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Posted: March 16, 2009

2009 Chrysler Town & Country Limited

There’s nothing lacking here – except confidence

Jeff Rundles

OK, so I am around a lot of young people day in and day out at work, and all week long when I was driving the Chrysler Town & Country Limited mini-van, I heard nothing but derision. I tried diligently to show them all the cool stuff – there is so much modern technology here that it is like driving a spaceship – but they just couldn’t get over the mini-van-ness of it all. I said something old-fartish like, “You’ll feel differently when you have children,” but they just rolled their eyes and gave me the “I am not now, nor will I ever be, a mini-van person, parenthood or not” look.

So, it’s not for everybody. That much is certain.

Then there’s the whole thing about this vehicle being a Chrysler. Getting something like this – high-tech to the max – makes one really think a lot about the warranty. And not that much of it will run out in three years or 36,000 miles, but that the company itself may only last three months and 3,000 miles, and there will be no one who will be able to do the service. Chrysler is very uncertain.

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But having said all that, I must admit that I am very much a mini-van person, and while I can harp on Chrysler about many things, the company did basically invent the modern mini-van and still makes one that is highly competitive with anything the foreign competition can put forward.

I have many qualms about this vehicle, but at base I really loved it.

We serendipitously got the Town & Country just before an already-planned family weekend trip to Glenwood Springs and Sunlight Mountain, and I was hoping for a vehicle that would be a cool road-trip car. OK, cool may be going too far, especially for my younger co-workers, but at least a great road-trip car. This is a great road-trip car.

First of all, since it’s the limited edition, it was very luxurious all around, what with leather-appointed seats and steering wheel and with fine wood grain accents. It is a fairly heavy vehicle and, for a mini-van, very handsome, so just being the pilot on this trip was at least a comfortable position. Then there’s the issue of there being children in the back, and rather than being bored out of their gourds, they got to spend the time in luxury comfort and enjoy the rather unique entertainment system.

You know, I have had mini-vans with nice entertainment systems before, but this one was special. There are two, 9-inch screens back there, one serving the twin bucket seats in the second row, and another for the three-passenger bench seat in, as the kids say, the way-back. And, of course, there is a DVD player so they can watch a movie – only here there is an additional DVD player for the way-back so that, with the wireless headphones, the back seat passengers can watch separate movies if they want or the same one. Then there’s the matter of television – yes, TV. This T&C is equipped with Sirius satellite radio – now ubiquitous in cars, it seems – but it also had three channels of Sirius TV – Nick, Disney and Cartoon Network. How cool is that? I assume soon there will be more channels available through the Sirius network, if it doesn’t go under itself, so this is a vehicle that would be very cool for the long road trip for kids and adults, and it would make a great camping vehicle for those who hate to be out of touch with the world.

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Of course, this entertainment system has all of the other nice stuff. With the vehicle in “park,” the TV/DVD signal can be seen by the front-seat passengers, and when driving the front seat people can listen to something else on regular or Sirius radio, while the movie plays in back. Or you can hook up an iPod, and/or download a full iPod worth of music or whatever to the T&C hard drive. In other words, you can pretty much entertain everyone in this car. There’s also navigation, a built-in hands-free phone system, so, yeah, it has everything.

Since this is a mini-van, a rather large mini-van, the reason you get one is all of the room in back, so I should address some back issues. One of the coolest things for people with young children is that the second-row's bucket seats have built in, pop-up car seats that are very nice, so you don’t have to mess around with the portable kind. You’re good to go in here for kids past infancy up to several years old. Then in the package I had, the second row had swiveling bucket seats. The chairs swivel to make a sort of round living room arrangement. Then you pull a table stored in floor storage compartments and make a great card or eating area in a matter of seconds. It’s really a nice touch, easy to do and it would be great for that camping trip.

The third-row seat in this vehicle, unlike others, is a substantial, 60/40 split seat, and what I mean by substantial is that it isn’t just some jump seat, but rather a nice, heavy-weight seat. Since there will be a ton of times when you want to put it down fully, or one of the parts for things like skis or golf clubs, they have made it a power seat; with the multi-function switch, you can fold the back down or put the whole thing, or 60 percent of it or 40 percent of it, stored away in the floor. It’s really quite nice and useful and easy to use. My only complaint here is that the room behind the seat is lacking, so even for a medium trip to the supermarket, you need to fold down part or all of this third row.

