Chrysler Gambles on Minivans Date posted: 08-05-2007 Chrysler often zigs while others zag, and it has done so rather successfully over the years. With its fifth-generation 2008 Chrysler Town & Country and 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan minivans soon arriving in showrooms, Chrysler is doing it again. It has decided to stick with the minivan while other manufacturers trade in minivans for crossovers. Is it a safe bet for Chrysler or risky business? Safe Bet? Chrysler is banking on the size and relative stability of the still-large minivan market. Industrywide, minivans account for 1 million to 1.1 million sales year in and year out, although Edmunds.com statistics show minivan sales dipped below the million mark last year. "Despite the relative recent decline in sales, minivans are still generating more than 70,000 sales on average every month so far this year," says Jesse Toprak, Edmunds.com's executive director of industry analysis. To put this in perspective, Toprak points out that large SUVs have averaged about 56,000 units a month. "Minivans may not be as cool in terms of their image, but they are still a good source of cool cash for the automakers," notes Toprak. "There is still stable and significant demand for minivans. It is difficult to find a perfect substitute for minivans, especially for families with children." Fewer Competitors, Less Complexity While its execs aren't saying so aloud, Chrysler could grab even more sales and market share with its fifth-generation family hauler. General Motors and Ford, neither of which ever got the minivan formula right, have dropped from the fray to build crossover utilities instead. Honda, Hyundai, Kia and Toyota remain formidable competitors in the minivan segment, however. And Volkswagen will introduce a minivan — one being built by Chrysler based on Chrysler's minivans. Chrysler also is holding the cards when it comes to minivan leadership. Chrysler invented the modern-day minivan, and it is still busily inventing new features for the package. Chrysler has remained the leader in the minivan segment; some 50 percent of it for years and now still at 38 percent. Since Chrysler introduced its first minivan in 1982, it has sold more than 12 million copies. Those 12 million buyers would fill four lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic from San Diego to New York City. Or picture a Chrysler minivan for every man, woman and child in New York City. This is a big family. From a cost point of view, Chrysler's infrastructure for minivans is in place. Plants in Windsor, Ontario, and St. Louis have long been outfitted for minivan production. Chrysler also could benefit on the cost front now that it has reduced the complexity of the model lineup for the 2008 minivans. It has ditched the short-wheelbase versions and all-wheel drive. It has reduced the 11,000 possible configurations of the 2007 model to a mere 1,300 for the 2008 edition. Chrysler is offering just two models — the Chrysler Town & Country and the Dodge Grand Caravan — in five versions, with three seating and storage systems and a choice of three powertrains, including a new 4.0-liter V6 with a six-speed automatic. A Good Minivan at a Good Price Chrysler's new minivans appear to have the goods. "The new minivans from Chrysler feature many unique options and functionalities that will help them stand out in their competition with the Japanese products," says Toprak, who got to test-drive the minivans in San Diego late last month. The Chrysler minivan's newest feature is Swivel 'n Go second-row seats, which swivel 180 degrees to face the third row. A removable table installs between the two rows. Other new goodies include stain-resistant, odor-resistant seat fabrics, Sirius satellite television with three family channels and (of course) DVD systems. And Chrysler is offering the new minivans at the right price. Chrysler has lowered prices an average of $2,000 and added standard features. "The new starting price of $22,470 puts Chrysler at a significant advantage over its competitors, as it is the second-lowest starting price of any minivan," says Alex Rosten, Edmunds.com's manager of pricing and industry analysis. "That low price will certainly appeal to young families and bargain hunters. Plus, the standard equipment list is pretty substantial." The Stretch: a Minivan Rebirth Chrysler also is predicting something of a resurgence in minivan sales through 2012. Its corporate marketing forecasters see an increase in family size. The tipping point for selecting a minivan is two or more children, they say. Chrysler also bets that Echo Boomers — children of Baby Boomers — will buy minivans once they start families of their own, causing an uptick in minivan sales. Echo Boomers will reach their peak child-bearing years during the life cycle of Chrysler's fifth-generation models, company marketers say. Will children raised in minivans really buy them? This seems a stretch to us. Baby Boomers wholeheartedly rejected the station wagons that carried them as children. In the interim, Chrysler is targeting the 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan toward married couples between 30 and 44 years old, with two or more children under the age of 12. The Chrysler Town & Country aims at married couples between 35 and 45 years old with two or more children older than age 6 at home, as well as older empty-nesters looking for recreational transportation. Crossovers: