While Chrysler is frequently credited with inventing the minivan, that honor actually goes to a company called Stout, which offered its Scarab minivan way back in 1936. Quite progressive, that vehicle offered a feature considered innovative even today; the Scarab featured a removable table and second row seats capable of rotating 180 degrees to face the rear – a feature currently marketed by Chrysler as “Swivel 'n Go”.
Additionally, the first year Chrysler offered a minivan, Toyota’s Previa came to market too. So while Chrysler didn’t invent the minivan per se, they are well renowned for the genre. The first modern American manufacturer to rejuvenate the offering, Chrysler arguably deserves considerable recognition for the overall advancement of the segment.
The first Town & Country was offered in 1989, as a 1990 model — which ironically was the last year of the first generation of Chrysler’s minivans. Conceived as a luxurious version of the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager, the Chrysler Town & Country introduced such niceties as gathered leather seating, front and rear air conditioning, power windows, power locks, and an Infinity sound system as standard equipment, in addition to every available option of its lesser-priced Dodge siblings. Thankfully though, the faux wood paneling decals it wore so proudly are gone.
Five generations of the Town & Country have been offered to date. This article focuses on the third, fourth and fifth generations of the minivan.
Chrysler Town & Country: 1996 – 2000
The 1996 Chrysler Town & Country featured a number of innovations its competitors scrambled to duplicate in subsequent years. Chief among these was the driver’s side sliding door. While their ubiquity today gives cause to wonder what’s so innovative, when minivans were offered initially passengers could enter and exit the rear of the van from one side only.
When Plymouth’s Voyager and Grand Voyager models were killed, this iteration of the T&C tried to fill the gap by offering lower trim levels designated LX & SX. To get the really good stuff, you had to opt for the LXi model, which was eventually relabeled the Limited. Going this route got you leather upholstery for the interior, eight-way power adjustable front seats, an upgraded Infinity sound system with a cassette/CD player, and a dual zone climate control system.
Three engines were offered to power the 3rd generation T&C’s during this model run. At launch, the base engine was a 158-horsepower 3.3-liter V-6. The upgrade was a 166-horsepower, 3.8. In ’98, the 3.8 got a power increase to 180 horsepower, making ’98 models and forward the most coveted iterations of the GEN3 T&C. A four-speed automatic transmission served with each engine throughout the 3rd generation model run.
Chrysler Town & Country: 2001 – 2007
The fourth version of the Town & Country was introduced in 2001. Eventually offered in long wheelbase and short wheelbase iterations, the 2k1 Town & Country debuted in long wheelbase form. Short wheelbase Chrysler minivans from ’01 to ’05 were badged Voyagers, having been carried over to the Chrysler brand from the discontinuation of the Plymouth nameplate.
For power, the 4th generation Chrysler Town & Country used a 180-horsepower, 3.3-liter V-6 engine capable of generating 205 ft-lbs of torque as its base engine. The upgrade was a 215-horsepower, 3.8-liter V-6 with 245 ft-lbs of torque. Mated to a four-speed automatic transmission, these powerplants carried the Town & Country throughout this model run. While the majority of Town & Countrys were front-drive, all-wheel drive was an option until 2005.
In fact, model year 2005 was significant overall in the development of the 4th generation Town & Country. First of all, the short wheelbase version of the minivan, previously known as Voyager, became known as a Town & Country in 2005. That year also marked the debut of Chrysler’s innovative Stow ‘n Go seating system. Eliminating the need to remove the heavy seats from the rear section of the minivan to improve cargo capacity, Stow ‘n Go seats fold into the floor of the Town & Country, leaving the rear compartment’s floor flat, to ease loading and transporting large objects. Additionally, side curtain airbags were offered in the Town & Country for the first time in 2005.
Chrysler Town & Country: 2008 – 2010
By 2007, the Town & Country was under serious assault from a number of competitors. In fact, the competition was so fierce in the segment, both Ford and Chevrolet eventually abdicated the market to imports from Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Kia, and Hyundai. Chrysler soldiered on, though it is universally agreed the Town & Countrys from this era are pretty much also-rans.
Cheap interior materials, underpowered engines (compared to the competition), and a dearth of modern features like rear backup cameras hamstrung the 5th generation Town & Country right out of the gate. The only bright spot was the appropriation of the 1936 Scarab’s Swivel ‘n Go seating concept. And even this came with compromises in legroom for adults, making it difficult for anyone other than children to benefit from the feature.
Three trim levels were offered — LX, Touring and Limited — with each getting its own specific engine. LX got a 175-hp 3.3-liter V-6 with a four-speed automatic transmission; Touring used a 197-hp, 3.8-liter V-6 with a six-speed automatic; and Limited got a 251-horsepower 4.0-liter V-6 with a six-speed automatic. This latter combination makes the Limited the Chrysler Town & Country of choice for early 5th generation models.
Chrysler Town & Country: Current Version
We said early 5th generation versions earlier because the current Chrysler Town & Country, while significantly reworked for model year 2011, is still considered a part of 5th generation for the model nonetheless. However, it is improved considerably over the ’08 to’10 issues.
The suspension was reworked to improve ride and handling, while Chrysler’s new 283-horsepower, 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 engine replaced all the older engine choices across the board. Upscale features like automatic headlights and wipers, a power tailgate, rear parking sensors, power-adjustable pedals and driver seat, and a touchscreen stereo interface are standard features.
If you really want to get jiggy with your Town & Country, you can go for serious luxury with heated leather seats, a heated steering wheel and xenon headlights. But wait, there’s more! How about rear window shades, a power-folding third row and a twin-screen entertainment system with Sirius TV? Chrysler is now quite serious about running in the segment it used to own.
Chrysler Town & Country: Summary
All in all, we have a bit of difficulty recommending Town & Countrys built between 2000 and 2010. There were a number of reliability issues, more than an average rate of recalls, and the vehicles were just not as well built, powered, or equipped as the competition.
If you have the means, and absolutely MUST have a Town & Country, the 2011 model is looking pretty good so far. But this is a used car buyer’s guide, so plugging that one that kinda defeats our purpose doesn’t it? The good news is everyone pretty much knows those other versions of the Town & Country aren’t the sharpest kids in the class — and they are priced accordingly.
We always advise running an Internet search for recalls, and you’d do extra well to do so in this case. Similarly, you absolutely want to make sure you get a pre-purchase inspection done by a trusted professional mechanic — one solidly versed in Chrysler’s minivans — before you buy.
You may also be interested in...
Chrysler, Fiat and Lancia to Merge Future Lineups
10 Things You Need To Know About The 2012 Chrysler Town & Country
2012 Chrysler Town & Country: Video Road Test and Review
Detroit News: Chrysler Town & Country Is “Best Family Hauler”
Autobytel Top 10: Best Cars for the Tailgate Party
2012 Nissan NV Road Test & Review