As for access to all of the rear, both sliding doors on the sides and the rear liftgate are power doors. Hit a button on the key fob, and they open or shut with ease and there are buttons inside on the ceiling console and near each of the doors to handle these operations. Plus – and this is cool – the windows in the sliding side doors open and close – power-operated, of course – like regular windows. For too long the rear side windows in vans were simply the pop-out variety, but this is a great feature, finally.

As I mentioned, I do like mini-vans, but there are some endemic things I dislike, and this vehicle suffers some of the historical lapses. When you’re just driving around, like on the highway, a van drives nicely and is a great cruiser. But when you get into traffic when you are changing lanes, or when you hit bumps or dips in the road, this van, like most of them, has a very loose suspension. It floats like a butterfly, to use half of the Ali poem. It’s distracting. These vehicles are generally built on a car chassis, but they weigh in like a truck, so they could use a much heavier suspension or shocks or struts or something.

Then there’s the power issue. The Chrysler T&C comes in three trims – the LX, the Touring and this Limited, and they all feature a V6 engine. In the LX, the base model, it’s a 3.3-liter V6 with 175 hp; in the Touring, it’s a 3.8-liter V6 with 197 hp; and, in this Limited model they go for a 4.0-liter V6 with 251 hp. As mentioned earlier, this is a heavy vehicle, made all the heavier with the substantial seats and all the extra electronics and heavy doors, so the 251 hp I drove felt inadequate at times, especially going uphill in the mountains, so I can imagine that the smaller engines really gasp at times.

Plus the three-engine thing just points out one of Chrysler’s problems. That’s too many engines for one vehicle; two would be enough, with the top choice something a little beefier.

Still, I did enjoy driving it and the power issue itself only became an issue on a few steep places in the mountains. I would probably replace the shocks and/or struts with something more heavy duty to address the floating issue.

This Limited model had everything, even things you wouldn’t think of. There’s a little light in the outside mirrors to notify you that someone is in your blind spot – very cool. It has remote start, so you can fire it up from a distance on a snowy morning and get the heat going. It does, of course, have heated and power front seats, but you can also get heated second-row seats, nice for the kiddies. There’s even three-zone air conditioning, so you can set comfort levels all around to fit any need, a flashlight that tucks into a bracket in the way back and power outlets all around. This is nearly a home on wheels.

But I have some other issues, beyond the survival of Chrysler that I mentioned earlier, the floating suspension and the power dearth. When you look around this vehicle and open the sliding and rear doors, there are a million power cords wrapped in this plastic, bendable tube stuff, and you can just see that this car is highly technological and dependent on power systems. If you ever blew a fuse or a circuit, you’d have major issues. I get to drive these things new, when everything works fine, but I just wonder how well this vehicle would age. Once the electrical systems start having issues, man, look out. This would be a constant worry to me, and with only a three-year warranty (there’s limited lifetime on the powertrain), I would be really worried come year 2-1/2.

Having looked at and driven quite of few mini-vans, I must say that this is one of the nicest on the market, however. And the price doesn’t alter that. The base sticker on the Limited edition is $36,780 (the LX is $26,680 and the Touring is $29,645), and here they added on: $515 for the blind spot and cross path detection system, $2,020 for the dual screen DVD with all the fixin's, $225 for the swiveling second-row seats, $895 for a very nice sunroof and overhead consoles going all the way back, $700 for running boards, $35 for an engine block heater; and $1,300 for what they call the uConnect system for iPod hookup and telephone. Add in destination charges of $770, and you’re looking at a bottom line on the sticker of $44,430. That’s a good, competitive price for what’s here.

Chrysler made its bones in the 1980s with mini-vans, and they still produce one that is a winner, so maybe everything will turn out OK. Maybe. When you look at the Chrysler brand lineup these days, there isn’t much: the big 300 sedan, the discontinued PT Cruiser, the Sebring sedan and SUVs. Pretty thin. The company still has Dodge and Jeep, of course, but when you get right down to it, only Jeep is a nameplate and a lineup, with some real value.

Still, I like this T&C. It sure doesn’t lack for much.

RATING: THREE-AND-ONE-HALF STARS (OUT OF FOUR). 

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Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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