Thursday, September 6, 2007

Family values

New Chrysler minivans have enough fun video and seating features to keep everyone amused on trips

These are uneasy days at Chrysler: new ownership, a new boss and a new union contract in the works.

One thing is certain, though: The company that invented the minivan still builds the best minivans you can buy. Take that to the bank. Chrysler will.

The new 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country minivans are equal parts vehicle and playroom, with a distinctive and attractive new exterior design wrapped around the kid-friendliest features on the road.

Minivans are serious business for Chrysler. It builds about 4 out of every 10 minivans sold in the United States and relies heavily on the kid carriers for profits.

Serious, grown-up stuff, but a minivan succeeds on its ability to keep the munchkins and moms happy.

Nobody does this better than Chrysler, as its new minivans prove.

Open the sliding doors and children's faces light up like they just cleared the turnstiles at Cedar Point.

The 2008 Grand Caravan and Town & Country have so many unique and appealing features the kids barely know where to begin. It's like choosing which roller coaster to ride first.

Should they face each other and play cards in the one-of-kind swiveling second-row seats? Or they could have lunch at the removable picnic table between the second and third rows of seats.

Or watch "High School Musical 2" on the two video screens, since the new minivans are the only ones equipped to receive three different channels of kid-friendly programming from Sirius' new satellite TV service.

Or watch a DVD on the same video screens. A third small screen in the dashboard also shows the video when the van is in park.

It's a tough choice for kids, but nothing like the challenge parents may face getting the little ones to leave the minivan at the end of a trip. The plea for "five minutes more" may have just moved from the TV room to the driveway.

I took a Grand Caravan SXT to the homes of several friends with young children. The responses were identical every time. The kids loved it. The parents were pleased but nervous, afraid their children were developing Champagne tastes on a juice-box budget.

Not so much.

The minivan I drove sells for $32,390. Not spare change, but you can easily pay thousands more for a Honda Odyssey, Nissan Quest or Toyota Sienna.

And none of them even offers the swiveling seats, picnic table or satellite TV.

Prices for the 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan start at $21,740 for an SE model with a 175-horsepower 3.3-liter V6 engine. The Grand Caravan SXT comes with a 195-horsepower 3.8-liter V6 at $26,805. All prices exclude destination charges.

The Chrysler Town & Country lineup starts at $22,460 for an LX model with the 3.3-liter engine. The Touring model gets the 3.8-liter engine and a $27,700 price tag. A top-of-the-line Limited stickers at $35,670 and features a 251-horsepower 4.0-liter V6. The 4.0-liter is available as an option on the Grand Caravan SXT.

The 3.8- and 4.0-liter V6s come with Chrysler's new six-speed automatic transmission. The Grand Caravan and Town & Country are the only minivans with a six-speed automatic. The smooth gearbox provides excellent performance and helps the minivans achieve good 16 m.p.g. city/23 m.p.g. highway in EPA fuel economy tests.

Despite the weight added by the new features, the Dodge and Chrysler's fuel economy matches the Odyssey, Quest, Chevrolet Uplander, Hyundai Entourage and Kia Sedona.

The front-wheel-drive Sienna averaged 1 m.p.g. better in the EPA's city and highway tests. That would save its driver $126 a year, according to the EPA's calculations.

An all-wheel-drive Sienna has slightly worse fuel economy than the Dodge or Chrysler, which offer only front-drive models.

The 3.8-liter in the Grand Caravan I tested provided plenty of power that was complemented by firm brakes with good pedal feel, responsive steering and a smooth, quiet ride.

Interior room is excellent, particularly head and shoulder room, both of which increase dramatically thanks to the vans' crisp and upright exterior design. That styling is a notable departure from the egg-shaped body Chrysler pioneered and other successful minivans have followed.

The vans' solid and substantial new look drew appreciative comments from men and women alike. The new design fell short in one place, however. A crease in the metal of the D-pillar -- between the rear window and the tailgate -- looks good, but leaves the trailing edge of the rear windows raised slightly above the metal. It's a design issue rather than an assembly problem, but the result is the same: a piece that looks poorly fitted.

In addition to the unique new Swivel 'n Go rotating second-row seats, the minivans can be ordered with Stow 'n Go seats that fold out of the way under the floor or with a removable second-row bench seat.

All three seating arrangements come with the big under-floor storage bin Chrysler introduced. The rotating Swivel 'n Go seats are easy to manipulate and scored five stars -- facing either front or rear -- in crash tests.

