TEST DRIVE: 2012 Chrysler Town & Country

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Okay, I’m just going to come right out and say it…I love minivans.  Yes, that’s right, minivans – those vehicular transitional benchmarks that anyone under 25 typically wouldn’t be caught dead in.  As a father of four, I love them for both their practicality and functionality and while the number of available minivan models has dramatically decreased over the years, those that are still available are loaded with cool things from front to back.

You see for me, a vehicle with 3 rows is an absolute must for my family and in today’s automotive age that generally means choosing between a minivan and a seven-seat capable SUV.  While the SUV’s may have the edge in driving cache, a minivan will always have the edge when it comes to functionality and storage space.  Of the minivan models still available today, the Chrysler Town & Country remains at the top of the list in terms of popularity.  Now in its fifth generation, the Town & Country has been a rock-solid cornerstone of Chrysler Corp (along with its relatives the Dodge Caravan and the now departed Plymouth Voyageur) since 1989.  Chrysler essentially invented the minivan category and The Town & Country has always been marketed as the luxury version of the Caravan and often with a premium price attached.

To give the 2012 Town & Country a true test of family suitability and versatility, I decided to take it out for a Dadditudes Test Drive during the week that my family and I were to embark on our annual summer camping trip.  I mean what better way to test all that a minivan offers large families than to pack it up with everything a family of six would need to go camping and drive it for hours with over-eager kids en tow?!

FIRST IMPRESSION

The 5th generation Town & Country is a far cry from the 1st generation and noticeable departure from the 4th, although this 5th generation design has been in place since the 2008 model year.  So while there is nothing unique or surprising about the overall design, the 2012 version does add standard leather seating across all trim models.

When compared to its three main rivals from Toyota, Nissan and Honda, the Town & Country appears more box like than both the Toyota Sienna or Honda Odyssey, but not nearly as much as the newly designed Nissan Quest.

DRIVE

Another new addition to the 2012 Town & Country is the new 3.6 Litre V6 Pentastar Engine.  It offers 283 hp and 260 lb/ft of torque and is an increase on both accounts from previous versions.  The engine generally handles well although I noticed the need to really hit the gas when accelerating, which is likely due to poor downshifting in the automatic transmission.

The driver cockpit is generally well designed although I find myself struggling with the legroom available.  As a former owner of a 2002 Caravan I believe that legroom has decreased and if it weren’t for the effective utilization of cruise control, I could have easily seen myself getting leg cramps after the approximately 2-1/2 hour drive to the park where we were camping.

ECO FACTOR

When compared to its main rivals, the Town & Country does not fare well in the area of fuel economy.  It’s rating of 12.2 L/100 KM or 23 MPG (City) and 7.9 L/100 KM or 36 MPG (Hwy) are eclipsed by all of the Odyssey, Quest and Sienna.

Perhaps the one saving grace that I’ll give Chrysler in this area is that they currently are running a test program in the US with 25 Town & Country Plug-in Hybrid concepts.  I have long been pushing for hybrid or PHEV technology to make the jump to this category and I can only hope that we see both an increase in demand as well as a decrease in technical challenges to turn these 25 concepts into a regular market offering.

FAMILY FACTOR

If there was a main reason why I wanted a minivan to review as part of our camping trip, it would have to be in relation to storage.  Even with all three rows upright, the 2012 Town & Country offers an impressive 33 cubic feet of cargo space at the back.  This is an area where minivans today in general are far superior when compared to full sized SUV’s.  While my family also needed to utilize the roof rack for all our cargo needs, the amount of stuff we were able to place inside the vehicle was a big advantage.

Aside from camping the storage available inside minivans, and the cargo flexibility with things such as Stow’n’Go seating are simply unrivaled by any other class of family vehicle.

TECH FACTOR

Part of the advantage offered by minivans for families is the plethora of family-friendly technology that is available.  DVD screens can be a God-send for parents who just can’t take another “are we there yet?” question from the kids.  The Town & Country offers drop down screens for both the 2nd and 3rd rows (standard on all 2012 models), although I’ve always complained that they only come with 2 wireless headsets as standard.  Even though it is technically possible for the kids to watch movies in silence with their headsets as the parents listen to something from the audio system up front, it’s not possible if you have kids in the 3rd row without wireless headphones.  Mini jacks are available for 3rd row passengers to use however.

It is also possible to plug in a portable electronic device and run different elements on different screens for variety but the set up can be tricky.  Personally I am convinced that in the next few model years we will see minivans equipped with a large HDD drive and personal touch screens built into each headrest for all 2nd and 3rd row passengers, similar to what you’d see on a commercial airplane.  Heck, if they can build a system that works for 300 flying passengers at once, I’m sure they can adapt it for seven passenger minivans.

Also enjoyable with the Town & Country is the Garmin navigation system.  Guidance and visibility is easy to work with, although voice prompting is not available with the GPS as it is with other competitors.

The sound system on our Town & Country Limited tester was a 9 speaker system with sub-woofer that sounded good but not fantastic.  The Sirrus Satellite Radio was very much enjoyed as we often found that many of the area FM or AM signals were shaky at best in the middle of the 8,500 hectare park we visited, but the satellite radio (aside from a few patches) was clearly received.  In fact in the video montage of our camping trip that I’ve included, the choice of “Some Nights” by Fun as the musical selection was inspired by the fact the Hits Station we listened to played that song A LOT!  (But that wasn’t a bad thing since it’s such an awesome song).

A Full 110 V outlet is available between the 2nd and 3rd row making it possible to re-charge electronics while driving.

SUMMARY

If there is one thing that’s clear, for as long as there will be large families in need of versatile and flexible family vehicles, there will always be a need for minivans.  Given that the Chrysler Town & Country has been around for almost 25 years, and in that time it has seen many competitors come and go, it’s clear that it’s a vehicle that is both well designed and well positioned to stand the test of time.

The company that invented the minivan continues to put out a quality product.  That said it faces stiff competition from its few remaining rivals and its clear where improvements can and should be made.  Resting on laurels will never assure ultimate longevity, even if those laurels extend back more than two decades.

 

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