- The Washington Times - Friday, February 21, 2003

The first babies to ride in Chrysler Corp.'s minivans are college-age now a sign of just how long the family-sized vans have been part of the American scene.

No matter that nearly 20 years have passed since the automaker introduced its first production minivan. Chrysler's Town & Country, the cream of the Chrysler minivans with pricing that reaches to more than $40,000 fully loaded, continues to add updates.

For 2003, for example, the Town & Country makes available for the first time a factory-installed power sunroof, while some competitors such as the Honda Odyssey and Ford Windstar don't offer sunroofs.

It's meant to help the Town & Country hold its place as the "ultimate minivan," as Chrysler officials put it, with a variety of luxury and comfort features even as minivan competition intensifies.

Indeed, though the Town & Country pioneered the luxury minivan class and can be pricey at its top end, the starting 2003 manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $24,700.

Chrysler officials also continue to work on their vans' quality.

The test Town & Country was an LXi, one of five trim choices for 2003. With the new sunroof, leather seats, power sliding side doors, strong Infinity sound system, three individual temperature-control zones and other options, it topped out at more than $36,000 and had a plush feel.

It also was fitted with the upscale engine a 215-horsepower, 3.8-liter, overhead-valve V-6. With torque of 245 foot-pounds at 4,000 rpm, it moved this sizable van easily. The front-wheel-drive Town & Country accelerated smoothly, in fact, and kept up with highway traffic, even on hills and when loaded with cargo.

A light touch was all that was needed to move the shifter for the four-speed automatic transmission out of park.

Many times, though, I found the lever went beyond "drive" and I'd have to carefully move the shifter to the correct slot.

Most non-Chrysler minivans offer just a single size engine. Regular unleaded is the recommended fuel for the Town & Country. The base engine for this van is a 180-horsepower, 3.3-liter V-6.

My passengers and I slid easily onto the gray leather seats of the test vehicle. There's no hefty climb up to get inside, for an elderly parent or grandparent or even for someone 5-feet-4 like me. I just turned and pretty much sat down on the driver seat.

My legs extended downward from there, as if I were sitting in a bus. I didn't have a comfortable position to brace my left leg as I do in some sporty coupes and sedans.

White-faced gauges arranged in front of the driver are easy to read.

My passengers and I conversed easily in the Town & Country, thanks to a quiet interior that seemed to rival that of some expensive cars. Note that this includes the folks who sit way back in the Town & Country's third row.

All of us had good views from the Town & Country. I could see beyond cars in front of me, thanks to the high seat position of the Town & Country. But I didn't sit so high up that the minivan felt top-heavy and unstable.

To the contrary, the Town & Country managed a couple of emergency lane-change maneuvers prompted by lazy drivers in other vehicles who never looked to see that I was next to them before coming into my lane with surprising confidence.

The suspension uses struts in the front and tubular axle beam with single-leaf springs at the rear, and the Town & Country structure was stiffened in the van's last major redesign, which was in the 2001 model year.

Bumps are nicely kept away from riders and there's a carlike feel overall.

I also noticed the rack-and-pinion steering doesn't require a lot of muscle, especially when you're parking the Town & Country.

Yet, the steering is nicely predictable during higher speed, freeway travel.

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