2008 Chrysler Town & Country
2008 Chrysler Town & Country. Click image to enlarge

Article and photos by Jil McIntosh

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Photo galleries: 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan and 2008 Chrysler Town & Country

Carlsbad, California – From the introduction of its “Magic Wagon” back in 1983, Chrysler has consistently dominated the minivan segment. Now, freshly divorced from Daimler, the company has released all-new versions of its Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country.

The minivan market has shrunk in recent years, for a number of reasons, from empty-nesters downsizing, to those tired of the “soccer mom” label moving into the crowded crossover segment. But even with the exodus, the segment is still third in sales only to compacts and pickup trucks, according to the company; furthermore, with General Motors and Ford getting out of minivans, Chrysler wants to be there when those customers are ready for their next ones.

For 2008 then, the company offers three trim lines of its Grand Caravan – the Canada Value Package, SE and SXT – and Touring and Limited versions of the Town & Country. Conspicuous by its absence is the short-wheelbase Caravan, which is being dropped for 2008.

2008 Dodge Grand Caravan
2008 Dodge Grand Caravan. Click image to enlarge

The official answer is that people who bought the “shortie” did so, not because of its length, but because of its price, and so the company has shoehorned a lot of features into the Grand Caravan while dropping the cost. It has – the base $26,495 sticker is $3,460 under the Grand’s 2007 MSRP – but there was nevertheless a touch of hesitation from company representatives, no doubt since the short wheelbase made up half of all Caravan sales (but only a quarter of sales in the U.S.). Still, no one else makes a shortie either, and the competition’s base prices range from $29,795 for the 2008 Kia Sedona to $33,300 for the 2007 Honda Odyssey. If anything’s going to affect initial sales, it’ll be the last of the 2007 Caravans, which are currently advertised at the sell-off price of $17,495, and probably leave the dealer’s lot for even less.

You’ll notice the difference immediately by the styling; the jellybean shape is gone, replaced with sharper, more chiseled front ends, wider stance, smaller but stronger pillars, lowered sills, and a flatter rear ends with aluminum liftgate that looks, to my eye, almost like the Jeep Commander – which means the front is more attractive than the rear.

2008 Dodge Grand Caravan
2008 Dodge Grand Caravan
2008 Dodge Grand Caravan. Click image to enlarge

The Grand Caravan wears a Charger-style grille, while the Town & Country’s face more resembles the Sebring and Pacifica styling. Surprisingly, and thankfully, the Town & Country version sports only a central ridge, and is spared the multi-ribbed hood that has become Chrysler’s signature. Overall, both vans are handsome for what they are, and look much better in person than they do in photos. Our early-production test vehicles were painted in last year’s colours; the new palette includes some very spiffy and brand-specific shades.

Three V6 engines range across the two brands. A 175-hp 3.3-litre and 197-hp 3.8-litre are carried over from 2007; the 3.3-litre takes flexible fuel and is the default engine in all three Grand Caravan lines, while the 3.8-litre can be added to the SXT. The 3.8-litre is also used in the Town & Country Touring, while a new 251-hp 4.0-litre powers the Limited. The previous four-speed automatic mates to the 3.3-litre, but the other two engines use a new, segment-first six-speed autobox.

The shift lever moves to a new home on the dash
The shift lever moves to a new home on the dash. Click image to enlarge

The gearshift lever moves to a new home on the dash, where it’s out of the way, but awkward to use in manual shift mode. Even so, most buyers will probably never use such a function, and that’s something to be kept in mind when looking objectively at these vans: they’re not meant for driving enthusiasts, but for schlepping the children to school.

So yes, the 3.3-litre does feel anemic on inclines, and the steering is somewhat numb, and the wheel doesn’t return as smoothly as a sports sedan on sharp switchbacks, as if anybody’s ever going to drive like that, outside of a journalist on a press event. Instead, a revised suspension (MacPherson front struts and a new twist-beam rear axle), wider track, improved sound-deadening and reduced steering effort result in a tight-turning van that is genuinely nice to drive, and before you stuff all the children inside, extremely quiet.

Carrying children is the name of the minivan game, of course, and for better or worse, these vans can be optioned to the point that they’ll rival the family room in your house.

2008 Dodge Grand Caravan
2008 Dodge Grand Caravan
2008 Dodge Grand Caravan. Click image to enlarge

Among the choices are a MyGIG hard-drive-based “infotainment” stereo, a premium 506-watt ten-speaker stereo, and a dual-screen rear DVD player that can play two different media at once, such as movies, games or iPod players. A light package puts soft and very attractive greenish-blue halo lighting in the headliner, along with moveable LED reading lamps, like those on airplanes. There are up to 13 cup or bottle holders, 12- and 115-volt power outlets, a removeable and rechargeable flashlight, and a glovebox Chrysler claims is the largest in the segment.

