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  • 2011 Dodge Caravan Mainstreet

    Minivan is a best value for active families

    By Nina Russin

    2011 Dodge Grand Caravan

    In this challenging economic environment, families trying to maximize their  budgets should re-familiarize themselves with minivans. Few other vehicles with a seven-passenger capacity can match their value-pricing or fuel economy. The Dodge Caravan Mainstreet which I drove this past week is a case in point.

    Base price for the Mainstreet with fold-in-floor seating is $25,995, not including the $835 destination charge. The Mainstreet is not a base-level vehicle: convenience features include tri-zone climate control, remote keyless entry, a six-speaker MP3 compatible audio system, 12-volt power points front and rear, and power windows, mirrors and door locks. Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT

    by Jim Woodman

    Road trip. It’s funny how, depending on your perspective, those two words can conjure up entirely different images. For college students, it’s all about the fun and adventure. Who can say no to a road trip?

    Yet, as parents, we tend to shudder at the very thought of driving more than a couple hours with any child under six. So when my wife and I came up with this crazy idea to drive to Seattle, from San Diego, and back with our eight, six and two-year-old sons, we wondered whether we should check ourselves in for counseling.

    2008 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT

    2008 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT

    “Are you nuts?” or “Wow, that’s really brave of you guys” are some of the typical comments we’d get when sharing our road trip idea.

    Fortunately, auto manufacturers have been listening to lamenting parents and, when you factor in the startling array of onboard entertainment in today’s vehicles, especially the family minivan, a road trip can be – dare I say it – a lot of fun.

    2008 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT

    Since Chrysler and Dodge recently introduced their fifth generation of minivans, with the Town and Country and Grand Caravan respectively, it made even more sense to take one of these all-purpose family vehicles and put it to the road trip test.

    Remember, Chrysler launched the whole minivan revolution and had the market to itself back in 1984.

    Today, choosing a minivan is not so easy. Just about everybody’s got stow-able rear seats, DVD players, satellite radios and options in just about every size and shape. Consumers end up choosing based on styling preferences, safety features, available accessories and, most importantly, price.

    I had heard that Dodge and Chrysler had done some very cool things with their redesigned fifth generation minivans. Word was out that the bar had been seriously raised for their Japanese and Korean counterparts.

    So we started thinking about how great it would be if we could score a new Dodge Grand Caravan SXT for our road trip? Since one of the things I do for a living is review new vehicles, I pitched the idea to the folks at Chrysler and Dodge. Fortunately, they liked my idea of testing their latest and greatest up the California and Oregon coasts with a car full of kids.

    Our Grand Caravan arrived a couple days before our journey and we quickly realized – much to our pleasure – that the Caravan is all about onboard entertainment.

    20 Gigabyte Hard Drive

    Being a technology geek at heart, I have to admit that one of the coolest features – and something I had not yet seen in a car – was the 20 gigabyte hard drive built into the Grand Caravan’s entertainment system. Yes, I said 20 gigabytes! I remember the day I heard you could get a one gigabyte hard drive in a computer. I thought that was outrageous. Now, twenty times that is built into your car!

    So what’s the purpose of a hard drive in your car, you ask? To load music and personal photos. Dodge has essentially allowed you to turn your car’s stereo into an iPod-like entertainment system. I had my choice of loading music through a USB port, or music CDs. Once loaded, just like on an iPod, I could sort by artist, song, genre, etc. Very, very cool. One thing missing, however, was the ability to create a custom playlist.

    I chose to load music through a USB thumb drive, and while it was very simple to do, I would’ve liked to see some sort of progress bar to let me know how much had been loaded. It’s always a little disconcerting to not know how much time it’s going to take to transfer files and, more importantly, not be sure if everything’s loading correctly. That said, it takes about a minute and a half to load a typical album.

    The photo feature allows you to put only 10 images on the hard drive and then choose a default image to display on your dashboard. With today’s digital cameras, real geeks can literally add photos of their vacation – while on vacation – to their car’s dashboard. Yes, admittedly, I went the real geek route myself. Just thought you’d want to know.

    My test vehicle also had an outstanding Sirius satellite radio which, in my humble opinion, is one of the best entertainment values you can sort yourself out with – especially if you take a lot of road trips. No matter how remote your location, you’ve always got a myriad choice of music, talk radio, news and sports.

