COAL: 1996 Chrysler Town & Country- Yes, a Minivan COAL

Chrysler has needed saving a few times in the past few decades.  I can’t keep track of all the different groups who have been tasked with saving Chrysler:  governments (Canada and US), foreign automobile corporations, domestic private equity firms, etc.

Cars have done some of the saving too.  The K car saved Chrysler.  The dozen or more derivatives off the K chassis certainly helped.  Chrysler struck it rich with minivans based on the K platform.  In the good times, Chrysler was selling a half million minivans per year.

All their early minivans were based off the K chassis.  But the new for 1996 minivans were supposedly a “clean sheet” redesign, planned as a minivan from day one.  We had a small, growing family, and my wife drove an early 90s Grand Caravan.  When it was time to “trade up” there wasn’t any real competition.  We would get a third-generation Chrysler/Dodge/Plymouth of some kind, for sure.   We loved the new styling, the aerodynamic low hood and the steeply raked windshield.  Chrysler’s new minivans had standard ABS, and available sliding doors on both sides.  At the time, the slider on the driver’s side was positively revolutionary!

Also, remember what the alternatives were in this era: The Mercury Villager, the Ford Aerostar, the Chevy Lumina APV (also the Astro) and the Toyota Previa.  Some of the competition was a joke compared to the Town & Country (I’m thinking of the Astro and Aerostar specifically).  We paid a lot for our ‘96 T & C, but oftentimes you get what you pay for.

Besides the three brand choices, there were two wheelbases.  The one we chose was the long Chrysler.  Ours had every available option except for all wheel drive.  It had dual zone HVAC, rear A/C, leather, alloy wheels etc.  A very nice vehicle.

I found the van very ergonomically well-thought out.  The placement of most of the controls seemed intuitive.  I was surprised the first time we stopped for gas, it had 20-gallon fuel tank, larger than we expected.  These vans were still designed to take a 4 x 8 sheet of plywood with the seats removed.  They were roomy on the inside, and somehow did not look too large on the outside.  All the outside glass hung down over the sheetmetal to make the greenhouse appear larger.  Cool design trick.

Speaking of engineering, a seemingly inconsequential thing that impressed me was the washer fluid container.  The first time the light came on indicating “Washer Fluid Low” I picked up some at the store.  I popped the hood, began pouring the gallon in… and it took the whole gallon – precisely one gallon!  A silly thing maybe, but the light came on when it would accept a gallon, not when empty.  In the majority of cars I’ve owned there always seemed to be a quart or half-quart of washer fluid left in the bottom of the gallon jug.  Too little to keep, too much to throw away.

Back to the engineering.  If I remember correctly, Chrysler spent a fortune on R & D.  The engineering budget was huge, plus they put on a bunch of customer clinics.  This was the pinnacle of Chrysler Corporation, at least in my eyes.   Chrysler was attracting buyers who would not normally choose the five-pointed star.   Good ol ‘merica was beating the imports!

We kept our van for about three years and put a lot of miles on it.  It was reliable, but in the end it had a water pump (weird, external one) which crapped out.  We decided to get something else.  I think I had the worst case of buyer’s remorse ever when we traded it in.  We got a new half-ton Chevy Express passenger van, but it was like going back in time.

I’ve never been a big Chrysler fan, but I was for a time in the late 1990s.