Road tripping with the Chrysler Town & Country

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by TOM VOELK / Special contributor to KING5.com and NWCN.com

NWCN.com

Posted on September 9, 2011 at 10:15 AM

Updated Friday, Dec 23 at 12:43 PM

The auto industry is as much about marketing as it is transportation. These days, fashionable families are gravitating to crossovers, in part because they give off the active, athletic and, well, just plain cool vibe.

Our family vacation took us to Whistler and Blackcomb in British Columbia, you know, the kind of place where you see lots of crossovers and SUVs. It was a great five days filled with mountain biking, zip line tours, hiking, ATV driving and fishing.

An active families’ life can be made a lot easier with the right vehicle, and as an automotive writer I often have the luxury of choosing a vehicle to fit my particular needs.  It’s why we did NOT take a sport ute.  We chose a van - a Chrysler Town & Country to be exact.

Yeah, I know, vans have a bit of a soccer mom stigma about them, but practical folks know they have an almost magical way of making life easier.  With the space of a small room and more cupholders and storage cubbies than a mountain has trees, there is no other vehicle that works better for parents.  And, as we found out, the T & C works harder than most.

A production note: The video is culled from my little home camera which, unknown to me, developed distorted audio problem halfway through the trip. Sue me, I’m on vacation.

Special kudos to my family for putting up with my constant shooting.  Very few dads record luggage loading and the car ride to the vacation spot, let alone running footage on the highway and seats folding into the floor.  Not the typical family memories you want to keep.  So thanks everyone (including Owen, Kathy and Melinda), I appreciate your patience.

Starting Off in Seattle

Normally we travel pretty light but, hey, with a van there’s loads of room so we’ve dropped the split third row and taken everything (it also flips backward to become a bench for tailgate seating). We’re bringing extra clothes (we are pretty active), outdoor gear, and enough food to comfort a survivalist. This hardly makes a dent in the cargo hold.  I briefly consider taking a couple mountain bikes, but decide to beat up a rental.  A clever touch up top, the roof rack cross rails are removable and store in the side rails.  

The revised Stow ‘n Go seats are more comfortable for 2011 and in this Touring L model they’re heated. Chrysler vans are the only ones where the second and third rows fold flat, handy when discovering a great deal on a Bowflex at a garage sale, then hauling seven people to dinner hours later. 

With the seats usable, the cavernous space they fold into is usable storage. Odyssey and Sienna force you to leave seats behind, and Quest’s system has a much higher load floor. 

And We’re Off…

… beginning five days of wondering if I locked the back door.

Mariko drives first since I’m trying to get footage for the video review.  At five feet tall, she often has a difficult time getting comfortable behind the wheel. Not here. Town and Country has a tilt/telescope wheel AND adjustable pedals so this large vehicle is a perfect fit for a small woman. Visibility is great.

She likes the rear-view camera and a cross path warning system that beeps to signal that traffic is approaching from the side.

The kids, with their tendency to explode into a space with blankets and pillows, settle in immediately. Listing all the nooks, crannies and cupholders would require a very long paragraph. They are everywhere including generous space under the first and third row seats plus the Stow ‘n Go compartment that’s large enough to put three bundles of TP (no, I won’t be doing that test this week, I’m on vacation). The kids also get their own climate control and shades for the side windows. A center console between the front seats slides all the way back to row two.  It’s large enough to hold Mariko’s purse.

An Entertaining Vehicle

If your kids can’t relax in here then you shouldn’t have bought them that espresso Blizzard.  They have brought their own music players, plus the T & C’s entertainment options are nearly limitless (dual video screens and a 30 gig hard drive to store tunes, Sirius radio and Sirius TV with children’s stations my teens aren’t too interested in). Even Mariko climbs into the back seat to watch a movie.

Phones and iPods are supported too, the USB port in one of the two gloveboxes is lighted.  There’s even a 110 outlet and AV jacks to hook up video game consoles. 

The fob operates the powered hatch and side doors and can also remotely start the engine to preheat or cool the cabin.