the Wild Card The risk to Chrysler's bet on the minivan's future lies in the recent decline in the minivan market. In fact, the minivan's share of the entire U.S. market has been in steady decline since 2004, according to figures from Edmunds.com. For the 2007 calendar year-to-date, sales are down 20.4 percent, largely due to the fact that General Motors and Ford have abandoned the segment. What's more, incentives on minivans are among the highest in the industry. They hit an all-time high in April at $3,905 per unit, according to Edmunds.com's Total Cost of IncentivesSM, which considers all of the promotional money an automaker puts into a vehicle. It dropped only a bit in June, when it was $3,227. Further, interest in minivans is waning. In June, Edmunds.com's analysis of consumer purchase intent, based on the vehicles Edmunds shoppers were considering, showed that interest in minivans is decreasing more than any other segment. Crossovers, of course, are the wild card. Crossover utilities represent the fastest-growing segment the industry has seen in years, and they could make the minivan obsolete. Some 25 years ago, the minivan launched Chrysler into newfound profitability and helped the company reinvent its products in every segment. With the new fifth-generation minivan, Chrysler is betting that history might repeat itself. It's a big gamble, no matter how you look at it. ----- Get Over Yourself Gone is the Grand Caravan's jellybean shape; the new van looks a little tougher, especially the Dodge variant. By Brian Moody, Road Test Editor Date posted: 08-02-2007 251-hp 4.0-liter V6 - 3-source entertainment system - Power-folding third-row seat - New Swivel n' Go seats If you don't like the minivan, you just need to get over yourself. Today's minivan is as much a part of the American family as sibling rivalry and Pop-Tarts. It's practical, versatile and it's what your family wants. Plus, people buy them, just like Pop-Tarts. And here comes the all-new 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan. Despite swirling rumors of the minivan segment collapsing under the threat of crossover utilities, one in every 15 new vehicles sold in the U.S. is a minivan and about 40 percent of these vans are sold by Chrysler and Dodge. Americans have consistently purchased about 1 million minivans each year since 1993. Although both Ford and General Motors simply aren't going to build minivans anymore, Chrysler has no intention of walking away from the segment it created almost 25 years ago. Spongebob Squarevan The Chrysler Town & Country is distinguished by round headlights, a unique grille and a full list of features, including a 4.0-liter V6. You may have seen pictures of the new van. You may have winced in horror. The truth is, both the 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan and 2008 Chrysler Town & Country are much better-looking up close. Dave Smith, manager of vehicle synthesis for the Chrysler Group, says, "The styling change from the old jellybean shape to the current, more chiseled look is intended to translate the low-roof look of the Dodge Magnum and Chrysler 300 into a minivan." Two Grand Caravan trim levels are offered: base SE and midlevel SXT. The Chrysler Town & Country has all the same available features as the Caravan but adds an upscale, top-of-the-line Limited version that includes many of the SXT's options as standard equipment. Every version of the new minivan comes with more standard safety features than the previous version, regardless of trim level. Side curtain airbags for all three rows, stability control and traction control are all standard. Safety options include an integrated child-booster seat, rear parking sensors and a rear parking camera. The Grand Caravan SE comes standard with a flex-fuel (gasoline or an E85 blend), 175-horsepower 3.3-liter V6. It's distinguished by a decent amount of standard comfort features like keyless entry (Honey, are the keys in the diaper bag?), fold-away outside mirrors (if we park the bicycles over there, can we still get the van in the garage, you think?) and a flip-down kiddie mirror (Nicholas, stop that right now!). The Grand Caravan SXT adds a 197-hp 3.8-liter V6, power driver seat and pedals, power outside mirrors and rear air-conditioning. (Dodge expects most people will opt for this version of the Caravan.) The SXT also has more available options than the SE. For example, there's a new 251-hp, all-aluminum 4.0-liter V6. The 3.8- and 4.0-liter V6s are hooked up to a new six-speed automatic transmission, while the 3.3-liter V6 gets a four-speed. Overall, the new minivan has been stretched 2.5 inches in length, and its wheelbase is 1.9 inches longer. The body structure is more rigid, and the suspension has been recalibrated for better handling. Take the Kids Tailgating This Fall Stow 'n Go seats can be folded into the floor to create a flat cargo space, making the Grand Caravan a cargo hauler as well as a people mover. Interior storage space is up significantly. With no fewer than 13 cupholders and various mesh nets and cubbies, there's a place for every juice box and ground-up bag of Froot Loops you can pack. The third-row seat splits 60/40 and folds flat into the floor. Almost every minivan has this, but the Grand Caravan offers an optional power-folding seat with one-touch operation. No other minivan has this feature. The Grand Caravan's standard Stow 'n Go seats carry over from the previous minivan, although