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Competition Breeds a Winner

2005 Chrysler Town & Country Limited

By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 23, 2004; Page G01

I like a good fight, which means I thoroughly enjoy the punch-out going on in the minivan division of the U.S. automotive market.

Toyota started the melee this year with the launch of its completely revised Sienna, a minivan expressly and expertly designed for families. Toyota even gave the kids a nod in the new Sienna by allowing them to have roll-down windows of their very own, by gosh!

Nuts & Bolts

Downside: More horsepower for this one, please. Also, the service brake, which must be released by a hand lever inconveniently located on the lower-left side of the instrument panel, is obsolete.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Excellent ride. Good handling. Decent acceleration. In short, considering the overall virtues of the Town & Country Limited, I'd happily take it on a cross-country drive.

Head-turning quotient: People actually came up to me and praised the Town & Country's looks. Everyone who stepped inside fell in love with the interior. This is a graceful, classy minivan.

Body style/layout: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, four side doors (two automatically slide open and closed) and rear hatch. The second- and third-row seats can be collapsed into the floor.

Capacities: The Town & Country Limited has seating for seven people. Maximum cargo capacity is 168 cubic feet with second- and third-row seats down. Luggage capacity with second- and third-row seats up is 26.4 cubic feet. It can be equipped to tow up to 3,800 pounds. Fuel capacity is 20 gallons of recommended regular unleaded gasoline.

Mileage: I averaged 21 miles per gallon in mostly highway driving. Tip: You'd be wasting money to pump premium into this one. Premium gasoline does not -- repeat, not -- improve the performance of this minivan.

Safety: Side-curtain air bags on all three rows; knee bags for front-seat occupants; advanced multi-stage dual front air bags; child safety-seat latches; low-speed traction control.

Price: Base price on the Town & Country Limited is $35,070. Dealer's invoice price on base model is $32,042. Price as tested is $37,015, including $1,265 in options and a $680 destination charge.

Purse-strings note: It's a buy. Can be had less expensively with fewer options or in lower-priced trim packages.

Warren's latest minivan rankings: First place: tie between Toyota Sienna and Chrysler Town & Country. Second place: Honda Odyssey. Third place: tie between Ford Freestar and Mazda MPV. Fourth place: Nissan Quest.

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Nissan weighed in with its redesigned Quest. Personally, I like it. But the market seems to be saying something different inasmuch as the Quest is selling slowly. The problem? Nissan may have listened too much to that chorus of voices decrying minivans as old-hat mom-mobiles.

To counter that image, Nissan emphasized exterior and interior design highlighted by an ultra-modern center-stack instrument cluster. But what the new Quest possesses in styling and attitude, it apparently lacks in traditional family values. It turns out that moms are moms and dads are dads, after all. Styling plays second fiddle to utility in their lives when it comes to hauling kith and kin and cats and dogs in the most efficient and comfortable manner.

Ford made a wonderfully credible appearance with the introduction of its 2004 Freestar, which is the polar opposite of the Nissan Quest. The Freestar completely ignores exterior styling. Some might even call it ugly. But it has lots of interior comfort, excellent acceleration and overall good road manners, and lots of utility.

I was so impressed with the Freestar's highway performance that I had the temerity to move it to first place on my minivan list. In retrospect, that may have been an act of irrational exuberance. In the real world, based on comments from readers, the Freestar is a great minivan for short-legged families. Tall people complain that second-row seating in the Freestar offers them little legroom. Those readers said they took a serious look at the Freestar but bought the Sienna instead.

There also is the reworked Mazda MPV, introduced for 2004. I like it. It has all of the right touches. But it primarily is built for small families hauling relatively small loads.

It remains to be seen how Honda will rework its still-popular Odyssey, which started the trend of rear seats that can be collapsed into the floor, creating cargo space without the hassle of lifting, carrying and stowing those seats in the garage or elsewhere.

It's nice to see that Honda finally has acknowledged that it no longer is the only car company creating minivans of impeccable quality. Honda Odyssey prices are moderating, which proves that competition is a very good thing.

Anyone doubting that should take a look at this week's test vehicle, the 2005 -- that's right, 2005 -- Chrysler Town & Country Limited long-wheelbase minivan.

Chrysler comes late to the party with rear seats that quickly, easily, neatly collapse into the floor. But it comes with a bang. Both the second- and third-row seats can be made to disappear into the floor of the Town & Country.

Rather than go with Quest-like avant-garde styling, Chrysler chose to stick closely to classic themes. Exterior lines are clean, elegant. The look is rich. The interior follows that mode with generally high-quality materials, including, thank goodness, leather-covered seats that at least approach the notion of supple.

Interior acoustics are good in the Town & Country. Amenities, including two optional overhead seven-inch video screens, are plentiful. In both decorum and demeanor, the Town & Country feels much more like a well-crafted limousine than a minivan.

The minivan's ride is soft and untroubled even over rough roads. Handling, as you might expect, involves some body sway around corners. Take the curves gently.

I do wish that the Town & Country Limited had a bit more horsepower. The thing has a curb weight -- poundage without driver, passengers or cargo -- of 4,372 pounds. But it comes with a 215-horsepower, 3.8-liter V-6 engine. That's quite adequate. But it also means the Town & Country has to catch its breath before making high-speed lane changes. Twenty to 30 more horsepower, perhaps in a V-8, would be greatly appreciated.

Then again, considering current fuel prices, maybe the lower-horsepower V-6 makes more sense.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company