    DVD Entertainment

    Staying on the entertainment theme, there’s no question that a built-in DVD entertainment system is the single most important item a parent can install for their children – if they want some peace on the road.

    Now, don’t take this the wrong way. I’m not advocating placing your children in front of a TV or video screen all day. But when you’re on the road for six or more hours a day, there’s only so many are-we-there-yet or how-much-longer comments you can take before you want to scream and kill your children or yourself – neither of which is a very good idea.

    Our Grand Caravan had two overhead LCD screens that allowed our boys in the second and third row seats to get a very clear view of their movie. And by giving each child their own wireless headphones, my wife and I were free to listen to satellite radio or any of the music we’d loaded onto the hard drive.

    If you’re not a parent, you won’t know what I’m talking about. But for those with children, you can certainly appreciate the fact you don’t hear a peep out of the kids when they’re watching a movie. Is the DVD entertainment system worth it? You betcha. Are we horrible parents for letting the movies entertain the kids? Hmmm. That’s material for another story, another day.

    It’s funny when you look at things from a child’s perspective. I asked my six-year-old if he liked road trips. “Yes … because you get to watch movies,” was his immediate response. As much as we’d like to believe our kids can appreciate any of the scenic beauty we experience along the coastline, it’s just not going to happen – especially under the age of 10.

    While our vehicle wasn’t so equipped, an optional dual DVD system can play two different DVDs on the two separate LCD screens. Or one row can watch a DVD while the other row plugs in a gaming console (there’s a power outlet built right into the C-pillar). Or, get this, thanks to Sirius Backseat TV, either or both rows can watch live television from three channels: Disney, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon. Once they add ESPN to that offering, there’s no question my wife will be doing most of the driving.

    Another very cool option that Dodge offers is their “Swivel ‘n Go” second-row chairs that literally flip around 180 degrees so that the second row passengers now face the third row occupants. A removable table, that’s centered between both rows, makes card games and eating drive-thru fast food a pleasure. Essentially, your minivan is getting to be more and more like an RV.

    Convenient LED reading lamps highlight the cabin and an overhead “halo” light bathes the interior in a soft blue. These cool blue lights, believe it or not, were a big hit with the kids.

    Our vehicle also featured second row “stow and go” seats that easily fold into the floor. If you get the “Swivel and Go” seats for the second row, they won’t stow away like the third row seats.

    Cupholders, as in all American vehicles, were everywhere. I especially liked the center console where I was able to easily store a quart-size water drinking bottle in addition to a few cokes. If you need your coke, coffee or beverage fix on a road trip, the center console on the Grand Caravan will store everything you need and then some.

    Driving Impressions

    As mentioned up front, the new Grand Caravan is completely redesigned. You’ll notice the rear is a little more squared-off which allows you to carry more luggage and gear and have greater visibility out the back. The roof is six inches wider than its predecessor. We loaded all our luggage into the rear compartment, behind the third row, which allowed the kids to have plenty of room inside.

    There’s nearly two more inches added to wheelbase and overall length. Standard tires are now 16-inches and suspension is thoroughly revised with struts up front, a rear twist beam with coil springs, and a larger front stabilizer bar for improved control. That said, it’s still a minivan and rounding corners on tight, windy roads up the California and Oregon coasts made me realize it’s impossible to get great handling characteristics in a vehicle with this high center of gravity. In other words, you don’t buy a minivan to zip around tight corners.

    Dodge no longer offers the previous four-cylinder base engine – which is a smart move. Who wants to chug up a hill, or accelerate to freeway speed, in a four-cylinder minivan? The new Grand Caravan lets you choose between three V-6s: a flex-fuel 3.3-liter (175 hp), a 3.8 (197 hp), and a new, 24-valve 4.0-liter unit that delivers 251 horses and 259 pound-feet of torque. The 3.3 is coupled with a standard four-speed automatic, while the two larger engines dial you into six-speed automatic transmissions – the first offered in a minivan.

    Our vehicle was equipped with the 3.8 liter engine and was very adequately powered. Interestingly enough, there were no Low or Second Gear transmission options. The idea here is that the six-speed automatic transmission has low enough gear ratios to get you up those steep hills. I had a couple instances where we’d driven down to some coastal beaches and, during the steep, dirt-road drive back up the hill, the transmission performed flawlessly. Since most people rarely shift into anything other than “Drive” on their automatic transmissions, this is probably another wise move.