I had to move the front seats forward to turn the Swivel 'n Go seats around. That's not a problem, but the lack of memory for a seat that's likely to be moved frequently is a small drawback, as is the lack of twilight-sensing headlights.

A one-touch power folding rear seat is optional, and the manual rear seat can be flipped over to face out for tailgating. The optional picnic table can be attached to the rear bumper or between the second and third rows of seats.

There's not much leg room for adults when the middle seats face rear, but the layout works brilliantly up to at least 12 years old.

The optional rotating seats are available in all models for $225. Getting those seats and the removable picnic table costs $495.

The driver's seat is very comfortable. The controls and gauges are all within easy reach and the materials look and feel good, particularly a soft, wide area at the base of the windows that's ideal for resting your elbow as you drive.

The overall feel of space and comfort is reminiscent of a luxury sedan more than a minivan.

The new Town & Country and Grand Caravan won't relieve all the stress at Chrysler these days. No one vehicle will. But if Chrysler brings this level of innovation and excellence to the rest of its new vehicles, its workers should be as happy and secure as a child in one of its new minivans.lick thumbnails to zoom


(ERIC SEALS/Detroit Free Press)

The vans' solid and substantial new look drew appreciative comments from men and women alike.

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  • (ERIC SEALS/Detroit Free Press)

    The exterior is a departure from the egg-shaped body Chrysler pioneered.

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Minivans fill a need with easy access for families

VIDEO: Mark Phelan reviews the new Chrylser minivans


2008 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT minivan

Vehicle type: Front-wheel drive seven-seat minivan

Reasons to buy: Unique interior features, value, comfort

Shortcomings: Lack of some common features, rotating rear seats lack adult legroom.

Rating: **** (out of four stars)

Key: **** Best in class, *** Above average, ** Competent, * Below average

Front-wheel drive seven-seat minivan

Base price: $26,805 (excluding destination charges)

As tested: $32,390

Standard equipment: Antilock brakes with brake assist; electronic stability control; curtain air bags; power adjustable pedals; tire pressure monitor and warning light; variable intermittent windshield wipers; rear variable intermittent windshield wiper and washer; three-zone climate control system; rear-seat climate controls; eight-way power driver's seat; second-row underfloor storage compartment; 60/40 flat-folding third-row seat with tailgate function; Yes Essentials stain and odor resistant fabric seats; power front windows with express up/down for driver and express down for passenger; power second-row windows; power locks; remote keyless entry with engine immobilizer; tilt steering column; cruise control; AM/FM stereo with in-dash MP3-compatible CD player; leather-wrapped steering wheel; overhead ambient lighting; swiveling rear reading lamps; overhead storage bins; overhead console with conversation mirror; illuminated front cupholders; illuminated vanity mirrors; universal garage door opener; steering-wheel mounted audio controls; rearview day/night mirror; dual glove boxes; interior assist handles; floor and cargo area carpets; fog lamps; power heated fold-away sideview mirrors; 16-inch aluminum wheels; compact spare tire.

Options: Heated front seats; heated second-row seats; sliding front center console with four cupholders and two-level storage; 20GB hard drive for videos, music and photos; parking assist rear video camera; ambient lighting; removable rechargeable flashlight; power tailgate; roof rack; 506-watt premium sound system with nine Infinity speakers and subwoofer; Swivel 'n Go second-row seats; light shale seats; removable picnic table; DVD player with two rear video screens, remote control and wireless headphones; power folding third-row seat; one-year service with Sirius satellite radio; Sirius satellite TV with children's programming.

Specifications as tested

Engine: 3.8-liter OHV 12-valve V6

Power: 195 horsepower at 5,200 r.p.m.; 230 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 r.p.m.

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Fuel economy: 16 m.p.g. city/23 m.p.g. highway

Wheelbase: 121.2 inches

Length: 202.5 inches

Width: 78.7 inches (excluding mirrors)

Height: 68.9 inches

Curb weight: 4,483 pounds

Where assembled: Windsor

Comparative base prices (not including destination charges)

(Prices for 2008 models not available)

2007 Honda Odyssey EX-L w/rear entertainment: $32,695

2007 Hyundai Entourage Limited: $28,895

2007 Nissan Quest 3.5 SE: $33,900

2007 Toyota Sienna XLE Limited: $35,465

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