diesel vans for export to Europe, so we can hope that some of them will come here eventually.

Another issue is while customers can upgrade to a good engine, they have no ability to avoid mediocre ride and handling qualities. The company says the Dodge Grand Caravan models equipped with the 4.0-liter engine also receive sport suspension that is supposed to provide better control, but in back-to-back testing on winding roads, little improvement was evident from the regular suspension on all the other versions of the van.

Van customers have no expectation of racecar handling, but as Honda’s Odyssey demonstrates, it is possible to have very acceptable handling in a van, so it is disappointing that the new Chrysler vans wallow and bounce through curves with very little control. This is a matter of choice, rather than cost, because different shock, springs and swaybar specifications don’t cost any more.

Jakubiec explained that the engineering team drove prototypes 150,000 miles all over the country when making the final calibrations, so the vans would perform appropriately for customers everywhere, but the soggy handling demonstrates the continuing influence of Detroit’s bombed-out roads on domestic product development. In vans that rise to the top of nearly every other category it is a frustration that better handling is not available. This, at least, is a problem that is easily addressed by the company without an expensive redesign, so we can hope that next year’s models could offer improvement.

One other issue with the new vans is the quality of the interior materials. The cabin design of both vans is good, but in keeping with the recent unfortunate trend toward cheap, hard plastic (it isn’t just Chrysler, everybody’s doing it), many interior components seem to have been picked from the toy aisle at Wal-Mart.

But the handling, headphones and cheesy plastics are only minor flaws in vans that have otherwise returned to the lead pack. The Swivel ‘n Go seats, table and satellite video should secure Chrysler’s hold on family van market leadership for the foreseeable future by placating the young ‘uns while reminding their parents of the VW microbuses of their youth, when their home televisions only received three channels.

Maybe the attraction will even be enough to lure some non-van people across the cultural divide.