Behold: the thirty-seven-thousand-dollar minivan. Just to put that in perspective, I’m going to list some of the other whips you could roll (yo) for that kind of money: Infiniti G37. Audi A4. BMW 328i. Those are “entry-luxury” automobiles, and they cost “entry-luxury” money. You could buy two basic Japanese sedans for this kind of scratch.
We’re all rich on the Internet, and we all pay cash for everything, and we all turn up our nose at minor sums like thirty-seven thousand dollars, right? In the real world, however, it’s real money. Figure seven-fifty a month in the typical five-year finance deal. It’s hard to believe that the typical family has the ability to make a payment like that in this economy.
Chrysler states that the Town & Country will now “live” in the $30K-and-up price range. No more budget minivans. If you want one of those, go see your Dodge dealer. The product, they say, justifies the price. Let’s figure out if they’re correct.
Many of the press testers on hand for the Town & Country’s Napa Valley launch event were gloss black, and it’s easy to see why. If there is really such a thing as a “premium minivan”, a black-and-chrome Chrysler is probably it. The exterior has been revised with a heavy dose of automotive jewelry, from the intricate headlights to the matte-finish silver-wing logo adorning the rear liftgate. There’s more visual distance between the T&C and its Caravan sibling than ever before, and both models benefit as a result. If anything, the upscale treatment is too successful; parents might be concerned about what the van will look like with a few kid-related dings and scratches.
Inside, there’s that must-have accessory for the new decade: the one-piece dashboard cap. It wasn’t until I rode back to the airport in a 2009-model T&C that I realized just how much better the new interior is. It’s driver-focused, it’s personal, it’s surprisingly intimate in dark colors, and it’s far more upscale than, say, the Playskool-button Sienna will ever be. The previous van’s “Stow-n-Go” seating came in for a fair amount of (justified) criticism, so we now have “Super Stow-n-Go”, which is much closer to being a full-sized seat. A “private-jet” captain’s chair arrangement is also available, and unless you absolutely require the occasional availability of a flat load floor, I strongly suggest you select it.
The new instruments, HVAC, and selection of sound systems are all vastly better than before… and yes, they have an upscale appearance. As before, the “uConnect” system runs a distant second to Ford’s SYNC, not to mention the myFordTouch, but if your current frame of reference is the navigation system in a Sienna or Odyssey you are likely to think you’ve accidentally boarded the battlestar Galactica. The air vents are controlled by chrome rollers with rubber inlays, the buttons all operate with a definitive ‘click’, and the metal-look interior items are real metal.
A brief conversation with the interior-design team provided some insight into the hyper-improvement wrought for 2011. They know that Chrysler’s had some crap materials inside their cars. They didn’t like it any more than you did. They were working with Daimler’s accountants and being forced to cut every possible penny out of the cars. Cerberus freed them from that yoke and now we are seeing the frankly impressive results. It’s an awfully facile explanation, but I’m willing to believe.
Fate blessed me with an exceptional “media partner” for this event, a fellow named Jeff Yip who was apparently born without fear and who was as interested as I was in this minivan’s dynamic capabilities. The spec sheet offered promise: the trio of disappointing V-6 engines from last year has been banished and now the impressive Pentastar twists through a six-speed automatic. It’s possible to manipulate the side-to-side manual-shift function with the fingers of one’s right hand while keeping the palm on the wheel — very WRC, if you ask me. Several years ago, Grassroots Motorsports showed that a Honda Odyssey could keep up with an E-Type Jag around an autocross course. What could the upscale minivan do?
Even though I handicapped myself a bit by pulling off, standing on the side of the road, waiting until some angry-faced journosaur squealed by in a V-6 Chrysler 200, counting to sixty, and then getting in the van to give chase, we quickly tired of running down our fellow writers on their “fast road drives”. Luckily we found a nutcase in an old 528e, complete with a bungee-corded animal cage in the trunk, and this guy was on it. He drove a nearly perfect racing line in every turn and frequently exited the corner with some slip angle in the rear, running into the triple digits on the straights.
The big Chrysler could have murdered him in a straight line — this is a more than acceptably fast van — so we hung back and instead worked the corners. How pleasant to find that the brakes were mostly up to snuff, the transmission shifted smoothly under manual control, and that the steering was downright decent. I remember a color mag crowing many years ago about the fact that the C4 Corvette could more than double the recommended corner speeds on back roads… well, nowadays you can do it in a seven-passenger breadbox. There’s no pitching or rolling to cause nausea, just a buttoned-down suspension with better rebound control than many Audis have. Very few drivers — and I mean very few — really want to go faster on a curvy road than the T&C can take them. I’m considering taking one to the infamous “Tail of the Dragon” and forcing sportbikers to give me the wave past.
Of course, ninety-nine percent of Chrysler’s customers won’t care how fast this minivan can chew up a back road, and many of them won’t even be particularly interested in one-piece dashboards or sound-system “theater imaging”. Price, reliability, resale value, and capability are the true benchmarks in this segment, and although the T&C excels in the fourth category, the first three are up for debate. I’ll leave the heavy statistical lifting to Mr. Karesh, but my offhand analysis is that the T&C has, shall we say, premium pricing compared to the market-leading Odyssey and Sienna. The Chrysler people freely admit that there isn’t much margin in these revised vans for incentives. They’re hoping that the market will pay more money for a better van. I don’t know if they’re right, but to misquote famous van driver E. Hemingway, it’s certainly pretty to think so.