Monday, August 6, 2007

SEXY MINIVANS? Chrysler's designers add styling flair and family-friendly touches to new models

SAN DIEGO -- Designing this minivan was a family affair.

photo

(RASHAUN RUCKER/DFP)

The 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan got a flashy introduction at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January.

Ralph Gilles' unusual hobby in the family garage -- tuning his minivan for racing -- helped prepare Chrysler's star designer for the transition from crafting the look of the hit 300 sedan to redesigning the important minivan.

Gilles, a vice president for design at Chrysler, and his team had just finished up on the 300, Dodge Charger and Magnum wagon when they set out to breathe new life into some of the most important vehicles in the Auburn Hills automaker's lineup.

"That studio was full of car guys," Gilles remembered. "The interesting thing that went on was that we were also having families during that time. So you mix this car-guy thing with the family thing and it really spawned this new attitude about minivans."

Tapping into that family inspiration, the group set about to add new style and function to the Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan minivans, crucial vehicles that account for one-sixth of Chrysler's sales. Early production has begun in Windsor, and the new models should start appearing on some dealer lots late this month.

At a time when more consumers are shunning minivans for car-based SUVs called crossovers, Chrysler is trying to add some flair to its bread-and-butter product -- the new minivans, which are being touted as sexier than the previous jelly-bean look that came to symbolize the soccer-mom lifestyle.

The company believes the new design -- along with swiveling second-row seats, rear video screens that have satellite television and dozens of other improvements -- will appeal to a younger generation just entering the world of parenthood.

At the same time, the company is pricing the minivan lower than previous models.

All in the family

As Gilles, his team and other Chrysler officials worked to redesign the minivan, they turned to their families and their personal experiences for guidance.

"It seems to me that -- unlike many other vehicle launches I've been to -- parents were actually involved in this," said Brian Moody, road test editor of Edmunds.com. "So many times you get into a car and you're like: Whoever designed this obviously doesn't have kids."

Those examples of family inspiration were numerous at a recent event held by Chrysler in San Diego to showcase the upcoming launch:

• Steven Jakubiec, a senior engineer on the project, was sitting at a table on his uncle's pontoon boat when the thought hit him: Why don't we have a table in the minivan?

• Emily Graffeo, senior manager for the program, depended on her three children to test new features, such as the center console that sits between the front seats and slides back to the second row to make it easier to pass drinks and snacks to rear passengers.

• Gilles, the star designer, argues that minivans are sexy -- not like a woman with curves but like a man with confidence.

While several analysts have praised the new minivan and predict it will do well, not everyone has been impressed.

Jim Hall, vice president for industry analysis with consultant Auto Pacific, said he doesn't think the design went far enough, especially as the minivan competition intensifies.

"I think you need something that makes for a unique selling proposition," Hall said. "Here's the problem: The total number of minivan buyers is going to slowly contract. ... That's because there are not enough Gen-Xers to fill in the boomers who evacuated, and the Gen-Y's are not yet in their giant child-rearing years."

So in a market with fewer buyers and more choices, Hall said, "You need something that turns your minivan from a commodity, which is what the Chrysler has become, and transforms it into the must-have personal ornament. I am not sure the design does that."

Crosstown competitors Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. have quit the minivan fight, deciding instead to concentrate on crossovers.

Chrysler officials say they're confident the minivan market will hold -- 1 million were sold last year -- and hope to gain sales share against Honda, Toyota and others.

Analyst Erich Merkle of IRN Inc. said he thinks the new design is a winner and praised the handling, saying the vehicle drives much smoother.

"I think the Chrysler minivan is the best in the market," Merkle said.

Home laboratory

Gilles said he was "licking his chops" to do the minivan project, and he came to it with countless hours spent in his home garage tweaking his own; he put in a souped-up engine and Viper racing seats. He and his wife have owned eight in the past 11 years.

"There was a point where we had his and hers minivans because I actually started racing my minivan and it wasn't drivable for a family," Gilles said.

That time in his home garage inspired the notion of strength, stability and protection he wanted to emphasize in the new design.

"The stance is what people always complimented the van on, how the wheels came down," Gilles said. "So we tried to give the new minivans that basic stable kind of look -- that kind of footprint that just looks broad shouldered."

The family feedback has been mostly positive.

Jakubiec, the engineer, said his wife has been attracting attention driving the preproduction minivan to their children's school.

Graffeo, the program manager, heard from her 23-year-old daughter that the children she watches as a nanny raved over the minivan when she showed up with it.

Gilles' kids liked it, too, though his daughter pointed out that while it is cool that the rear seats swivels back, the video screen does not.

Maybe that can be her dad's next project in the family garage.

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