    And with two less gear options to worry about, the shift lever is now mounted on the dash, just to the right of the steering wheel, and doesn’t take up very much room. EPA Fuel economy is rated at 16/23 city/highway respectively. I found, however, I was getting just over 20 miles to the gallon with a predominance of highway driving. We drove north up the coast, which involved a lot more stop-and-go driving, and returned via Interstate 5. In California, where much of the highway speed limit is 70 mph, I found that cruising between 75 mph and 80 mph was very easy on the engine. You don’t really want to drive a minivan faster than 75 anyway, as highway crosswinds in a higher-profile vehicle will make handling a little squirrelly.

    Powerful remote keyless entry

    I was also very impressed with the remote keyless entry. The range on this thing was the best I’ve ever seen. I could literally open and close the sliding power side doors or power liftgate with a touch of the button from about 75 yards away. No kidding. At one point, I was inside my brother-in-law’s house in Seattle, which sits on top of a hill, and I opened the car doors at the bottom of the hill, much to the surprise of a friend who was walking toward the car.

    The Grand Caravan is loaded with safety features, including standard all-row side-curtain airbags, standard electronic stability and traction control, tire-pressure monitoring and optional rear park assist and backup camera.

    Our vehicle was equipped with the “Customer Preferred Package 25K” at an additional $2,395, that included all the entertainment goodies I mentioned plus the rear back up camera. The only thing I didn’t have, which would have made the Grand Caravan the ultimate road trip vehicle was the integrated navigation system.

    Here’s the real kicker. Everything, including all the power options and entertainment toys stickers out at only $30,330. Yes, the new Dodge Grand Caravan comes in at a lower sticker price than previous models. When you consider a fully-loaded Honda Odyssey or Toyota Sienna can quickly get you to $40k, I have no doubt a lot of folks are going to be rethinking Dodge and Chrysler.

    For the record, if you have to do a road trip, and I don’t care if you’re a college student or parent of screaming quadruplets, the Dodge Grand Caravan is an outstanding option to get you there in style, comfort and safety.

    Yes, I would do that road trip in the Grand Caravan again without hesitation. It was truly a lot of fun.

    Quick facts:

    Make: Dodge
    Model: Grand Caravan SXT
    Year: 2008
    Base price: $ 26,805
    As tested: $30,330
    Horsepower: 197 Hp @ 5200 rpm
    Torque: 230 lbs.-ft. @ 4000 rpm
    Zero-to-sixty: N/A
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Standard
    First aid kit: N/A
    Bicycle friendly: Yes
    Towing: Yes
    Off-road: No
    Fuel economy: 16/23 mpg, city/highway

  • 2008 Chrysler Town & Country Ltd.

    Swivel and go
    By Nina Russin

    2008 Chrysler Town & Country

    2008 Chrysler Town & Country

    Call me a geek, but I love minivans. On the practical side, minivans hold lots of people and lots of gear: as much or more than most sport-utility vehicles. My friend, Kathy Graham, rolls her Harley into the back of her Dodge Caravan and drives it to races. The Caravan has second and third-row seats that stow in the floor, producing a large tall cargo area. Needless to say, putting a couple of bicycles in back is a non-issue.

    Minivans get better fuel economy than most sport-utility vehicles because they’re more aerodynamic. They’re not as good for off-road driving or towing, but they can easily navigate the occasional dirt or gravel road.

    Minivans also tend to float under the radar. Did I mention that I’m a geek with a lead foot?

    Chrysler invented the minivan: the first models rolled out in 1983. While other manufacturers have introduced formidable competitors to the segment, Chrysler and Dodge are the brands people buy most. The first driver’s side sliding door, sliding overhead bins, integrated child booster seats, and Stow ‘N Go seats that fold into the floor are a few of the reasons why.

    The fifth-generation Dodge and Chrysler minivans begin shipping to dealers this month, with nationwide availability in September. A more powerful V-6 engine, six-speed automatic transmission, Swivel “N Go seating and a second-row table that stows in the floor should wet the appetites of buyers looking for a living room on wheels.

    Chrysler invited a group of journalists and their families to experience the new minivans in San Diego. Attendees ranged from toddlers to senior citizens. The drive route was equally diverse: a mixture of freeways and twisty canyon roads through mountains to the east, gridlock traffic and sparsely populated rural byways.

