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!
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.