When the Detroit Auto Show comes around, the AutoGuide.com team tries to book cars that seem fitting for the event. With a four-hour drive from our offices to the mean streets of Detroit and a number of evening receptions to attend, the cars we test during this annual journey tend to be comfy, cool and complete with nice features for navigating.
Engine: 3.6-liter V6 with 283 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque.
Transmission: Six-speed automatic.
Fuel Economy: 17 mpg city, 25 mpg highway.
Pricing: Starts from $29,995.
This year was looking no different: News editor Stephen Elmer had a Chevy Tahoe lined up, with 4G LTE to help make the road trip entertaining. Boss man Colum Wood was rocking the posh Cadillac ATS with all-wheel drive to conquer the winter weather. Road test editor Mike Schlee found himself in a pumpkin orange Smart fortwo, which was fuel-friendly and the perfect size for the big city. And myself? Oh, a Chrysler Town & Country. I was soccer-dad Sami for the week, but I learned that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The Town & Country isn’t new, but what needs to be new about it? Back in 1983, Chrysler practically invented the minivan as we know it. Badged the Grand Caravan back then, the company quickly added variants to its other brands and for nearly 30 years, minivans were the only way to transport a family and all of their stuff.
Only a few things have lasting power like that. In 1983, Michael Jackson unveiled the moonwalk and the Thriller music video. Wheel of Fortune started its syndicated run. McDonald’s unleashed the McNugget. Thirty years later and we still have slick dance moves, puzzle game shows, fried chicken chunks and minivans, but just barely on all counts. Consumers are becoming more food conscious, game shows are being upended by cable-cutters or reality TV programs, and pop superstars can barely dance these days.
And when it comes to minivans, cooler and more stylish crossovers have taken over. But are they better? As it turned out on our journey to Detroit, the answer is no. Nothing really compares to the practical breadbox design that offers the most passenger space and flexible cargo capacity. Let’s recap our Detroit journey, shall we?
Road Trip Time
It started on the Sunday before the show, which turned out to be a real headache in terms of weather. While the drive to Detroit from our offices typically takes about four hours, I recall hearing stories from local journalists who were scheduled to fly but saw serious delays due to strong winds and heavy snowfall. My colleagues were also describing icy roads that were turning the ditches that line the highway into automotive graveyards.
Task number one: pick up Managing Editor Jodi Lai right from her doorstep. It was raining in the city, so when I arrived at Jodi’s house, I opened the power-operated tailgate and sliding door so she didn’t have to stand in the rain to load up. Her single bag, sat along my three bags (hey, I have a hard time choosing what to wear sometimes) in the Town & Country’s 31.1 cubic feet of cargo space behind the third row. If this was a three-row crossover, we may have needed to re-arrange some stuff or carefully stack our items (don’t put anything on my bags or my clothes will wrinkle!) but the Town & Country has more than 10 extra cubic feet of storage compared to the Santa Fe and Honda Pilot.
She hops in and we remark how no other car but a minivan and maybe a Rolls-Royce have power doors as standard equipment.
As soon as Jodi gets in, she unloads her bag: candy, nuts, chips – you name it – is being passed around the van and being stashed in the van’s numerous storage cubbies. She reclines the second-row seat all the way back, notes one of two wide-screen monitors mounted to the roof of the van, and it looks like she’s about to chill out in first-class style. Sadly, she doesn’t like my movie choices and doesn’t have a HDMI cable to plug her laptop in, so she kicks backs, turns on the heated seats, adjusts the temperature, and we hit the road.
The highway is manageable even with the nasty weather, but most drivers are taking it easy. Jodi and I are scheduled to hit Detroit before the evening activities begin, so we can check into our hotels and spruce up for the reveals of the latest hot cars, but with the pace that everyone else on the road is going at, we get worried about the time of arrival.
Stepping on the right pedal gives us a bit more confidence in the trip, as the 3.6-liter V6 engine under the hood gets going. With 283 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque, the Town & Country has enough power to pass slower cars on the highway, but it isn’t what you’d call fast. Having to pull aside to let other cars pass is a frequent task, something I don’t remember doing in the three-row Ford Flex or Explorer, both of which can be had with turbocharged V6 engines with more than 300 horsepower.
With an as-tested average of about 22.5 mpg, the Town & Country is on par with other front-wheel drive three-row crossovers or minivans in terms of fuel economy. It is worth pointing out that the Town & Country is only available with front-wheel drive, while other minivans like the Toyota Sienna and almost every three-row crossover can be had with all-wheel drive.
— Jodi Lai (@DrivingMissJodi) January 10, 2016
About two hours into our drive, and the highways are the mess we were warned about. We count 14 cars in the ditch and five abandoned tractor-trailers. There is a ton of ice on the roads and the wind is pushing the van hard, the boxy design acting like a sail on the roads. I am as awake as can be to keep it tracking straight, but it’s hard to not gawk at the 18-wheelers jackknifed on the side of the road. The steering of the van is not super tight or twitchy, and allowed for slow, calculated control of the car in this tough situation.
The dicey ride finally comes to an end and we arrive at our hotel, where we can freshen up and hit the pre-NAIAS events. Jodi and I are going to separate reveals in different parts of Detroit. While I expected to easily find our destinations on the Town & Country’s navigation system, it was surprising to see that the van does not use the Uconnect system that is so loved around the office. In its place is a small, outdated looking system that was slow to process the addresses we entered.
Without an icy highway to distract me, it’s easy to see that the interior of the Town & Country is aging and is hardly the premium benchmark it was back in 2008 when this generation of Town & Country was first introduced. There’s hard plastic everywhere, and the cluster of buttons in the middle of the dashboard has a messy design. Like the infotainment system, the whole interior is looking old.
But the heated steering wheel and seats are a huge bonus during this time of year. So is the remote start that will help warm up the big van before you hit the road. But none of this is unique to the Town & Country, or even minivans. The previously mentioned Ford crossovers spring to mind, as does the Kia Sedona.
Starting at just under $31,000, the Town & Country is pretty affordable, but our model was loaded up, and rang in at just around $41,000. That’s not bad for a fully loaded family hauler, but, as noted, there are more feature-filled crossovers out there that offer more power, better styling and all-wheel drive.
The Verdict: 2016 Chrysler Town and Country Review
After pioneering the segment 33 years ago, Chrysler’s van now seems like it’s a step behind the competition, but fortunately, the automaker is ready to give customers a whole new experience later this year. Dumping the Town & Country name, Chrysler will instead offer a minivan with the Pacifica nameplate, one with slick new styling (inside and out), the company’s awesome Uconnect infotainment system and a fuel-friendly plug-in hybrid powertrain that’s also all-wheel drive.
One question remains though: Why ditch the long-standing Town & Country name for a badge that was retired after just one generation of vehicle? “It’s an all-new vehicle from the ground up, and Chrysler thought the name should reflect that,” our contact at the company explained. “The original Pacifica was a crossover ahead of its time and redefined its segment when introduced. Today’s Pacifica redefines the minivan segment too, with nearly 40 new minivan-first innovations.”
That is yet to be determined, but it does give hope for car buyers that need a modern van for their families.