2017 Chrysler minivan coming; Dodge not leaving yet – Detroit Free Press
The 2017 Chrysler Town & Country minivan that will make its global debut next month at the North American International Auto Show says a lot about Fiat Chrysler Automobile, the automaker that makes it.
It represents Chrysler’s past as the company credited with creating the minivan segment when a blue Plymouth Voyager with wood trim rolled off the line at the Windsor Assembly Plant on Oct. 3, 1983.
It represents the future with plans to offer a plug-in hybrid version even though FCA and its CEO Sergio Marchionne have been reluctant to embrace electric vehicles. Marchionne now sees the minivan as the test ground for consumer acceptance of hybrid technology with the expectation most of the fleet will adopt alternative powertrains by 2023.
Investment in a new generation of minivans also represents resiliency for not giving up on a segment that other automakers have abandoned, leaving Chrysler, Honda and Toyota as the last big players. General Motors and Ford exited the segment years ago.
The development of a new Chrysler Town & Country but not a new Dodge Grand Caravan reflects Marchionne’s edict to stop duplication among brands. But in the end, the automaker did not want to abandon the lower end of the price range so the decision was made to keep building the current generation of the Dodge Grand Caravan indefinitely for sale in both the U.S. and Canada.
“I think the reaction to the minivan is going to be really good,” Tim Kuniskis, head of passenger car brands, said of the next generation of the people mover that goes on sale early in the new year with the hybrid to follow months later.
Kuniskis would not say how long the current Dodge will continue to be built in Windsor but employees at the Canadian plant say it will remain in the lineup for the foreseeable future.
Timing of the eventual phaseout of the Dodge will depend on the production ramp-up of the new Town & Country and how strong demand is. At some point, capacity will be needed to add production of a new crossover in Windsor.
The Chrysler brand has not had a full-size crossover since the Pacifica, which was built in Windsor from 2003 to 2007.
FCA filed an application Nov. 3 to trademark the Pacifica name but Kuniskis said the company renews name rights all the time. “You don’t want to lose names. Establishing new names is expensive.”
He notes the Pacifica was discontinued six years ago and the name does not have the level of recognition as Town & Country.
While crossovers are the most-popular vehicles in the U.S. right now, minivans are personal for Chrysler. They rescued the automaker from the brink of financial collapse in 1983 and generated millions in profits by leading the market for decades in a segment that exceeded 1 million units for 12 years.
Chrysler staked its claim with that first 1984 model. “There was nothing else like it,” Kuniskis said. “We created a new segment.”
Within a month there was a four-month backlog of orders and the minivan became a signature vehicle. It spawned a segment that sold more than 1 million vehicles a year from 1993 to 2005 but fell to 424,000 in 2009. This year sales are about 452,000 through November, which is down 9% from a year ago.
While the industry now has SUVs and crossovers that also can carry seven or eight passengers, the volatile market for a traditional minivan with sliding doors is still 3% of the industry, Kuniskis said. That is a higher percentage than the specialty vehicle segment until this year “and no one questions investment in that,” he said of Mustangs and Camaros.
“People still want minivans,” Kuniskis said.
Minivans may be a small segment but Chrysler feels strongly “we should own it,” Kuniskis said.
That has been the sentiment of Marchionne since he assumed leadership of the company in 2009. One of his first moves was to reverse a decision to drop a shift of production at the Windsor plant, the sole global source. The third shift was to be dropped as part of Chrysler’s bankruptcy restructuring at a time when demand for all vehicles was down.
Marchionne chose to keep the plant running with three shifts in the belief consumers would continue to want minivans.
Work on the next generation has taken longer than originally anticipated and its launch delayed by a couple years. The decision as to which brand would keep the people mover was difficult.
Dodge covered the bottom end of the price range and was particularly popular in Canada where buyers prefer minivans to crossovers and affordability is an issue. Chrysler’s Town & Country extended to the top end of the price range and was more popular with American buyers.
Marchionne had design chief Ralph Gilles create both Dodge and Chrysler minivan concepts to test in customer clinics in 2012. He also had Gilles create Dodge and Chrysler versions of a minivan-based crossover.
In the end, the decision was made to keep the Chrysler Town & Country nameplate for the new vehicle.
FCA can build the new model in the same body shop as the current Dodge. The final assembly line adds some new stations to incorporate new features such as the hybrid powertrain and a foot-operated sliding door.
The automaker spent $2 billion on the minivan program including a three-month shutdown to retool the plant. The automaker is currently adding about 600 workers to the 4,500 workforce being trained in preparation for next year’s launch..
Chrysler had no serious competition until the 1994 Ford Windstar. The Town & Country held the sales crown until the Honda Odyssey toppled it in 2007. By 2010, the Chrysler luxury van was back on top. Through the first 11 months of this year, the Toyota Sienna is the top seller at 125,000 followed by the Honda Odyssey at 116,000 and then the Dodge Grand Caravan at 84,500 and the Town & Country at 83,000. Minor players include the Kia Sedona at 34,400 and the Nissan Quest at 9,300.
Honda will introduce the next-generation Odyssey next year as well and remains committed to the segment.
The Odyssey minivan is “on everyone’s shopping list.” said Honda General Manager Jeff Conrad. He expects the Odyssey will continue to be a sales leader even with the new Chrysler minivan coming.
Nor is he worried about Chrysler introducing a hybrid minivan, noting the Odyssey with a gasoline engine has the best fuel economy in the segment.
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