By ALLISON HOFFMAN 08.03.07, 12:38 AM ETCARLSBAD, Calif. -
Hoping to lure customers back to minivans by rocketing people-haulers out of the Betamax era and into the brave new iPhone world, Chrysler Group has loaded the next generation of its trademark vehicles with modern technology and a seating arrangement that lets families hang out around a virtual "kitchen table" on the road.
The centerpiece of the redesigned 2008 Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country is a second-row seat that can spin 180 degrees to face backward. Nicknamed "Swivel n' Go" after the carmaker's popular "Stow n' Go" flat-fold seats, the new seats create space for a one-legged, plastic-topped table that lets passengers eat, do homework or pile things up the way they would in the house.
But the minivans, which hit showrooms later this month, are crammed with an array of new features that smooth away any remnant of the old fuddy-duddy mom-mobile.
Pinpointed overhead LEDs provide bright, targeted illumination more akin to airplane reading lights than the old halo lamps. A convex "conversation mirror" drops down above the rearview to give the driver a full view of what's going on in back, while the middle console slides nearly 2 feet backward and forward, allowing people riding in the front seats to ferry items - snacks, headphones, whatever - to the rear without blind backward tosses or uncomfortable twisting.
The minivans also boast a unique multiple-output entertainment system designed to eliminate the forced compromises of earlier days - "Shrek," anyone? - by channeling different options to passengers riding in separate parts of the car. That means the youngest kids in the middle can watch Nickelodeon on satellite while their parents get Sirius radio in the front and older siblings scan music on a built-in 20-gigabyte hard drive or watch R-rated DVDs in the back seat.
Meanwhile, the original Stow n' Go technology has been upgraded so that the third-row seats fold down automatically into a hatch with the push of a button. They can also be somersaulted backward to create cushioned seating for tailgates.
"I've got twin 5-year-old boys, so in my case it's more of a pig pen on wheels," said Mark Trostle, chief designer. "But everything here has been thought about extensively."
Gone is the rounded, pod-like exterior of earlier models; banished is the wobbly "minivan" feel on the road. The new models are boxier and more imposing than their predecessors, with a new suspension that gives a confident ride.
The minivan's designers repeatedly employ words such as "tailored" and "rich" to describe the Town & Country models, targeted at wealthier parents or at new retirees looking for an upgraded way to cart around grandkids. The Dodge equivalents, meanwhile, are "sinister" - not a word usually associated with minivans.
"It's tough, it's angry, it's in your face," said Trostle, who said the new Caravans echo the look of the successful Magnum car.
Chrysler, in the midst of its corporate breakup from DaimlerChrysler AG and sale to private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management LP, is depending on the new line to help it stay ahead of encroaching competition in the minivan market from Honda Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp., especially now that General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. have halted minivan production.
"There isn't a bigger launch for Chrysler this decade than this minivan," said Erich Merkle, vice president of forecasting for auto consulting company IRN Inc. in Grand Rapids, Mich. "In my opinion, the product is really good. Chrysler really does minivans well."
Minivan sales rose quickly when Chrysler introduced them in 1983 as a 1984 model. Annual sales crossed 900,000 in 1990 and peaked at 1.37 million in 2000. But since then, the vehicle has started to fall out of favor, especially with the introduction of car-based crossovers that can carry as many people.
Sales dropped to 970,708 last year, and through July, 477,662 were sold, a 22 percent decrease from the first seven months of 2006.
The carmaker says it believes the new models provide a level of convenience and value that consumers won't find in sport-utility vehicles or in newer crossovers.
"There is no substitute for a minivan," said Rick Kukucka, a marketing director for Chrysler.
Still, Chrysler Group isn't taking chances. In July, the company announced it would offer lifetime repairs on the engines, transmissions and drive systems of most cars sold in the U.S.
That came two weeks after an announcement that sticker prices on the new minivans would drop by an average of $2,000, with more optional features becoming standard. The size of the price reduction will vary with options and models, with the base model Dodge Grand Caravan SE priced at $22,470, $1,950 below the current sticker price of $24,420, and the Chrysler Town & Country LX dropping $3,585, from $26,775 to $23,190.
The lowest-priced 2007 Toyota Sienna has a suggested retail price of $24,155, while the cheapest Honda Odyssey this year is $25,645, according to the companies' Web sites. Neither company will have new models in 2008.
But analysts say those price cuts just bring sticker prices in line with existing incentive offers, and it's not clear whether the new, manual-only swivel seats are an innovation drivers can't live without. The 90-pound seats are heavy, and - in part because of federal safety regulations - are awkward to turn. One senior executive joked that he hoped he'd be able to make the swivel work as he demonstrated the feature to reporters.
"I don't know that it has the convenience factor that they want consumers to believe," said Aaron Bragman, a research analyst for Global Insight, an economic research and consulting company. "Stow-and-go was a real convenience innovation, because you could fold all the seats flat, but I don't know that consumers are going to be willing to pay extra for seats that spin around."