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A new, roomier breed of minivan

Many women feel that a minivan makes them seem like uninteresting soccer moms. That's not the case with the redesigned '08 Town & Country Limited.

Minivan sales were getting kicked in the liftgate long before gasoline prices started hitching rides on NASA space mules.

It's that image thing, particularly among women. Many of them feel that a minivan makes them seem like uninteresting soccer moms. So they opt for the "adventurous" look of a crossover SUV, which is really their father's Oldsmobile station wagon.

I've always wondered about people whose self-image depends on an automobile. And I've been a bit surprised by the sea changes those image concerns have helped to create: Sales have tailed off enough that Ford and General Motors have gotten out of the minivan game, and Chrysler has had to significantly reduce the prices of its redesigned 2008 Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan.

It's a shame that the minivan has fallen on such hard times because it makes so much sense. The redesigned 2008 Town & Country Limited I just spent a week with was comfortable, carlike, and a lot roomier and more versatile than any crossover I've been in.

This fifth-generation vehicle from the company that invented the minivan a quarter-century ago also boasted a number of head-turning innovations known in the industry as "wow factors."

There was the Swivel 'n Go feature, a $495 option that allows you to turn the back of the T&C into an Orient Express dining car. There were also a plethora of backseat juvenile entertainment outlets, including DVD screens, a music and video-storing hard drive, and the first use of live satellite TV in a production vehicle. (The live TV service, free the first year, includes Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel and the Cartoon Network.)

Swivel 'n Go is the wow factor centerpiece in the new T&C. It works like this: The second-row bucket seats pivot to become rear facing. A table (stored in the floor) is then erected between the now rear-facing second row and the front-facing third-row seats, creating a place for four to eat or play games. (Food, appetites, linen, silverware and bud vases are not furnished by Chrysler.)

Those who don't want to host an intimate dinner in the backseat - and want to maximize the T&C's considerable cargo space - can opt for the Stow 'n Go feature. Introduced in 2005, this wrinkle allows the second- and third-row seats to be lowered into compartments beneath the floor. The compartments serve as storage space when the seats are upright.

Either of these features is available with a slick, power-folding third-row seat (a $595 option). By pushing different buttons, you can put the split third row in a normal seating position, fold one or both sections into the floor, and get either seat section to do a back flip, creating a seating situation where the person is facing rearward.

The redesigned T&C's styling is a bit boxier and more functional than its more rounded predecessors, and that's caused some pause in the motor press. But, like the Bauhaus Boys, I think that form ought to follow function, and there is a certain elegance in the way the T&C does that.

The T&C Limited's interior is clean, creative design with classy touches like soft, supple leather and a Jaguaresque analog clock with bezel. That interior is as quiet as it is handsome, thanks to enhancements such as thicker window glass.

The tester also boasted five-star crash ratings, a comfortable ride and surprisingly good handling. Power was more than adequate, thanks to its new engine: a 251-horsepower, 4-liter V-6 borrowed from the Pacifica. That engine delivered unexpectedly decent mileage. While it has EPAs of 16 city and 23 highway, I got 22.3 in largely city driving.

The Limited's assorted delights don't come cheap. The T&C may start in the low 20s, but the top-of-the-line Limited bases at $35,670.


Chrysler Town & Country Limited

Base price: $35,670.

As tested: $39,785.

Standard gear: A full complement of luxury features ranging from power windows in the power sliding doors to heated front and second-row seats.

Options: The back seat dining car, all those adult and kiddie electronics, and the power third seat.

Handling: Quite carlike.

Ride comfort: High marks.

Fuel economy: 16 m.p.g. city, 23 highway.

Engine performance: Lively.

Styling: Functional.

Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles, unlimited miles on power train.