    I drove the Chrysler Town & Country Limited with my husband Rob serving as navigator. The Limited is the plushest grade among the new Chrysler offerings. Our car featured the new four-liter V6 engine with a six-speed automatic transmission, seventeen-inch wheels and tires. Options included the Swivel N Go second-row seats, DVD entertainment system, Sirius back seat TV and a power-folding third row seat that collapses into the floor.

    Hot rod kitchen

    The Swivel N Go seats turn the back of the minivan into a family kitchen. The second-row seats swivel 180-degrees and lock into the rear-facing position. It’s a simple operation. A strap to the outside of the seat cushion releases the seat so that it can pivot to the rear. The seats meet the same federal safety regulations in both forward and rear-facing positions.

    Our minivan had leather trim, but available YES essentials fabric might appeal more to people with active lifestyles. The stain and odor-resistant fabric is perfect for those of us who shed several gallons of sweat on an average morning.

    A table that stows under the floor mounts in between the second and third-row seats. It works like a beach umbrella. A pole locks into pins on the floor of the minivan, and the tabletop mounts on top of it, swiveling and locking into a second pin-mount. Chrysler’s kitchen on wheels also features two DVD players with separate inputs over the second-row seats, and a third screen in back that plays three channels of Sirius satellite radio. To think: when I was a kid, I counted license plates.

    Unlike the Stow N Go system, the Swivel N Go seats don’t collapse into the floor. Still, there’s plenty of cargo space with the third-row seats tumbled into the floor, and the second-row seats folded flat or pivoted backwards. A roof rack is standard on the Limited grade.

    The third-row power seat that collapses into the floor also flips back for the Sunday tailgate party. The upgrade tens-speaker surround sound system is standard on the Limited model, with Sirius satellite radio. The power rear liftgate makes the back seat easy to access for passengers, and saves the person loading cargo the effort of digging for keys with armfuls of gear. A button on the D-pillar closes the liftgate.

    There are large cup or bottle holders outboard of the third row seats, with storage trays large enough to hold small electronic devices. There is a twelve-volt power point and a 115-volt inverter in the C pillar, in case someone wants to plug in a computer.

    Front and rear climate controls ensure that all passengers ride comfortably. Though the temperatures in San Diego aren’t as hot as they are in Phoenix, the areas close to the desert got up to about 100 degrees. It was easy to cool down the car and maintain a comfortable temperature.

    The power front seats are easy to adjust. Drivers have eight power adjustments and power adjustable pedals on the Limited grade, with a standard tilt steering column. The mirrors are easy to adjust for good visibility around the car. A rear back-up warning system includes a rear-view camera, eliminating blind spots to either side and below the rear window.

    Cup and bottle holders are abundant, in the center console and in all four doors. The gearshift is on the instrument panel to the right of the gauges, clearing up floor space for additional storage. A large, two-piece glovebox keeps valuables out of sight.

    An overhead storage bin holds sunglasses and flips down to serve as a conversation (kid-watching) mirror. An overhead console adds additional storage, and slides back to the second row.

    Power to spare

    The new four-liter engine has plenty of power for accelerating into traffic or climbing steep grades. The power was so good that I almost forgot I was driving a minivan. The six-speed automatic transmission is seamless: there is very little shift shock. Because of its weight, the car has a tendency to push or understeer, especially when descending a grade and cornering. I found myself fighting the wheel when I was going through some of the canyon grades. To be fair, I was driving pretty aggressively: faster than most people with a van full of kids would.

    Fuel economy is 16/23 miles-per-gallon city/highway using the stricter 2008 standards. Buyers who want to spend less at the pump should opt for the smaller 3.3-liter engine, which averages about a mile-per-gallon more. The 3.3-liter engine is also flex-fuel compatible: it can run on up to eighty-five percent ethanol.

    Standard disc brakes stop the car quickly and evenly. The independent front suspension and twist-beam rear axle provide a comfortable ride for all passengers. Stabilizer bars keep the car flatter in the corners. Steering is soft, but not excessively so. The car goes where the driver puts it. I never had that disconnected feeling that comes from power steering with too much assist.

    A towing-prep package raises the towing capacity to 3600 pounds, meeting our ALV standards. Vehicles equipped with the towing prep package have self-leveling shock absorbers, making it easier to climb and descend steep grades.

    The under-floor storage means sacrificing ground clearance on all of the models. Clearance is six inches: a good off-road vehicle has at least eight. That makes the minivans less than ideal for boulder or root-strewn trails. Graded dirt roads or moderate amounts of snow shouldn’t be a problem.

