2008 Chrysler Town & Country Limited Review
By Chris Haak
Last week, Chrysler dropped off the keys to a fully-loaded Town & Country Limited minivan for my evaluation. As the father of two boys under age three, in the past six months, not only have I managed to shed my aversion to minivan ownership, but in fact to embrace it. At the end of 2007, my wife and I decided to trade in our Nissan Pathfinder SUV for a larger family hauler; the Pathfinder simply didn’t have enough room inside for our needs. As she approached the due date of our second son, she wasn’t able to test drive vehicles with me, so I evaluated and chose our new family hauler on my own, only showing her brochures and prices. This process was well-documented on this site via a series of Family Hauler reviews. Unfortunately, once we decided that all wheel drive was a must-have feature on at least one of our vehicles, that eliminated the Chrysler Town & Country from our own purchase considerations. However, I was still curious to see how the T&C stacked up against its closest competitors, the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna. Full disclosure: the family hauler occupying the right-hand spot in our garage is a 2008 Toyota Sienna Limited AWD.
When I first saw photos of the new-for-2008 Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan, I didn’t quite know what to think. The vans are boxier-looking than their jellybean-shaped predecessors. The prominent external features are a more squared off D-pillar and a more square “jaw” in the front end. The styling at the front of the van is reminiscent of several Chrysler cars, but thankfully, comes without the hood strakes featured on so many of Chrysler’s other models. From the first photos I saw of the Town & Country in 2007, I had nearly convinced myself that nearly all styling flair had actually been removed from the vans during development of the current model. However, having spent a week with the Town & Country, I can now appreciate its appearance as conservative, yet handsome. There are prominent bulges around the wheel openings, and a chrome molding runs along the length of the van and really helped brighten its appearance, while providing a nice contrast to the black metallic paint on my tester. Polished alloy wheels, along with HID headlamps completed the brightening effects on the exterior. During my time with the T&C, I grew to believe that it was a more attractive van than the Sienna in my garage, but less attractive than the Odyssey. People don’t buy minivans for their exterior looks, and as long as you are comfortable conceptually with driving a minivan (and I finally am, at age 33), you won’t have to wear dark sunglasses when driving the Town & Country.
Chrysler’s engineers clearly spent a lot of time designing interior features for their new-generation minivans. After all, the company that created the minivan segment in the US – and has owned it for decades – has seen its sales supremacy seriously challenged by the Sienna and Odyssey, both of which provided useful, comfortable interiors. In pattern with Chrysler’s treatment of their “franchise players,” the interior theme over the years has been one of continual improvements, all in the name of making it easier for parents to transport their children from place to place as needed. Some of the features I found most useful were the Swivel-n-Go seats (which are thicker and more comfortable than the standard Stow-n-Go seats available in these vans, but don’t fold into the floor), dual flip-down LCD rear seat displays, Sirius Backseat TV (though, because you are at the mercy of programming schedules, a DVD may still be a better alternative), a power folding third row seat, and ample storage compartments and cubbies. Although my test vehicle had second seats that did not fold flat into the floor, it still had a “basement” in the floor behind the front seats where the table is stored when not in use and where you could also store a good deal of other stuff, such as duffel bags, toys, beach equipment, and more – completely underfoot and out of sight.
The interior design, while focused more heavily on functionality than appearances, did have some nice touches. I’m a sucker for light-stained “wood,” and this particular van had light-colored faux wood on the dash and door panels. The headliner was also of the woven variety, which I tend to perceive as being of a higher quality (although I am forced to deduct some “points” for the hard plastic imitation of the headliner’s texture on the inside A-pillar covers). Another interior disappointment was the hard plastic covering the entire dashboard; although it had a low-gloss surface at least, it still was rather unpleasant to the touch.
A highlight of the interior, other than the light “wood” and ample storage cubbies, was its high-tech lighting. All of the van’s interior lighting was LEDs, which emit a more pure white light than do standard incandescent bulbs found in most vehicle interiors. There is also optional light blue indirect “halo lighting” along the length of the overhead console between it and the ceiling. The indirect blue lighting does not distract the driver at night and does not reflect on the windows, but makes it a little easier to see what’s happening inside the van. I also believe that it provides a bit of comfort in the dark for young children, as a sort of in-vehicle night light.
My test vehicle was equipped with navigation, Sirius satellite radio, and Sirius Backseat TV. I’ve been a happy satellite radio user for nearly five years, and Sirius worked well in the T&C. In my review of the Chrysler 300C, I already discussed my hesitation to recommend the Sirius Backseat TV product over a standard DVD player for young children, because even though all of the programming (Disney, Nickelodeon, and Cartoon Network) is ostensibly child-friendly, it’s more geared toward older children, and might contain material that some parents find inappropriate for toddlers. Now, if you have both older and younger children, you could park the tweens in the third row with satellite TV and the toddlers in the second row with a DVD playing; the dual screens do allow that flexibility. The tweens could also play their Playstation or Xbox games on their overhead screen using wireless headphones while their siblings watch benign children’s programming in front of them.
Were I buying a new Chrysler van, I’d probably opt for the Swivel-n-Go seats over the Stow-n-Go kind, only because the swiveling ones are thicker and more comfortable than the fold-into-the-floor variety. That being said, I sort of find the swiveling feature to be more of a gimmick than anything else; the second row seats have to be adjusted rearward to allow room to clear the front seatbacks, and legroom when the second and third rows face one another is minimal and could result in many bruised legs among rivaling siblings. Further, the power folding (and reclining) third row, while convenient, suffers from a “jackknifed” lower seat cushion, where seat below the passenger’s knees is more than six inches higher than the seat below his rear end.
