First Drive: 2011 Chrysler Town & Country [Review]

Chrysler's bread and butter has long been its minivan lineup, but the last generation failed to impress, but a host of improvements rewrite this story.

It's been more than 25 years since the original Chrysler minivans kick-started an authentic revolution in family transportation. In recent years, some competitors have walked away from the segment entirely (most notably Ford and General Motors), while others have attacked the existing market share with dynamic new product such as the lightning-bolt-window Honda Odyssey and the "Swagger Wagon" Toyota Sienna.

With the 2011 Town & Country, now priced and equipped exclusively above $30,000 and featuring a staggering array of upgrades and new content, Chrysler is forcibly staking its claim to dominate the class it created.

Inside and out
The current Chrysler minivan platform is only three years old, but in those three years the two major competitors in the class have been redesigned from the ground-up with flashy new features and aggressive styling designed to attract anti-minivan buyers. To fight back, Chrysler has redesigned every "touch point" in the T&C and made significant changes to the exterior to enhance its upscale appeal.

Brushed silver and polished chrome now co-exist in the new grille, while a sweeping new "wing" logo dominates the tailgate. A new roof rack with stowaway crossbars adds aesthetic value up top, while redesigned wheels and side moldings attempt to create a dynamic look. Add the increasingly-cliché LED tail lamps, and the result is a van that looks, at the very least, new-ish.

Chrysler arguably had the worst interior available in the segment last year, but a raft of improvements has positively vaulted them over the Japanese-branded competition. This is the first minivan in history to look authentically luxurious inside, from the real metal trim to the soft-touch leather steering wheel with a complete set of high-quality switches and available heated rim.

Last year's Stow-n-Go seating has been significantly improved to address customer concerns with backrest comfort; a captain's-chair arrangement is available as well for the truly upscale family. All three rows are well-trimmed and spacious, with the biggest improvements to be found in the front seats.

Go to match the stow
The left front seat, of course, is often the least desirable seat in a minivan. For 2011, two significant changes have been made to address this issue: The trio of old-tech V6s has been replaced by a single Pentastar V6 putting out 283 ponies and 260 lb-ft. of torque. There's now just one transmission, the six-speed 62TE which debuted as an option in the 2008 model.

Also provided is a little "eco" button, which lights up a green leaf on the center stack to denote environmentally responsible operation. We pushed it hard to make sure it was switched off, and then took a run down the California coast, operating at speeds typically reserved for weekend sport bikers and the occasional Bimmer pilot. Pushed hard, the T&C is absurdly capable, offering reasonable, fade-resistant braking and solid body roll control. The side-to-side manual control works well and can be easily manipulated while keeping both hands on the wheel in most cases.

It's no trick to reach seriously illegal velocities in this family hauler, so we backed off the throttle and spent the rest of the trip enjoying the powerful, versatile in-car entertainment system. It's not up to the standard set by myFordTouch, but remember: Ford won't sell you a minivan.

Chrysler, on the other hand, would love to sell you a minivan. One problem, however: if you want a cheap minivan, you'll have to see your Dodge dealer for a Grand Caravan. The new Town & Country starts at $30,995 including destination. The bells-and-whistles Limited is priced at $39,945 and there's still plenty of headroom in the options. The good news is that the atmosphere and equipment level finally matches the expectations set by the window sticker.

Leftlane's bottom line
Poised, polished, and a little pricey, the Town & Country is well-equipped to complete its goal of being the premier minivan in the market.

Even if you're coming from a similarly-priced entry-luxury car like an Infiniti G37, you're likely to be impressed at the materials and luxuries on offer here in what is arguably Chrysler's most substantial mid-cycle upgrade ever.

2011 Chrysler Town & Country base price range, $30,995 to $39,945.

Words by Jack Baruth. Photos by Andrew Ganz.