    Lifetime powertrain warranty

    The minivans come with a new lifetime powertrain warranty: an industry first. The new warranty applies to all Chrysler and Dodge vehicle sold after June 26, with the exception of SRT cars, the Dodge Sprinter, rental or diesel cars. The warranty protects the owner against any powertrain failures caused by the factory. Coverage is limited to the first registered owner or lessee.

    Pricing for the Town & Country Limited begins at $35,670. Cost for the test car was $39,510, including a $730 destination charge. Town & Country minivans are rolling off the assembly line at Chrysler’s St. Louis, Missouri plant.

    Quick facts:

    Base price: $35,670
    Price as tested: $39,510
    Horsepower: 251 Hp
    Torque: 259 lbs.-ft.
    0 to 60: N/A
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Standard
    First aid kit: No 
    Towing: Yes
    Off-road: No
    Bicycle friendly: Yes
    Fuel economy: 16/223 m.p.g. city/highway

  • 2007 Nissan Quest

    by Jim Woodman

    When I first started reviewing new automobiles in 1992, one of my biggest eye-openers was how car-like minivans had become. The old “soccer mom” minivan stigma had certainly skewed my thinking and perception on minivans and I was sure I’d never own one.

    Fast-forward 15 years and not only do I have a greater appreciation for minivans, I own a 2002 Honda Odyssey. With three children under eight, my wife and I have been sold on the conveniences and safety aspects of our minivan.

    2007 Nissan Quest

    2007 Nissan Quest

    In 2002, after narrowing our choices to a few minivans, the Honda won because of its folding rear “magic seat.” Had I been in the market for a minivan today, I’d be pretty overwhelmed with my choices. Every minivan’s jumped on the fold-away seat bandwagon and it’s nearly impossible to not find all the creature comforts, horsepower and safety features you’d expect in any luxury sedan.

    Redesigned 2007 Model

    With these thoughts in mind, I eagerly anticipated test driving the redesigned 2007 Nissan Quest. My most recent Quest experience was at the 2004 San Diego Auto Show where I couldn’t get past the very controversial center console dash. The gauges were placed over a tilted, and very odd-looking round center console. Above the steering wheel, where we’re all used to seeing gauges, there were none. I assume Nissan was hoping to appeal to those wanting something a little funkier and different. But it didn’t work. After a couple years, with very poor sales, they realized some modifications were in order.

    I’m pleased to report that the 2007 is quite possibly one of the more appealing interiors in any minivan. For starters, the driver’s console was completely changed and gauges are now found above the steering wheel. They’ve still got a center console but it’s not as parallel to the floor as its predecessor model. Gauges were all easy to read and knobs were well-positioned. My only slight gripe, and an adjustment period might have solved this, was the fact the radio preset buttons were stacked vertically onto each other and separated by the radio. It was an effort to reach over to preset buttons 4, 5 and 6.

    An 8-way power driver’s seat with lumbar support and memory function ensured I’d always be able to reset my adjustments after my wife drove the car. Heated front seats and separate rear heating and air conditioning controls are also a nice touch for keeping the interior nice and comfy in winter or summer.

    While I don’t normally rant about color, I loved the “Chili Leather” interior. Not only did it seem to class up and differentiate the vehicle from every beige, grey or black leather seat combo on the market, but it complemented the exterior Chestnut color exterior very well. Again, not to be overly critical, but even though the little “pores” in the leather seats looked cool, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if my two-year-old spilled his chocolate milk onto any of the seats.

    Sky View from all Rows

    In addition to a sunroof with one-touch operation and automatic reverse, the second and third rows featured glass panels in the ceiling that allowed my children to see the sky – very cool feature for the little ones.

    Speaking of the little ones, they loved the integrated DVD player – with separate screens for the second and third row. Two wireless headphones with independent volume controls round out the package but, with three children, I found myself listening to Sponge Bob way more than I wanted. Okay, I admit, I was jealous I couldn’t see the screen.

    Just for grins I timed my wife, with a stopwatch, to see how long it would take to install our two-year-old’s car seat. She had not seen the interior before and I told her not to rush. We were both amazed that she had both side latches, the rear clip and seat belt threaded through in one minute, 41 seconds.