Dodge has added a few twists that make overall function even more family-friendly. Meanwhile, the new, optional Swivel 'n Go system lets you turn the second-row seats 180 degrees so they face the rear of the car. In this configuration, you can set up a small table that stows out of sight when not in use and create your own self-contained living area. On the way home from our test-drive to Sea World, the real usefulness of Swivel 'n Go quickly became obvious. It's late, and Mommy, Daddy and the 5-year-old are hungry, while the toddler is sleeping like, well, like a baby. As any parent knows, if you wake the toddler, nothing good will come of it. The solution is drive-through In-N-Out burger. We then park and eat with both seats turned around and that special table installed while the toddler continues to dream of blankies and Barney. As an added bonus, the kid who's not sleeping thinks it's "so cool" that we get to eat in the car and he can continue to watch his Justice League DVD. These swiveling seats aren't perfect, though. In order to swivel and provide seatbelt protection, each seat has an integrated seatbelt, something Chrysler learned from building convertibles. The problem is that the height of the shoulder belt retractor is not adjustable, so the belt rides too high on kids who require a booster seat. Parents will want to make sure they have a booster seat with a backrest, not just a seat bottom. The real plus to Swivel 'n Go is that the seats are a little larger and more comfortable than the Stow 'n Go seats. Now Showing in the Grand Caravan Cineplex An optional video entertainment system has the ability to play separate video and audio sources for front, middle and rear passengers. No other minivan offers an in-car entertainment system as elaborate as that of the Grand Caravan. Opt for Entertainment Group 1 and you'll get a second-row DVD player with remote, headphones, a one-year subscription to Sirius Satellite Radio and a MyGIG hard-drive-based audio system. Navigation is a separate option. Check a few more boxes on the options sheet and you can get the van outfitted with a third-row video screen and video input jacks. This means you can play video games or watch a movie in the third row and watch a different movie or listen to music in the second row, while the front passengers listen to Sirius radio or their own CDs. Expect to pay about $2,300 for all these optional features. Sirius Backseat TV adds another level of entertainment, and it's exclusive to the Dodge and Chrysler minivans for now. Backseat TV has three channels of programming: Cartoon Network, Disney Channel and Nickelodeon. Quicker and Quieter The optional Swivel 'n Go seats can be turned 180 degrees to the rear, creating a separate living environment with a table. Thankfully, Chrysler engineers worked overtime to make the Grand Caravan equally competent on the road. In our last minivan comparison test the Chrysler van finished dead last. If we were to hold this test with the updated 2008 version, we suspect the results would be much different. Thanks to the new six-speed automatic transmission and a new optional V6, the Grand Caravan actually feels light on its feet, with relatively brisk acceleration. With 259 pound-feet of torque from the 4.0-liter V6, there's more than enough power for getting up to highway speed, plus the six-speed transmission results in less cycling between gears. Ride quality and interior noise levels have also been improved. Chris Alianz, Chrysler's chief minivan engineer, said, "We want the Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country to be quieter than the competition; one way we accomplished this is by using thicker glass and isolating the front suspension component from the body." The improvement is instantly noticeable. The cabin remains quiet and conversation levels never have to raise much above normal, even at highway speeds. Looking for a Bargain? http://a332.g.akamai.net/f/332/936/12h/www.edmunds.com//media/roadtests/firstdrive/2008/dodge.grand.caravan/08.chrysler.town.&.country.camera.500.jpg Base price for a 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan SE is just over $22,000, including destination. This MSRP is $1,950 lower than the previous model but includes more features. The story is much the same for the nicely equipped 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT, which carries a sticker price of $27,535. That's about $1,000 less than the outgoing SXT, and with more features. A fully loaded Grand Caravan can easily hit nearly $40,000, and that's right in line with competitors from Honda, Nissan and Toyota. A fully loaded 2008 Chrysler Town & Country will hit $40,000. If you have a family and looking cool is still one of your top criteria, maybe you need therapy. When you're done, consider getting a minivan. That's when the 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan with its 4.0-liter V6, six-speed transmission, improved safety features and impressive interior possibilities will get your respect. Anyone with crushed Froot Loops stuck to the bottom of his shoes has no business thinking about what's cool anyway. A longer wheelbase and a more rigid body give the Grand Caravan a better ride, and a choice of three different engines gives it motivation. First Impressions: More power, a great entertainment system and trick swiveling seats make the Grand Caravan good enough to get the attention of even import-label minivan shoppers.