On the Road
The Town & Country Limited that I drove was equipped with a 4.0 liter V6 and a six-speed automatic transmission. The V6 is rated at 251 horsepower and 259 lb-ft of torque, and can pull the van pretty smartly. However, the engine was not as smooth or quiet as competitive as the 3.5 liter V6s in the Sienna and Odyssey. The Chrysler’s 4.0 liter does, however, out-power the Odyssey’s 241-244 horsepower V6. The Sienna’s 266-horsepower V6 does have a horsepower advantage, though. From the seat of my pants, I felt no perceptible difference in acceleration between my Sienna and the Town & Country. Most likely, that might be partially attributed to the Toyota carrying the extra weight of all wheel drive hardware, plus the Chrysler having a six-speed automatic instead of jus t a five-speed as the Toyota and Honda have.
Speaking of that six-speed automatic, its shifts weren’t particularly refined (sometimes in light-load conditions such as traffic, there would be a perceptible thunk as it had trouble deciding which gear to be in). However, under acceleration, the transmission kept itself in the right gear at the right time almost always. It was actually pretty amazing to watch the tachometer needle under full throttle; once it ramped up near the redline in first gear, it would drop only about 1,000 RPMs with each subsequent gear change. That kept the engine in the sweet part of its powerband, and definitely helped close the acceleration gap with the Toyota. The gearshift also had a manual shift feature, but it felt very odd to be banging off rapid up- and downshifts in a minivan, no matter how nice and luxurious it is. Thankfully, steering wheel paddle shifters are not available in the Town & Country.
When accelerating from a stop, the combination of the 4.0 liter’s torque, having two driving wheels, and a low first gear led to multiple tire chirps until I reminded myself that I was in a minivan and didn’t need so much throttle. I mean, half-throttle starts would squeal the tires. I even “smoked” them (however briefly) inside a parking garage, again inadvertently. It’s really a shame that Chrysler is no longer offering all wheel drive in its minivans, because that would eliminate the problem, just as the 300C AWD doesn’t have an inch of wheel slippage from a start on a dry road.
Steering feel was good – better than the Toyota, but not quite as connected as the Honda’s. The wheel was also thick and comfortable in my hands. Braking was adequate; to be honest, I didn’t try any panic stops in any of the minivans I’ve driven or owned – first, I don’t want to scare my family; second, I don’t want to send everything in the interior flying forward toward the back of my head. I never felt as if the T&C’s brakes were a shortcoming, however.
The 2008 Chrysler Town & Country LX starts at just $23,595 including destination, but has a $2,500 rebate, bringing the price down to just $21,095. For that price, you get three rows of cloth seats (including a second row bench that does NOT fold into the floor), a 3.3 liter flex fuel-capable V6 with a four-speed automatic, electronic stability control, and side curtain airbags. The mid-level model is called Touring, and takes the price to $28,980 before rebate ($26,480 after). The Touring adds halo lighting, the 3.8 liter V6 and six-speed transmission, Stow ‘n Go seats, and Sirius satellite radio. The $32,500 ($30,000 after rebate) Touring Signature Series Value Package model adds leather, the MyGIG radio with hard disc, dual screen entertainment system, and remote start. Finally, the top of the line Limited model that I tested starts at $36,755 with destination ($34,255 after rebate) includes the larger 4.0 liter V6 . My tester had Sirius Backseat TV, UConnect Bluetooth communication system, a power folding third row seat, and satellite navigation. I believe the only option my tester was lacking was the power moonroof. The final MSRP for my test vehicle was $40.810. The MSRP of my family’s 2008 Sienna was at around the same level (a little more), but the equipment comparisons aren’t exact; the Sienna included AWD, a sunroof and laser dynamic cruise control while the T&C included MyGIG, Sirius satellite radio and Backseat TV, and dual DVD screens. The Sienna did not have a $2,500 rebate when we bought it, although I was able to buy it for close to invoice and got a good finance rate. Currently, the Sienna has a $1,500 rebate.
The fuel economy figures for the Town & Country are nearly identical no matter which engine is chosen; the base 3.3 liter V6/four-speed automatic combination is rated at 17 city/24 highway (19 combined). Both the 3.8 liter and 4.0 liter V6s (both with six-speed automatics) are rated at 16 city/23 highway (18 combined). These are both slightly below the Odyssey with VCM (17/25; 20 combined) and Sienna 2WD (17/23; 19 combined). In my testing, which included a mix of highway driving, back roads, and city traffic, I got about 17 mpg. That is in line with our Sienna’s fuel economy. On the highway at a steady speed, the Town & Country returned over 20 miles per gallon, which is very good for such a large, capable vehicle.
I said last week that the 300C was probably the best vehicle currently made by Chrysler LLC; I still believe that the 300C is a better-engineered vehicle than the new Chrysler/Dodge minivans, but the family-friendly features, pricing (if rebates are factored into the cost), and the appeal of supporting the fortunes of a domestic automaker make it a vehicle worthy of purchasers’ consideration. Personally, I still prefer the Sienna Limited to the Town & Country, but the Sienna isn’t a perfect vehicle either, with its lifeless steering and anonymous styling. Chrysler’s minivan sales have not done well in the past few months, with Town & Country sales down 14.2% year to date and Grand Caravan sales down 36.9% over the same period (part of the Grand Caravan’s problem is that the regular short wheelbase Caravan was discontinued for 2008, harming 2008 vs. 2007 comparisons). Meanwhile, the Sienna is down just 4.6% year to date and the Odyssey is down 5.8%. The large drops of the Chrysler vans’ sales mean that year to date sales figures for all four vans are just 2,832 units apart, but the Grand Caravan is the best-selling minivan so far. The sales drops, however, mean that dealers are probably interested in cutting attractive deals with customers. Plus, with a lifetime limited powertrain warranty, there’s a lot of peace of mind for the first owners (the lifetime warranty is non-transferrable).
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