- The Washington Times - Friday, November 2, 2007

It’s called piling on.

You’re ahead in the game, and you want to make sure your opponents don’t rear up and bite you. So you throw in more resources and pile on.

Chrysler is doing that with its new minivans: the Dodge Grand Caravan and the Chrysler Town and Country.

The company invented the modern minivan back in 1983, and at one point owned more than half of the national minivan sales. To date, it has sold more than 12 million of the familiar family haulers.

As competitors arrived, the market share declined, but the Chrysler/Dodge minivans still account for about 38 percent of the sales, with Dodge alone owning 22 percent.

Though doomsayers have predicted its demise, minivan sales have held steady, averaging 1.1 million a year since 1993, according to Chrysler’s calculations. In 2006, the total was 969,858.

Though a lot of attention has been paid to the Japanese entries—the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna—the Dodge still is the leader. It was on a pace for more than 207,000 sales in 2007, compared to a pace of about 160,000 for the Odyssey and 146,000 for the Sienna.

Chrysler’s domestic competitors—General Motors and Ford—never did well with their minivans, and have abandoned them in favor of the new breed of crossovers like the Saturn Outlook and Ford Taurus X.

But despite many virtues, and the fact they mimic SUVs and therefore avoid, for some people, the “soccer mom” stigma of minivans, the crossovers can’t cut it against minivans when it comes to passenger comfort, cargo capacity, ease of entry, flexibility and overall practicality.

With GM and Ford out of the picture, there remain only a few manufacturers offering minivans: Chrysler, Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Hyundai and Kia.That opens the field, and the folks at Chrysler said they were not about to cede any turf. That brings us to the 2008 Chrysler Town and Country, and the Dodge Grand Caravan.

They are essentially identical vehicles, outfitted to appeal to different groups of buyers. Truncated models, which appealed to budget-oriented customers, have been dropped, leaving only the 17-footers.

There are five models: Chrysler Town and Country LS, Touring and Limited, and the Dodge Grand Caravan SE and the tested SXT, all with full safety equipment.

Three engine/transmission combinations are available: a 175-horsepower, 3.3-liter V6 with a four-speed automatic transmission; a 197-horsepower, 3.8-liter V6 with a new six-speed automatic, and a new 251-horsepower, 4-liter V6, also with the six-speed.

The tested SXT, with the 4-liter, delivers more than ample power to move a load of people and cargo in silence and comfort, with decent handling. The six-speed automatic—a first in any minivan—shifts unobtrusively and also features a manual-shift mode for better control. On hilly terrain, the manual mode can be used for additional engine braking and to minimize “hunting” for the right gear.

The new minivans are not as stylish as their predecessors, which featured sleek lines. It was deliberate. The stylists went for a blockier look that increases interior horizontal head space and also vaguely mimics the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger and Magnum.

But most of the piling on comes in the amenities. Most prominent are the three seating configurations and the multiple-use entertainment systems.

The basic setup includes a second-row bench seat, with a third-row seat for three that disappears into the floor for additional cargo capacity.

The second is Chrysler’s innovative Stow ‘n’ Go seating, introduced previously, which consists of second-row captain’s chairs that fold into the floor. It means that, with the disappearing third row, you can convert the minivan into a two-passenger cargo van without leaving any of the passenger seats in the garage.

A new wrinkle for 2008 is called Swivel ‘n’ Go. It consists of second-row captain’s chairs that swivel 180 degrees to face the rear. A small, stowaway table can be installed so second- and third-row passengers can play cards or games while under way. The swivel seats have built-in seatbelts but do not disappear into the floor. However, the stash space beneath the floor remains.

The optional entertainment system on the tested Grand Caravan SXT consisted of two headliner-mounted screens for the second and third rows, along with a screen in the dash. It included the first-ever installation of Sirius satellite TV, with three stations for the kids: Disney channel, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon.

With this setup, second- and third-row passengers can watch the same movie, two different movies, a movie and TV, or one row can play video games while the other watches TV or a movie. In addition, video can be viewed on the dashboard screen, but only when the transmission shifter is in “park.”

A cool convenience item is a multifunction center console that can be moved forward and backward to accommodate front-seat and second-row passengers.

Dual glove boxes provide additional storage space, and Chrysler’s optional MyGIG system incorporates navigation, radio, DVD and CD, as well as a 20-gigabyte hard drive that can store more than 1,200 songs.

It’s all part of piling on.

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