    And no description of a minivan nowadays would be complete without discussing the foldaway third row seat. The Quest scores big points by having the rear headrests fold down onto the seat via a quick release handle behind the seatback. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve removed those headrests from my Odyssey and never had a convenient place to store them. This is a great idea from Nissan. A spring-load feature helps even the smallest person easily lift the seat out of its floor space. Folding the seat into its compartment, however, takes a little getting used to as the seat and backrest tend to lock into place – at a 90 degree angle from each other. I needed to get used to not having the two lock in place when stowing away the third row. I also would’ve like to see a 60/40 split option for the rear stoway seat.

    The second row seats were very easy to fold down. A simple quick release lever lets each second row seat fold down onto itself and into the lower foot well in front. So with very little effort, one can have a complete cargo van without removing any of the seats.

    Bold Styling

    From the exterior, the Quest scores with its bold styling that separates it from the typical boxy-looking minivan. The grille features chrome inserts and the front bumper fascia is more angular. Door handles are now chromed rather than body-colored and chrome-finished roof racks round out its unique styling. The Quest is available in four trim levels. All trims come with the same five-speed automatic transmission. A four-speed unit, which used to be offered in lower-end models, is history. Nissan’s 3.5-liter V-6 engine delivers a very respectable 235 horsepower and 240 pound-feet of torque.

    The Quest had no problem accelerating from a dead stop or merging into freeway traffic. The automatic transmission shifted very smoothly and road noise was very minimal at highway speeds.

    Concerning safety, the Quest gives you air bag coverage in all three rows. In addition to front and side impact air bags for the front row passengers, the second and third rows are protected by a roof-mounted curtain side impact system. My Quest also featured the Michelin PAX® System which allows you to drive up to 55 mph for up to 125 miles with zero tire pressure. Add standard traction control and a tire-pressure monitor system in addition to anti-lock brakes and everything else you normally find on a vehicle nowadays and you’ll know the Quest scores very well for protecting your family.

    As I mentioned up front in this article, if I were in the market for a minivan today I’d certainly feel like a kid in a candy store. The options and features from all the manufacturers are quite overwhelming but also very similar. When considering the Quest, I’d certainly put it high on my list simply because it’s a little different looking then you’re typical box-style minivan and it still delivers everything, and more, that you’d expect in a high-end minivan.

    Quick Facts:

    Make: Nissan
    Model: Quest
    Year: 2007
    Base price: $33,900
    Horsepower: 235 Hp @ 5800 rpm
    Torque: 240 lbs.-ft. @ 4400 rpm
    0-60mph: 8.5 seconds
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Standard
    First aid kit: Standard
    Bicycle friendly: Yes
    Off-road: No
    Towing: Yes
    Fuel economy: 18/25 mpg city/highway
    Comments: Test model was a loaded 3.5 SE that included the optional technology package ($800); Foldaway Seat Package ($750); Navigation & PAX System ($2,650) and DVD Entertainment ($2,000).

  • 2005 Chrysler Town and Country

    by Jim Woodman

    As a minivan owner, and one who researched makes and models extensively before selecting the Honda Odyssey in 2002, I would’ve been hard pressed to ignore Chrysler’s third generation Town and Country had this vehicle existed at the time.

    Clearly the hoopla associated with the new Town and Country is its “Stow ‘n Go” feature which allows near effortless folding of the second and third row seats into the floor.

    2005 Chrysler Town and Country

    2005 Chrysler Town and Country

    Even though Honda first introduced its “magic seat” in the ’97 Odyssey, and subsequently captured huge market share with their 1999 redesign, it amazes me it took until 2004 for other manufacturers to follow suit. That said, Chrysler has introduced a very strong offering that’s turning a lot of heads.

    What Chrysler did, frankly, demonstrates American ingenuity at its best. I can picture the Chrysler engineers saying “so what if the Japanese can fold the third seat into the floor, we’ll fold all the rear rows and, just for grins, we’ll split the rows and fold them independently for all kinds of seating configurations.”

    To illustrate how easily one can fold the seats into the floor, I showed my 5-year-old son how to do it and, within a minute, he was folding and stowing all four seat sections into the floor by himself. It takes an adult about 30 seconds to fold everything into the floor once they’ve done it a couple times.

    The days of wrestling with 50 pound seats and storing them in a garage anytime you needed to haul cargo have gone the way of 8-track and cassette players. Manufacturers have taken Honda’s lead and the innovations are coming strong. It’s a great time to be shopping for a minivan.

