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2011 Chrysler Town & Country Touring

Doing the Chrysler minivan box trot Add to ...

The minivan. There is no more sensible vehicle in the world and it's been that way for the 27 years since Chrysler took a K-car and slapped the body of a van on top, then added seats.

Yet sales of minivans are down nearly two-thirds from the mid-2000s. The various car companies in Canada think they might sell, oh, 80,000 minivans this year - and 80 per cent of them will more than likely be built by Chrysler in Windsor, Ont.

Chrysler is happy to dominate the minivan world. In particular, Chrysler would really like to sell more loaded, luxurious Town & Country vans.

Think of the T & C as a wonder box with leather - box being the operative word. Since Chrysler launched the upscale T & C 22 years ago, the idea has always been to put a ritzy minivan ride in the lineup and charge accordingly.

You out there might be chuckling at the phrase "ritzy minivan ride." Honestly, it's an oxymoron.

Chrysler has updated the T & C ($39,995-$45,995) with a pretty thorough makeover, though neither the T & C nor the related Grand Caravan has been completely reinvented.

What Chrysler did do for 2011 is improve everything from the suspension to the sheet metal, from reworking the cabin to improving the power train by scrapping the hoary old 4.-0-litre V-6 that had chugged along for too long. The engine now is a very good, very modern Pentastar V-6 (283 hp) mated to a solid six-speed automatic transmission.

Add up all the improvements and what the T & C becomes for 2011 is a rich-looking and nicer-riding family hauler. Chrysler needed to act, too.

The 2010 T & C, ridiculously discounted with thousands and thousands in sales sweeteners, was nothing more than a gussied-up Dodge Grand Caravan. It was not nearly good enough to compete with the best versions of the all-new Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna and Nissan Quest. Not even close.

Chrysler has a fairly compelling story to tell about the 2011 T & C. No, the heavy discounting has not stopped. The 2011 Touring version, for instance, arrived in showrooms with a $6,000 "Consumer Bonus," which is car-speak for discount. Yet the offers are less rich.

That's because the 2011 van really is a huge step forward. Aside from the better powertrain, there is the suspension. It's been redesigned. The Odyssey is clearly superior in ride and handling and the leader of the minivan segment. Yet the T & C feels competitive with the Sienna and the new Quest might have only a slight edge in roadworthiness.

The front-drive T & C is best when rolling along in a straight line. The ride is not as ponderous as your typical mid-size crossover wagon, but there is no getting past the reality of the higher ride height and the 2,115-kilogram curb weight.

At the very least, the T & C is extremely comfortable. It's also stuffed with nearly every amenity a parent could want. The interior looks and feels so much better, too.

The single-piece dashboard looks and feels well-made. Chrysler also addressed nearly every touch point in the cabin: the armrests are softer, the centre console looks crafted not carved from cheap plastic chunks and the materials throughout are of a higher grade.

On the gizmos side of things, Chrysler has UConnect with its Bluetooth, voice-activated commands. Chrysler also offers its Parkview back-up camera, blind-spot detection and rear cross-path detection, which is helpful when backing out of a parking space. The blind-spot detection is easy to use. A yellow dot on the exterior mirror lights up when a vehicle is travelling in your blind spot.

Another plus: the power outlets. They are there to juice gaming devices connected to the dual DVD entertainment system. Rear-seat entertainment systems (with headphones) are in the package, too.

No one but Chrysler has second-row Stow 'n Go seats. They easily tuck into the floor or you can use the bins for storage when the seats are up. Chrysler has made the seats slightly bigger and added a one-touch fold-down function that makes them easier to fold.

You will also find cubbies and storage places dotted about the cabin. Minivan types need them all.

Chrysler did much less to update the exterior, given the company had limited resources for this job. The hood and the lift-gate were reworked and there is a new face and chrome jewellery along the body. I'm indifferent to the changes. The T & C looks like a nice minivan and that's it.

In a nutshell, Chrysler dressed up the T & C's cabin, improved the overall utility and everyone at the company swears the quality is second to none.

Yet Chrysler is below average in every quality study and dead last in the latest from Consumer Reports. Moreover, ALG ranks Chrysler 17th among mainstream vans for resale values.

Chrysler has that big price advantage, though. Combine that with the work done for the 2011 version and it's possible to make a fairly compelling case for a T & C test drive.

jcato@globeandmail.com

Tech specs

2011 Chrysler Town & Country Touring

Type: Luxury minivan

Price: $39,995 ($1,400 freight)

Engine: 3.6-litre V-6

Horsepower/torque: 283 hp/260 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 12.2 city/7.9 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Honda Odyssey, Nissan Quest, Toyota Sienna, Dodge Grand Caravan

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