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Most minivan makers worry how they can distinguish themselves from the pack. But the Chrysler Town & Country solved that problem by inventing a category all its own: the luxury minivan.
It's no stretch to say that the Town & Country leads the pack when it comes to styling, comfort, spaciousness and quality. Indeed, the Town & Country offers so many refinements, and coddles the driver with so many amenities, that it can go toe to toe with many luxury sedans. It even rides like a car.
This year, Chrysler has raised the bar again by adding the high-end Limited to a Town & Country stable that already included the SX and the plush LX and LXi.
One of the ways Chrysler stays a step ahead of the competition is by offering varying configurations to suit different types of buyers. The company gives buyers a choice among three nameplates -- Chrysler Town & Country, Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan. Each comes in short- and long-wheelbase versions, and in several different trim levels. Front-wheel drive is standard on the Town & Country, but it can be ordered with all-wheel drive, a definite plus in the snow belt.
By offering a long list of luxury-line features, the Chrysler Town & Country is the only true luxury minivan. And the new Limited offers, as standard equipment, further luxury-line comforts, like leather seats with suede accents, a rear bench seat with center armrests and steering wheel-mounted audio controls.
A cargo net was added between the front seats of the LX and LXi this year that's handy for keeping purses, a small bag of groceries or other odds and ends from sliding around.
When Chrysler overhauled its minivans in 1996, it took great care to retune the suspension to ensure a sedan-like ride. At the same time, they increased the torsional rigidity by 50 percent. That translates into greater stability, which is always a plus in a tall vehicle. Driving our Town & Country hard around an on-ramp, we discovered that the more rigid suspension ensured that the vehicle felt firmly planted. The same was true during sharper, low-speed cornering maneuvers.
Our confidence was bolstered by the Town & Country's rack & pinion power steering, which was responsive in quick lane-change maneuvers.
Last year, Chrysler's engineers addressed the road-noise issue that was once a problem with many minivans, and their noise-abatement efforts produced a ride that is not only quieter than most minivans-it's also as quiet as many family sedans.
Our LXi test model was powered by the 3.8-liter V6, which produces 180 horsepower at 4400 rpm and 240 foot-pounds of torque at 3200 rpm. The 3.8-liter engine is the biggest offered in Chrylser's minivan line and it's definitely our favorite. The smaller 3.3-liter engine, which puts out 158 horses at 4850 rpm and 203 foot pounds of torque @ 3250 rpm, delivers sufficient power for the smaller and lighter SX, but we recommend the 3.8-liter engine for the longer, heavier LX, LXi and Limited models.
We found the 3.8-liter engine packed more than enough thrust when accelerating off the line. The extra power was appreciated in freeway-merging situations. Once on the freeway, the 3.8-liter plant definitely filled the bill when we wanted punch to pass a semi-trailer.
Brakes are a special concern in larger vehicles that may be carrying a heavy load-or a half-dozen kids. The Town & Country's brakes quiet such concerns by bringing the vehicle to a confident, controlled stop, with no grabbing or fading.
If your lifestyle requires the roominess of a minivan, you'll find many fine entries in the market -- Plymouth Voyager, Dodge Caravan, Toyota Sienna, Honda Odyssey, Mazda MPV, Mercury Villager, Nissan Quest and the GM minivans. But if you like to be pampered by luxury amenities -- and are comfortable with a $32,000 price tag -- the Town & Country is probably the minivan for you.