    The rest of the vehicle

    Okay, you say, enough with the folding seats talk, what about the rest of the vehicle?

    The Town and Country Limited is the flagship Chrysler offering and its interior and exterior styling certainly reflect its higher price point. Even in 2002, I preferred the Chrysler’s styling to my Honda’s and not much has changed my mind there.

    Interior creature comforts such as three zone climate control, 8-way and 4-way power adjustable leather seats, height adjustable pedals, electrochromatic inside rearview mirror, leather-wrapped steering wheel, simulated wood dash and suede trim on the doors all help exude the feel of a luxury vehicle.

    Basically, just about everything you’d expect to find in any high-end luxury sedan is standard fare in the Town and Country Limited minivan.

    Both side doors are fully automated with power remote control as well as a power rear tailgate. While, yes, you can make the argument that a power rear tailgate is a nice feature for moms toting a child in one arm and a bag of groceries in another, it seems more gimmicky than a real necessity. The power side doors, however, are used all the time for quickly getting kids in and out of the minivan.

    Of course my kids were fascinated with the built-in DVD player and its cordless headphones and remote control operation. While it seems a little over the top to have a DVD player in your vehicle, I believe any parent can attest to the peace and quiet you ensure yourself on a road trip when the kids are watching Toy Story or Finding Nemo for the ten thousandth time.

    Another slick built-in feature was a GPS Navigation unit integrated directly into the AM/FM stereo and CD player unit. While the screen was a little smaller than I’d like for a navigation unit, it performed very well and the database was stock full of everything from gas stations, restaurants, grocery stores and ATMs. No question the Navigation system would be a huge addition for any road trip, especially when searching for a good local restaurant or nearby gas station.

    Children’s seats and safety

    Placing children’s car seats in both the second row bucket seats and third row bench seat was a snap. The safety anchor latch hooks are conveniently placed and extremely easy to connect. As a contrast, it’s always a struggle for my wife to connect the hooks with our Odyssey.

    The Town and Country also boasts four-wheel anti-lock brakes, driver and passenger air bags and traction control. The Limited model I tested also boasts side curtain airbags in all three rows.

    Powering the 2005 T&C is a 3.8 liter 215 horsepower V6 that was plenty peppy to get me up to speed on any freeway onramp as well as up some of the steep hills around San Diego. One of my complaints a few years ago, when I tested Dodge and Chrysler minivans is the automatic transmissions were not as smooth as import competitors. I was pleasantly surprised to find the 2005 T&C shifted very smoothly.

    The Town & Country offers four trim levels — base, LX, Touring and Limited. The base model is the only standard-wheelbase T&C; the other three are extended-wheelbase. Base models are equipped with basic amenities like cruise control, tilt steering, air conditioning, power windows and locks, an AM/FM/CD stereo and a 3.3-liter V6 engine.

    At a base price of $35,070, the Limited is certainly the most painful to your wallet and ranks as one of the more pricey minivans, but it’s also one of the more luxurious. The choice comes down to whether you want to be swathed in comforts and leather.

    An all-wheel drive model is also available, but you’d have to forego the Stow ‘n Go feature as getting power to the rear axles would interfere with the in-floor seating storage.

    With 10 million sold and 20 years of minivan experience, Chrysler and Dodge clearly lead the minivan market segment with a 38% market share and its Town and Country flagship minivan is going to give the Japanese imports a serious challenge.

    The T&C Limited will definitely dial you into any of your active lifestyle needs with style, luxury and convenience. Imagine just folding all the seats down and sliding a couple surfboards or bikes inside the vehicle. If you’re not hauling a lot of people around for your sporting adventures, you won’t even need exterior racks when transporting your favorite outdoor toys.

    As mentioned earlier, it’s a great time to be shopping for a minivan.

    Quick facts:

    Make: Chrysler
    Model: Town and Country
    Year: 2005
    Base price: $35,070
    Price as tested: $37,015
    Horsepower: 215 Hp @ 5000 rpm
    Torque: 245 lbs.-ft. @ 4000 rpm
    0-60mph: N/A
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Standard
    First aid kit: No
    Bicycle friendly: Yes
    Off-road: No
    Towing: Yes
    Fuel economy: 18/25 mpg city/highway
    Comments: Three row side curtain air bags are only offered on the Limited.