Monday, July 16, 2007

While others jump ship on the minivan category, Chrysler wades in deeper. Since it's the company that created the category in the first place, is it t

(Original publication: July 14, 2007)

Minivan popularity has waned, but this most useful and practical mode of transportation is far from dead. The fifth-generation Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan drive home that point.

Yes, it's true that the category has lost some of its gloss, especially among North American-based manufacturers. Ford has already closed shop on its Freestar and Mercury Monterey and General Motors has announced similar plans to abandon its various minivans.

Among import-based brands, Toyota, Nissan and Honda remain in the game, while Mazda dropped its well-known MPV for 2007. Both Hyundai and its Kia offshoot have relatively new models to brag about, while Volkswagen is planning to introduce a minivan in a year or two using Chrysler-based mechanical components.

A dead category? Far from it.

Regardless of what the competition is up to, Chrysler remains the dominant player in a class it virtually invented back in 1983: 11 million units sold - so far - proves it.
To ensure its leg-up status, a completely retooled minivan lineup will be launched this fall. Unquestionably, the all-new styling for these rigs also heralds an image makeover.

Both the Grand Caravan and Town & Country present a bolder look, including a prominent snout, boxier body and more upright liftgate. You could say that the so-called "soccer-mom" shape that for years typified minivans has been replaced by a more rugged, sport-ute-like appearance.

The changes also extend to the proportions offered by this dynamic duo. The regular-wheelbase models, a price-leading staple since the beginning, are gone and the extended versions have become the norm. These have only marginally increased in size over their '07 counterparts, but their brick-like shape translates into significantly greater interior room.

What has kept Chrysler on top all these years is significant interior innovation and the latest versions continue this tradition. Along with a total of 13 cupholders and a variety of small-item bins and pockets, the dashboard includes dual glove boxes for increased utility.

For 2008, customers can order a Swivel 'n Go seating system, consisting of second-row chairs that can be turned to face the third row. A removable center table that's ideal for work or play activities and dining is also included when Swivel 'n Go is specified.

Also newly available is a removable sliding floor console and a built in flashlight. As well, the standard third-row bench seat can be power folded (optional) to create a flat load floor.

The unique Stow 'n Go feature is back and extends the cargo area when the second-row seats are folded into the floor. Stow 'n Go also provides out-of-sight storage when the seats are left in their upright positions.

Engine/transmission choices include a mix of old and new components. Base models are equipped with a 170-horsepower 3.3-liter V6 mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. Available is a 198-horsepower V6 as well as a new-for-2008 240-horsepower 4.0-liter V6. Both optional engines transmit power to the front wheels using a six-speed automatic. As before, there is no all-wheel-drive option.

Chrysler Town & Country offerings consist of the LX, Touring and Limited, while Dodge will sell the Grand Caravan SE and SXT. As of this writing, details regarding standard and optional equipment have yet to be announced, but look for all versions to include the usual air conditioning, cruise control, tilt steering and power-operated accessories plus a full load of safety content.

A lengthy options list will include power-sliding side doors, power liftgate, second-row power windows, heated leather seats, eight-way power front seats, 17-inch wheels and a voice-activated navigation system with back-up camera.

Also available will be a dual-screen DVD system that simultaneously displays the same (or different) movies/video games for back-seat riders.

Chrysler's 2008 minivans show that the automaker refuses to rest on its past success and that it believes a sharper design and unique content will generate broader category acceptance. If the company's track record is any indication, there's no disputing that logic.

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