Nobody asked me, but . . .

I knew I was in trouble two seconds after I finished organizing all the material I had been gathering on Chrysler’s fifth-generation minivan: The stack of paper was about two inches high, and that didn’t include electronic data stored on my computer.  But I guess that should be expected when you’re dealing with an automotive transportation legend.

Family wheels have come a long way since the introduction of the original K-car-based Dodge Caravan in 1984.   And the all-new 2008 Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan set the family transportation standard with clean, crisp styling, five different models (two Dodge, three Chrysler), three distinct seating and storage systems, unique entertainment systems and a plethora of safety features. Add in three powertrain options, clever interior features and industry-leading functionality and you have a recipe for success in a segment that has grown in numbers of entries but shrunk in total sales during the past decade.

And, finally, there’s a minivan from Detroit that can go mano-a-mano with the Toyota Siennas and Honda Odysseys of the world in the areas of fit, finish and build quality.

For 2008 each of the five Chrysler/Dodge minivans offers more standard equipment, including standard all-row side curtain air bags and Electronic Stability Program (ESP) and an average price roughly $2,000 less than outgoing models.  The MSRP of the least expensive Dodge Grand Caravan model is $21,740 (plus $730 destination). The more up-market Chrysler Town & Country Touring version I tested starts at $27,700 (plus $730) and, according to Chrysler, offers $2,395 better value than its predecessor at an $835 lower MSRP.

Powertrain choices for the Chrysler versions include 3.8- (T&C Touring) and 4.0-liter (T&C Limited) V-6 aluminum engines producing 197 and 251 horsepower, respectively, (both mated to a new six-speed automatic) returning EPA estimated 16 city/23 highway mpg and a 175 bhp 3.3-liter flex-fuel-capable V-6 aluminum engine (T&C LX) mated to a four-speed auto trans (estimated EPA of 17/24 mpg).

The 197 ponies in the Touring I evaluated are shy of the horsepower of the standard 3.5-liter V6s in every Odyssey and Sienna model by nearly 50-70 horsepower.  The new 4.0-liter puts the T&C in the same performance ballpark, but you have to ante up for the upscale Limited version that starts at $35,670.  Most buyers will find the 3.8-liter perfectly adequate.  Just don’t expect to zip up hills fully loaded with reckless abandon.

The shift lever sprouts from the dash—a real space saving location—and it connects to a 6-speed automatic that does a terrific job of keeping the revs in the torquey, portion of the power curve and helping to compensate for the engine’s lower horsepower rating versus the competition.

True to its name, the Touring is nicely composed when rolling down an Interstate.  The ride is supple and it’s compliant over bumps and berms.  And the steering, brakes and handling have been retuned to provide the driver with a more responsive, but still a minivan, driving experience.  Those who tempt the limits of tire/road adhesion will find the standard Electronic Stability Program (ESP) helpful to both lower pulse and insurance rates.

With every new generation of minivan Chrysler outdoes itself in the area of interior convenience and innovation.  A V6 engine, long wheelbase, driver’s side airbag, integrated child safety seat, Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle (ULEV), driver’s side sliding door, heated front seats, power liftgate, three-zone automatic temperature control and Stow ‘n Go™ fold-in-the-floor second and third row seats are all industry firsts for Chrysler.

And the beat goes on: A Swivel ‘n Go™ seat system (second-row seats swivel 180 degrees rearward and includes a removable table that installs between the second and third rows), an umbrella holder, a dual DVD system that can play different media at the same time, a 6-speed automatic, first- and second-row heated seats in cloth or leather, a removable, rechargeable LED flashlight, and an integrated child booster seat are among the innovative “first’s offered on the 2008 Town & Country.  Combine these firsts with an extensive array of standard and optional functionality and the T&C leaves the competition with their cupholders running over

The Magic Wagon, as the first minivan was called, is credited with saving Chrysler back in the early 1980s.  I’m betting that the newest version will also work its magic and have a similar impact on the recently retooled Chrysler Corporation.

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