by Matthew Wilson
There was once a time when Chrysler minivans ruled the family vehicle market. They strutted up and down the parking lots of facilities hosting cello recitals and soccer practices. My parents had one (a Plymouth Voyager) and I'd bet more than a few of yours did as well. The competition (what there was of it) didn't offer anything approaching Chrysler's value for money, but (a familiar story when it comes to US automakers) higher-quality imports eventually took over.
With SUVs and now crossovers having become the vehicles of choice for more image-conscious parents, minivans have to be either really good or really cheap for customers to want to drive something so uncool. Dodge has kept the price of the Grand Caravan low enough to stay somewhat competitive despite the poor quality in recent years, but the Chrysler Town & Country has become increasingly pointless. The Town & Country is just an upscale Grand Caravan, and upscale crap is still crap. Clearly something needed to be done.
With the massive improvements being made across Chrysler's lineup for 2011, the minivans got a long-overdue reworking. None of the three engines offered before are available for the 2011 model. They have been replaced by a single option, the 3.6-liter Pentastar V6, which is more powerful than any of the engines it replaces without using any more fuel. The 283 horsepower it produces is more than adequate and the six-speed automatic transmission provides smooth acceleration. Of course, when it comes to minivans, the most important part is the interior.
It is here that you will see the biggest improvement over the previous generation, and nowhere was it needed more. Higher quality materials have been used and if you opt for the Town & Country you get a genuinely nice interior, and not just one that's nice for a minivan. This is not to say that the Grand Caravan interior is anything like the old one. Even in base trim, the improvements they have made are obvious. All of the usual multi-media methods for getting your kids to shut up are available, although the Swivel 'n Go option has been eliminated.
This was the option that allowed the middle-row seats to swivel around, positioning them around a stowable card table opposite the back-row seats. Very few customers selected this option when it was offered anyway, so it's unlikely you'll miss it much. Whether you go for the Dodge version or the Chrysler version, you will be getting a newly redesigned grille, which will have either the new Dodge crosshair design or one more akin to the Chrysler 200. Other exterior tweaks have been made, but neither had especially ugly exteriors before, so not much tweaking was needed.
Both versions are arguably better looking than their Japanese competitors, which have been getting a bit too adventurous with their styling as of late. Should you buy either of these minivans, you will finally once again be getting more than just a good price; you will actually be getting a good value for your money.