Minivans have been enjoying a resurgence of sorts, thanks to a wave of new products coming to market the last few years from a variety of manufactures. Dull, utilitarian, bare-bones family haulers are out. Better-looking, more-powerful, feature-laden people movers are in.
When it comes to a history of leadership in minivan design, Chrysler has certainly earned the right to lay claim to the title. After all, the company invented the market 15 years ago, and has been busy tying to reinvent it ever since. DaimlerChrysler says it sells about 700,000 minivans worldwide every year, and has moved nearly 7 million of them since 1983.
Minivan sales account for about 8 percent of all new vehicles sold in the United States, and Chrysler owns a 45-percent share of the North American market. But when you're the sales king -- everybody comes gunning for you. That's why new entries from Honda and Toyota, as well as revamped domestic challengers from Ford and General Motors, are so darn good: they HAVE to be good to topple the leader.
But DaimlerChrysler doesn't seem worried. Perhaps that's because the company is too busy expanding the market into niche segments. Take the high-end of the minivan market, for example. Chrysler introduced the first "luxury minivan" with the debut of its Town &Country model back in 1990. And it hasn't looked back since.
"Positioned as the perfect luxury car alternative or luxury car garage-mate, our Town &Country minivans continue to be a tremendous success in the marketplace," said Ralph Sarotte, DaimlerChrysler's director of minivan operations. "Since 1995, Town &Country minivan sales have increased 117 percent. We have virtually created a segment within a segment."
On pure styling alone, the Chrysler Town &Country has to rank among the most attractive minivans ever built. A bold grille, flowing bodylines and muscular flanks make it almost car-like in proportion, and with a graceful greenhouse, low snout and large fog lamps, it begs for a double take. But because it boasts a laundry list of clever features, standard equipment and upscale amenities, the Town &Country's beauty is more than skin deep. It is marketed as a more practical alternative to a luxury sedan, and comes equipped to play the part.
Standard goodies abound, from dual rear sliding doors to things like power locks, windows and outside mirrors (the latter with heat and memory to boot) plus tilt, cruise and keyless illuminated entry. A 200-watt Infinity AM/FM-cassette-CD-equalizer powers a total of 10 speakers throughout the cabin. The rear window has both a defroster and wiper/washer, while the front glass features a windshield wiper deicer - a real plus during Michigan-type winters.
But it's the extras that really set Town &Country apart. Load-leveling and height-control suspension is standard. So is a full-size spare tire. There's a handy array of storage bins, cupholders and cubbyholes, plus a fully featured overhead console. They even thought of adding front and rear power outlets, a cargo net between the front driver and passenger seats - and, of course, those really neat grocery bag hooks built into the back of the rear bench. (Those hooks proved amazingly competent after a shopping trip that included 2-liter bottles of pop and canned goods that simply were not allowed to roll around back there on every turn. How did we ever live without this feature?)
For 1999, Chrysler raises the bar even higher with the addition of what it calls "the ultimate luxury minivan" -- the Town &Country Limited. This new, top-end version blends a monochromatic paint scheme with tasteful chrome accents and 16-inch spoked wheels. Inside, the Limited touts upmarket features such as eight-way power heated front seats, steering wheel-mounted radio controls and dual-zone temperature controls.
The muted blue-green Deep Slate Pearl Coat metallic paint on our Town &Country Limited AWD test car was as flawless as we've seen on any Chrysler product. Set off by distinctive badging - including Chrysler's winged logo on the liftgate - the look is one of rich elegance, not practical utility. And its new-for-'99 Taupe interior debuts upgraded perforated leather seats with "Preferred Suede" trim, a new rear bench seat design with center armrest and "Limited" embossed floor mats covering plush, 18-ounce carpeting.
Limited AWD comes standard with a 3.8-liter V6, good for 180 horsepower. Its 240 foot-pounds of torque is delivered to a four-speed automatic transmission that feeds power to all four wheels all of the time for superb road-holding traction. (With this system, there is no need for an additional traction control unit.) The tradeoff is that a full-time AWD drivetrain tends to sap engine power and exacts a fuel-economy penalty. (One tankful netted us a mere 15.8 miles-per-gallon in a city/highway mix of somewhat spirited driving - but we realize high mileage isn't the point of a premium vehicle like this.)
Around-town performance was adequate even with a full complement of passengers, and shifts were quite smooth -- the reputation of Chrysler minivan transmissions notwithstanding. The Limited's four-wheel antilock disc brakes were easy to modulate and steering was surprisingly direct. Ride quality is as good as most big sedans, and while overall handling could be described as confident, we must admit that only the occasional freeway on-ramp afforded the opportunity for enthusiastic cornering.
One concern we have about the Town &Country in general is this platform's spotty crash-test results. While newer minivan models from other manufacturers are garnering five-star ratings in government crash tests, DaimlerChrysler's minis continue to underwhelm in both frontal-, side- and offset-crash scores. If crash safety ratings are a big issue for you, you may want to consider highly optioned models from another automaker.
The only option on our test vehicle was seven-passenger Quad Command seating with a new, integrated reclining child seat designed into the mid-row buckets, adding $125 to the sticker. We tested the "Easy Out Roller Seats" and found them to be somewhat easier to take out than put back in, but suspect the procedure would become easier with practice.
Overall, we enjoyed our time in the Town &Country Limited AWD luxo-van. There's very little to dislike about this vehicle, from design to execution, and build quality was impressive. The only negative to report, aside from the aforementioned fuel economy and crash-test scores, is the fact that all these features and luxury touches will exact a heavy toll on your wallet. This model lists for nearly $37,000 -- that's a big chunk of change for a minivan, no matter how nice they've dressed it up.
But luxury is a relative term, especially when you compare a minivan with a luxury sedan. Chrysler officials might ask, and rightly so, just how many big luxury sedans can seat seven, provide as much transportation flexibility and cost under $40K? Good question.
For now, the flagship of the Chrysler minivan fleet can rest easy in the lap of luxury.