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Chrysler Town & Country

Chrysler has been the leader in minivans since the very first one - a four-cylinder model based on the Plymouth Reliant. Now, practically everyone makes a minivan, and there is a whole range of minivan-like vehicles based on truck bodies, called SUVs, which offer less space, comfort, and economy, coupled with higher prices. We suspect most people who buy those have never driven a Town & Country, or its Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager siblings. It even has an all wheel drive option.

The Town & Country is, at the high end, the premium minivan; but they do make a somewhat more basic model, which is identical to the Dodge Grand Caravan. At $24,000, the model we tested was the same price as a loaded Toyota Camry or Jeep Cherokee, making it affordable to many families (or people who just like to have lots of space). At 14 mpg city, 20 highway, it was much more economical, yet more spacious, than most SUVs.

The ride was certainly suitable for a product with the Chrysler name, more so than many Chrysler cars in recent memory. Handling was surprisingly good, though there was some squealing around hard turns, especially under acceleration. We suspect better tires would help, but most buyers probably prefer a smoother ride. Braking was good, as well. Overall, we felt confident around the curves, and never came close to feeling any loss of control.

The base 3.3 liter engine was enough for our needs, thanks partly to the well-programmed transmission computer, which downshifted as needed. With the cruise control on, the transmission quietly downshifted going up hills, so that the engine was not strained and no speed was lost, and going down hills, to avoid the need for braking. The quiet engine, smooth ride, and gentle, intelligent transmission all helped to hide the very capable acceleration of the long-lasting, well-tested 3.3. A 180 hp version of this engine (with 3.8 liters) is available; the main difference is the loss of roughly one or two miles per gallon, and the gain of 30 horsepower.

The interior was very sensible; controls are clearly marked and in sensible places. A column shifter and foot-operated emergency brake were quite convenient, given that all American minivans are automatics. Window demisters prevent fogging effectively. The child seat is easy to use, and the net between the front seats is quite handy; the cup holders are superlative, as one would expect.

There are separate heat controls and optional rear air conditioning for the rear passengers. Back seats fold down, which is helpful for loading large objects without removing the seats completely. This is handy, though taking out the seats is easy; the seats have wheels, and a red indicator shows when they are correctly installed. Rear power outlets and excellent interior lighting round out the package.

The windshield wipers and sun visors are effective, helping to keep the visibility excellent.

The doors are well designed, with sliding doors on both sides that open and close easily and conveniently latch open, so there's no danger of being whacked by a closing door. We appreciated the markings which told us where the door closed, so we could load the vehicle "just right."

There was very little road noise, but the wind noise became excessive over standard highway speeds.

The current generation of Chrysler minivans, first introduced in 1996, have held up very well against their competitors. Continuous improvement has kept them fresh and competitive, with minor changes to the interior and drivetrain, and new options such as onboard television.

The Town & Country and its siblings remain the best designed minivan, overall. It is no surprise they still hold more than a third of the market, on their own, despite tough competition from nearly every other automaker. The 2001 models will present evolutionary changes, such as considerably more powerful engines, better handling and ride, and headight improvements. If you're in the market now, don't worry; the current models are quite nice. If, on the other hand, you're looking for a bargain, wait for the new ones to come out - and then take your pick.

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