Chrysler icon celebrates 25 years: Minivan to survive rough stretch



Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Chrysler icon celebrates 25 years: Minivan to survive rough stretch

Alisa Priddle / The Detroit News

WINDSOR — Chrysler LLC celebrated the 25th anniversary of the minivan Monday, a vehicle that started life during a corporate crisis and is one of the few models likely to survive the company’s uncertain future.

With the specter of General Motors Corp.’s proposed acquisition of Chrysler from majority owner Cerberus Capital Management LP, many have weighed in on what might survive a melding of the two automakers. Virtually everyone cites the minivan and the Jeep brand as must-keeps.

The minivan began life in Windsor, and Chrysler has now consolidated global minivan production here with Friday’s closure of a plant near St. Louis, and the decision to move minivans for export to Windsor from Graz, Austria. Windsor will build international models in the new year with diesels and right-hand-drive. The Canadian facility also builds the Routan, using Chrysler’s architecture and power trains, under a contract with Volkswagen. About 1 in 5 minivans off the line wears a VW badge.

Chrysler has more innovations in mind for the Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan to retain leadership in a segment it has dominated for most of its 25-year history.

Plans include an electric minivan, with lithium-ion batteries in the second-row cargo wells. Chrysler showed a prototype in September, along with an electric Dodge sports car and a Jeep Wrangler EV. The minivan is an "extended-range" vehicle that can run 40 miles on battery alone, with a small gasoline engine to extend that range to about 400 miles. One of the three will be on the road next year as a 2010, the rest a year later, said Doug Quigley, product engineer with ENVI, Chrysler’s electric vehicle division. If validation proves the minivan is "most robust soonest," it will lead the charge. GM’s extended range Chevrolet Volt is slated for sale in November 2010.

An electric minivan would supersede plans for a hybrid minivan, said Frank Klegon, executive vice president of product development.

Another upgrade is replacing the aging V-6 engines with the new Phoenix family of more efficient six-cylinders due in 2010. Despite rumors to the contrary, the Phoenix program is on track. Some test minivans have been built with the new engine, said Larry Lyons, vice president of the product team, and last month president Jim Press said he was driving a vehicle with one of the new V-6s.

The minivan has come to define Chrysler and is credited with pulling the corporation from the financial brink with the 1980 decision to replace the station wagon with a fuel-efficient family vehicle on the front-drive K-car platform. The Canadian plant was chosen — much to the consternation of worried Canadian Auto Workers union leaders after a sneak peek at the funny-looking "garageable van."

The first one, a blue Plymouth Voyager with wood trim, rolled off the line on Oct. 3, 1983, and became Chrysler’s first signature vehicle, with an instant backlog of orders that led to a second shift in January 1984, a third in 1993, and the St. Louis plant in March 1987.

It became known as "the miracle at Windsor," with more than 12 million sold to date in about 80 countries. The original minivan, codenamed AS, was built until 1995. It did not face its first real competition until the Ford Windstar in 1994. It has been sold with a short and long wheelbase, as a Dodge, Chrysler and Plymouth, and even a previous stint as an electric (1996 debut) and a natural gas vehicle.

The first redesign, the NS, launched as a 1996 model with a game-changing sliding driver’s side door. Retooling was done in a record 47 days.

The Chrysler minivan family collectively has 40 percent of the segment, but the individual models have lost ground to Honda and Toyota since the introduction of the Odyssey in 1998 and Sienna in 1999.

The Odyssey has become the No. 1 selling minivan. Chrysler’s fourth-generation RS introduced in 2001 and redesign in 2007 have not been enough to hold the wolves at bay in a segment that was once 1.6 million units and is now half of that. GM and Ford Motor Co. have thrown in the towel. "GM tried it and decided it was not competitive and got out," said Patrick Anderson, CEO of Anderson Economic Group.

Chrysler Chairman Robert Nardelli said the minivan "represents the best in Chrysler."

Executive Frank Ewasyshyn is flanked by a 2009 Town and Country, left, and a 1984 Caravan during anniversary celebrations at the Chrysler plant in Windsor. (Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News)

Executive Frank Ewasyshyn is flanked by a 2009 Town and Country, left, and a 1984 Caravan during anniversary celebrations at the Chrysler plant in Windsor. (Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News)

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