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2004 Minivan Buyer's Guide
by Martha Hindes

2005 Chrysler Town&Country

Since it debuted, then later "leapfrogged" its contenders - and was launched, airborne, over a crowded room of gasping spectators just to prove it - Chrysler's minivan has contentiously staked a claim as king. On the brink of its third decade with some 10 million already sold, the self-proclaimed minivan creator proves it won't easily relinquish that title.

The reinvented 2005 Chrysler Town & Country (and kin Dodge Caravan) was re-engineered from the inside out. When they went public in early '04, folks climbed all over to learn where the second row seating had disappeared. Miracle seats, dubbed "Stow 'n Go," set competitors' engineers and designers scrambling in frantic pursuit. Previously, without enough hoisting muscle to remove them, the mid-row seating simply stayed in place. Now, some one-handed folds and flops make all rearward seating quickly vanish down to floor level and leave an uncluttered deck for - can you believe - a four-person inflatable watercraft. (We successfully moved 4-foot by 8-foot sheeting, laid flat, during testing.) With seats up, there are snug under-floor bins for six cubic feet of gear, games, or even a misbehaving stuffed toy needing momentary banishment by a feisty four-year-old owner.

These new minivans go two distinct ways: the more practical volume Caravan and the handsome, up market Town & Country, with a full line of bell-and-whistle amenities and a tad more formal look from rich mahogany "wood grain" trim. There's front-drive only for '05. But safety ranks high. Side curtain airbags are options, while all have standard inflatable knee bolsters for drivers. Engines are a 3.3-liter or 3.8-liter V-6. And power, power everywhere moves lift gate, sliding side doors with alarm, DVD system for rear passengers (on a neat roof rail), navigation system and a backup warning option. Chrysler adds UConnect as a hands free wireless Bluetooth cell phone link. The just-under $20K base would look good on the sticker, but expect to spring for as much as $14,000-plus more if you want more "hop" in your version.