Winning streaks are tough to maintain. Just ask the New England Patriots.
Or don't, some of those guys are pretty big.
Since they were introduced into a world where soccer and the moms who make it possible barely existed, Chrysler's minivan family has topped the sales charts in such a dominating fashion that both GM and Ford were forced to throw in the towel and abandon the segment last year.
The now privately owned company from Auburn Hills, Mich., has managed to do this not by the logical route of making the most luxurious vehicles in class, the most stylish or even the cheapest. Instead, Chrysler has consistently figured out how to stuff as many features, gizmos and follies as are physically possible into its minivans, and then find a way to pack in a few more every couple of years.
Standing alone against the competition from Japan and Korea in a declining market segment, Chrysler decided it needed to put everything on the table for its latest redesign of the Town and Country and Dodge Grand Caravan models. That's not a figure of speech.
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You can actually buy one with a removable table that fits between the two back rows of seating and stores in a compartment under the floor when you don't need it. Combined with another industry first, "Swivel 'n Go" captain's chairs for the second row that can be spun around to face the back of the van, Chrysler pursues its aim to create a living-room-like environment for your passengers.
As long as they are on the short side — think 5- or 6-year-olds — it accomplishes this goal, but with the legroom between the facing seats about the same as when they're not facing each other, don't expect to be holding a lot of Texas hold 'em tournaments on the way to the tailgate party.
In fact, unless your table-top activities involve a lot of adhesives, don't expect to do much of anything interesting while in transit. There is just to much movement in a vehicle the size of the Town and Country Limited that we tested to make a flat surface very useful at speed.
Things are different when the vehicle is parked, and you can use the pizza box-sized table for any number of things, like eating pizza, but there are much cooler things about this minivan than the table.
I'm not referring to the three-zone climate control, because that would be an obvious segue, but the available trio of TV screens may be the greatest thing to happen to the American family since "The Cosby Show" started reruns. With one screen in the dashboard that doubles as the T&C's multimedia control panel and two that fold down from the ceiling in front of each of the back rows, there's plenty of visual stimulation to go around. You can even order dual DVD players that can play separately on two of the screens.
Forget the lounge; what you have here is a rolling multiplex. When the movies get old, just switch over to the optional Sirius Backseat TV and tune into one of the three channels of live children's programming. Each of the rear screens also comes with its own wireless headsets and an A/V input, so you never have to decide between the Wii and the X-Box again.
Sadly, but smartly in a legalese way, the screen up front won't work while the vehicle is in motion, but Chrysler didn't forget about mom and dad’s well-being. Along with satellite radio and a 6-CD changer, you can get Chrysler’s MyGig hard-drive entertainment system and load your entire music library into it, eliminating the need to ever use the iPod or MP3 jacks that also come with the ride.
Of course when you're the one behind the wheel, the real entertainment comes from hustling down a sinewy two-lane, clipping the apexes of turns and powersliding your way home from whatever extreme sport you happen to be into that week.
It goes without saying that none of this is possible in the T&C, but if you outfit yours with the 251 horsepower, 4.0-liter V-6 engine, there is plenty of power to drag your kite powered kayak or downhill wind surfer around on the weekends.
Thanks to an overwhelmed traction-control system you can even spin the front tires at will whenever you need impress your son's friends hanging out at the 7-Eleven who think you're a weenie for driving a "mom mobile."
All-wheel drive is no longer available, but the dashboard-mounted gear selector is equipped with AutoStick, allowing you to shift through the six-speed transmission for yourself, just like a Formula One driver. Yeah, you'll get tired of that on the way off the lot.
Stripped of all these trappings, the T&C is a very utilitarian ride. With the least impressive 175 horsepower, 3.3-liter V-6 installed and none of the gizmos and gadgets that make the T&C Limited the choice of the "whoever has more toys wins" crowd, the entry-level version is pretty run of the mill, though a bargain at $23,595.
It is big, and the boxy new exterior style is almost masculine enough to keep you from needing to resort to the juvenile antics mentioned above to prove your manhood on a regular basis, but it’s a hauler of people and possessions, nothing more.
On the other hand, the $36,755 base price of the Limited we tested can't exactly be covered by winning your office playoff pool, and for that kind of money, you should expect interior materials a few grades higher in quality than the ultra-hard plastic Chrysler enjoys installing in all of its vehicles.
Still, while Chrysler didn't exactly reinvent the minivan this time around, it has pushed the T&C closer to miniRV territory, and that keeps it one step ahead of the competition.
Fuel economy on the 3.3-liter model is a “best in class for under $30,000” 17 city/24 hwy, and it can run on E85. The big engine only loses 1 mpg on each of those numbers and pays back plenty in potency.
•Click here for a list of the Top 3 Most Fuel Efficient Minivans.
All that matters, though, is the streak. It's the brightest spot in Chrysler's portfolio these days, and there's little doubt that the new owners from Cerberus Capital Management are looking for a healthy return on their investment and will do everything to keep it alive.
Now that the company is No. 4 in the Big Three, that means you can expect to find dealers ready to live up to the "deal" part of their names in order to get these not-so-bad boys on the road.
Rooting for the home team may finally pay off for you.
Base Price: $36,755
Type: Front-engine, front-drive, seven-passenger minivan
Engine: 4.0-liter V-6
Power: 251 horsepower, 259 pound-foot torque
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
MPG: 16 city/23 hwy
What do you think about the Town and Country?
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