- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 2, 2004

No matter what sort of marketing spin a carmaker tries to put on it, historically there has been no way to make a minivan seem macho. Having come to realize this truth, manufacturers concocted the crossover vehicle — a minivan/station wagon disguised as an SUV. Now soccer dads can drop the kiddies off at school and motor on to work without the stigma attached to piloting a minivan. Kudos to the manufacturers’ marketing departments. This has been a major shot in the arm to the self-esteem of carpool-responsible dads from coast to coast.

Utility, however, should be measured by a vehicle’s capability, not its exterior profile. Can it get down and dirty with that string of never-ending projects around the house? With this definition in mind, think Chrysler Town & Country. Yes, it’s a minivan, but you would be hard-pressed to find a more capable vehicle for weekend chores. Not only can it transport a driver and six kids to ball practice in air-conditioned luxury, it can haul enough plants to landscape the front yard or all the materials for that bathroom remodeling project. It is as versatile a family vehicle as anything on the highway and that means utility with a capital “U.”

The cornerstone of Town & Country’s capability is its remarkable Stow ‘n Go seating system. In a matter of seconds (we’ve seen it done in less than 15 seconds), it morphs from a seven-passenger family wagon to a utility van. And taking it through this transition doesn’t require biceps the size of beef shanks or a degree in mechanical engineering. A 7-year-old can do it.

Stow ‘n Go is Chrysler-speak for second- and third-row seats that fold away flat beneath the cargo floor. What remains is a level, completely usable cargo area. From then on, it’s simply a matter of what to haul first: that new vanity for the master bathroom or a half a pallet of sod. Spread a sheet of plastic back there and you can transport just about anything rain or shine. The low lift over means that loading even bulky items is less strenuous than trying to alley-oop them into the bed of a pickup truck.

Weekend chores notwithstanding, Stow ‘n Go provides remarkable flexibility. Chrysler claims upward of 256 different seating combinations. When the second-row seats are in their upright positions it frees up two generous covered storage bins with 12 cubic feet of additional combined space. The second-row seats also move fore and aft, creating either more legroom for those passengers or more space behind them.

With the pull of a single strap, the second-row seat flips forward to make room for easy third-row access. The third-row split bench seat can be reclined 39 degrees. If tailgating is your thing, the third-row seat can also be flipped around (in sections or in its entirety) for tailgate seating.

Stow ‘n Go comes standard on all but the short-wheelbase entry-level version of Town & Country.

The Town & Country is more than just a bar-raising seating system. It continues to set the pace in the luxury minivan segment. While a 180-horsepower V-6 powers the short wheelbase base vehicle and long-wheelbase LX, a 215-horsepower 3.8-liter V-6 motivates the Touring and Limited trim levels. This is plenty of engine for this minivan and it pulls satisfactorily even under heavy loads. A four-speed automatic transmission ushers engine power to the front wheels. All-wheel drive is available on the Touring and Limited versions. The Town & Country provided for this evaluation was a Limited FWD.

Fuel economy is about average for a vehicle this size armed with a V-6. The Environmental Protection Agency rates it at 18 miles per gallon in the city and 25 on the open highway.

Town & Country’s carlike ride continues to be one of its more compelling features. It feels like a large luxury sedan on the highway. It is quiet and smooth. There may be those who argue the steering is a tad vague, but it is a minivan after all. Hard cornering will inspire some body roll, but nothing excessive.

Interior appointments are upscale. This is a smart-looking cabin that appears carefully put together. Storage bins and cubbies abound. Everything is easy to find and operate. If the need arises, the center console can be removed.

A side-curtain air bag protects all three rows of seats, while the driver enjoys the added protection of an inflatable knee blocker.

With destination charges, the Town & Country Limited stickers at $35,750. This includes left and right power sliding doors and power lift gate, rear-park assist, dual-zone automatic climate control, power-adjustable pedals with memory and eight-speaker Infinity audio system with in-dash six-disc CD changer. Techies might also want to pony up an additional $275 for Bluetooth hands-free communications integrated into the audio system. For another grand, a rear-seat video system can be added with a 7-inch monitor and wireless headphones.

Whether looking for a luxurious people hauler or a hard-working weekend-project vehicle, the Town & Country is rich in possibilities.

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