The other big draw to these vans is the seating configurations. The front seats are standard captain’s chairs, and the 60/40 rear bench folds flat into the floor; it’s an easy enough manoeuvre when done manually, but the Town & Country’s can be optioned to power-fold.

2008 Dodge Grand Caravan
2008 Dodge Grand Caravan. Click image to enlarge

The second row is where you’ll have to make your choices. The brilliant Stow ’n Go system remains, of course, which allows you to fold the seats and then tumble them into large bins located in the floor, so that you can change the vehicle’s configuration without removing the seats from the van. No matter what seating option you choose, every model has the covered bins, which are useful for storage. You can choose a bench seat, a bench seat with integrated child seats, the Stow ’n Go folding seats or, new for 2008, Swivel ’n Go.

Swivel 'n Go second-row seats are a new feature
Swivel ‘n Go second-row seats are a new feature. Click image to enlarge

The new system was unveiled last winter at the Auto Show in Detroit, where reaction was mixed. The second-row seats, which have integrated seatbelts, can be swivelled 180 degrees to face the rear; in addition, the system includes a removeable and storable plastic table that goes in the middle. The idea, apparently, is that you can use it for in-car dining, or for board games or other activities.

Some journalists liked it, but I definitely don’t. Along with my belief that we’d all be a little healthier if we stopped scarfing down so much road food, it sets up yet another distraction for drivers who already don’t pay enough attention to traffic. I can just see a parent automatically slamming on the brakes or turning around – in spite of the conversation mirror, another attention-grabber itself – when a child knocks over a juice bottle (for all the cupholders elsewhere, the table is a flat surface), or a toy rolls off and the child takes off the seatbelt and retrieves it. Be aware that the swivel seats don’t fold into the floor: you get Swivel ’n Go or Stow ’n Go, but not both. Also, when the middle seats are turned backwards, they limit how far you can recline the front ones.

2008 Dodge Grand Caravan
2008 Dodge Grand Caravan. Click image to enlarge

Seat-wise, both brands offer comfortable and supportive front chairs, although my six-foot-plus co-driver complained that the Grand Caravan’s manual passenger seat should have been lower, to give him more headroom. I spent some time in the second-row Stow ’n Go seats, and there’s a price to be paid for their foldability: the foam is thinner, and they get very hard, very fast. Children probably won’t mind, but adults on longer trips will definitely find them unpleasant after a while.

2008 Chrysler Town & Country
2008 Dodge Grand Caravan
2008 Chrysler Town & Country (top) and 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan. Click image to enlarge

The company says it has listened to criticism of its interior fit and finish, and so both models are much improved, but still not as good as they could be. Some of the plastics look and feel flimsy, especially on the centre stack, where they’re really out of place on the pricey Town & Country Limited. A separate eyebrow over the stack has a narrow trough where it meets the dash cover, and it’s going to be difficult to clean once it fills up with dirt or crumbs.

There is none of the bare-bones that started the Dodge line-up in previous years; even the $26,495 Canada Value Package includes air conditioning, CD/MP3 stereo, 16-inch wheels, tilt wheel, power locks with keyless entry, power windows, conversation mirror and front overhead console, along with four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, electronic stability control, traction control, and curtain airbags for all three rows. The $28,795 SE includes Stow ’n Go, YES Essentials stain-resistant fabric, removable floor console and cruise control, while the $30,495 SXT adds second-row power windows, power rear vent windows, remote starter, heated mirrors, power-adjustable pedals, fog lamps, 16-inch aluminum wheels and leather-wrapped wheel.

2008 Chrysler Town & Country
2008 Dodge Grand Caravan
2008 Chrysler Town & Country (top) and 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan. Click image to enlarge

On the Chrysler side, the $35,995 Touring includes the Grand Caravan SXT’s features, plus a power driver’s seat, power sliding doors and liftgate, three-zone climate control, garage door opener and auto-dimming driver’s side mirror; the $42,895 Limited lays on leather seats, window shades, MyGIG with SIRIUS satellite radio, park assist with backup camera, premium console, auto-dimming rearview mirror, 17-inch chrome-clad wheels and woodgrain interior accents. Each model then has options or packages that can be added; the Grand Caravan can also be ordered as a cargo van for commercial use.

While they’re probably the least-sexiest vehicles on the road, I find minivans extremely useful, and far preferable to three-row crossovers or SUVs when I have to carry a lot of people. The combination of space, sliding doors, multiple configurations and a car-like ride is unbeatable when I have people and stuff to haul. This redesign is well done, and combined with the aggressive pricing, should help maintain Chrysler’s dominance in a segment that simply refuses to go away.


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