Blind spot warning in the side mirrors is helpful.  Seems everytime we turn around we find a new feature, like rain sensitive wipers in a brief rainstorm, and a rechargeable flashlight when trying to find my phone at night. This is a deep vehicle.  My single gripe about functionality is that here’s no keyless ignition, a strange omission in a family vehicle where owners often have their hands full of kids and groceries. 

Now You Want a Minivan?

The interior is rich looking with convincing wood-like trim.  The instrument panel is hard plastic but what the driver touches feels good.  The gauge cluster has a jeweled appearance, the steering wheel is heated.  A soft green glow emerges from the ceiling console. In short, only the Nissan Quest gets a better looking cabin.

We are in the process of buying Mariko a new vehicle, and Town & Country’s convenience now has her considering this rig.  Briefly.  After 15 years of driving a station wagon, it would be ridiculous for us to buy a van with my daughter leaving for college next year.  Still, we keep thinking a van would be great for hauling stuff.  And she really likes that there’s a spot for her purse…

Also appealing is the driving dynamic.  The suspension was retuned when T & C and Dodge Caravan was overhauled for 2011 and it goes down the road quite well for a large family vehicle.  Personally, I find cornering to be similar to the 2011 Odyssey.  It quietly and confidently cruises the beautiful Sea to Sky highway leading to Whistler and Blackcomb. 

EPA rates fuel economy at 17 city, 25 highway though at a steady 7O miles an hour the trip computer reads 27 MPG. Americans complain about high gasoline prices.  Currently it’s $5.20 a gallon.  Canadians have been gouged for years, which reminds me, I should have filled up before the boarder.

Power to the Seven People

For Town and Country’s major 2011 refresh, Chrysler made the 283 horsepower Pentastar V6 the only engine.  The transmission is a five speed with a manual shift mode though the high mounted lever is a bit of a reach.  If this Chrysler isn’t the quickest in class it’s very close.  Passing is easy and there’s plenty of power off the line.

Once in Whistler, we hook up with my nephew and family and all seven of us pile in to the van to search for dinner.  At 6’3” my nephew says he has plenty of room in the third row.  The two Stow ‘n Go seats slide fore and aft to give those in the last row a little more leg room.

Style? I will remain neutral on van design.  Really, none of the current designs are considered beautiful, though I think the VW Routan is the best looking of the bunch and it happens to be based on the same platform as Town & Country.  I’ll give second place to Toyota Sienna which is the only van to offer all-wheel drive. 

Town & Country starts at $31.095 with destination.  The Touring L model we are driving is $37, 200.  Very competitive in segment.  Town & Country not only made a good impression on my family, everyone who rode in or watched the Stow ‘n Go seats disappear into the floor was impressed.  Mariko says if our kids were young this would be the right vehicle for her.  I have to agree.

Crossovers might be more fashion forward but they don’t have the effortless utility of vans.  The floor is lower so small kids can get in by themselves.  Unlike crossovers, all seats are roomy and there’s still a good amount of cargo space behind the third row.  So go ahead, embrace the van.  Stylishly practical, Chrysler Town and Country helps an active family live life completely.

Whistler Life

I’d like to give a shout out to all the folks we come across at Whistler and Blackcomb.  Remember, this is where the 2010 winter Olympics were held and it’s an amazing place to visit, even in summer.  Everyone we came across clearly enjoyed their jobs.  Our mountain bike guide Mike Johnston was a great instructor.  This is apparently the first ski area that converted to mountain biking during the summer months and it’s great fun to fly down the mountain.  Mike says they do lots of consulting to other hills.

The folks at Ziptrek gave out great information about the forest, along with the obvious fun.  Even though you’re up 1,100 feet it’s not that scary.  Really.

We had a blast on an ATV tour up the mountain.  Tooling up the side of Whistler is pretty cool and at 6,000 feet there are fresh hot waffles waiting when you get there.  Does life get any better than that?  The ATV Adventures crew also retrieved the GoPro camera mount I forgot on the ATV.  Thanks folks!

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