Chrysler's most-important product - the minivan - enters its fifth generation this fall, once again raising the bar in a market segment created by the automaker 23 years ago.
While Chrysler didn't invent the minivan, as the company's marketers often claim, the company did create the format that took the concept into the mainstream with the introduction of the 1984 Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager.
Volkswagen's microbus, the first real minivan, and Chevrolet's Corvair Greenbrier, the first American minivan, never moved past niche status.
Chrysler, though, has posted sales of half-million or more minivans annually for almost as long as they have been on the market. More than 12 million have been sold. And even though the minivan market is down 22 percent this year, it is expected to hold steady at about 1 million units annually.
With Ford and General Motors abandoning the minivan segment in favor of van-like crossover utility vehicles, Chrysler will no longer have domestic competition.
Ford discontinued its Freestar van earlier this year, and GM has quietly dropped its Buick, Pontiac and Saturn vans, leaving only the Chevrolet Uplander, whose own days are numbered.
Chrysler's remaining major competitors are the best-selling import van, the Honda Odyssey, along with the Toyota Sienna, Nissan Quest, Hyundai Entourage and Kia Sedona.
All of those will have to rush to keep up with the redesigned 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country, whose production began last week at Chrysler's plant in Windsor, Ontario. The automaker spent more than $500 million to upgrade the plant for the new vans.
They will begin arriving in showrooms in mid-September.
These new models are, by far, the best minivans created by any manufacturer. There are many upgrades and innovative features that the imports don't have.
One of the coolest features: the optional swiveling middle-row seats, which can be turned around quickly to face the third row. A table stowed in the floor can be positioned between the two rows so the kids - or even adults - in the back can play games or eat their snacks.
Having a middle seat that can face the rear seat isn't a new idea; that arrangement was possible in some of the VW vans, and was present in the Corvair Greenbrier that my parents had when I was a kid. The vans also offer the latest in Chrysler's stow-and-go seats, which can be folded completely into the floor to create a flat cargo surface from the back of the front seats all the way to the tailgate.
Chrysler says there are 35 new or improved features in the new vans, making them "family rooms on wheels."
The new models have revised exterior styling that gives them more of a crossover SUV look, while retaining the key feature that differentiates the minivan from the crossover: sliding passenger doors.
For 2008, there are five different models, three different seating and storage systems, great new entertainment systems (including live satellite TV featuring kid favorites such as The Disney Channel and Cartoon Network), and state-of-the-art safety features.
Model choices are the Dodge Grand Caravan SE and Grand Caravan SXT, and the Chrysler Town & Country LX, Town & Country Touring and Town & Country Limited. The short-wheelbase models previously known as simply the Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Voyager have been dropped; all of the new vans are of the extended length.
There are three powertrain options as well, beginning with the base 3.3-liter V-6, rated at 175 horsepower and 205 foot-pounds of torque. This engine can operate on E85 fuel, which is 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. The 3.3-liter engine is connected to a four-speed automatic transmission.
Next in line is the 3.8-liter V-6, which offers 197 horsepower and 230 foot-pounds of torque. It comes with a new six-speed automatic transmission.
The third engine is a 4.0-liter V-6, which puts out 251 horsepower and 259 foot-pounds of torque. Also connected to a six-speed automatic, this powertrain is standard in the top models of both the Dodge and Chrysler brands.
EPA ratings are 17 miles per gallon city/24 highway for the base engine. For the other two engines, the ratings are 16 city/23 highway.
Chrysler was the first manufacturer to offer a premium minivan, with the 1990 introduction of the Town & Country.
For 2008, these models are more elegant than ever, especially in the top-of-the-line Limited version.
The base model, though, is well within the price range of buyers not ready for premium vehicles. The '08 Town & Country LX model begins at $23,190 (including $730 freight), which is $3,400 less than the price of the corresponding 2007 model. This model has $400 more content than the previous year's. It comes with the 3.3-liter engine.
The midlevel Town & Country Touring and the top-end Limited model are priced $2,400 less than their corresponding 2007 models, and each has $850 more content, Chrysler says.
Starting price for the Touring model is $28,430, which includes the 3.8-liter V-6 engine.
For the Limited, prices begin at $36,400. It is powered by the 4.0-liter engine, and has a long list of standard features including the stow-and-go seats. One option package and eight standalone options are offered, although this van is already very well-equipped. Under the Dodge name, the Grand Caravan SE begins at $22,470, and comes with the 3.3-liter V-6.
The SXT model starts at $27,535, and comes with the 3.8-liter engine. The 4.0-liter V-6 is included in an options package for the SXT. Stow-and-go seats also are standard on this model.
While the original Caravan and Voyager were quite innovative at the time, their features pale in comparison with these newest models.
For instance, the original minivans came with a 96-horsepower four-cylinder engine and three-speed automatic transmission. Their exteriors were quite boxy, and they were considerably smaller than today's minivans.
They had a 112-inch wheelbase vs. 121.2 inches for the 2008 model, and the base Caravan weighed 3,100 pounds. The new base Grand Caravan weights 4,483 pounds. The newest models have sleek, aerodynamic exteriors and are quite stylish.
Those swivel middle-row seats also feature an optional integrated child booster seat. Available will be a one-touch power-folding third-row bench seat.
Safety features include roof-mounted side-curtain air bags for all three rows, along with electronic stability control and antilock brakes.
Among options are a rear back-up camera, a rearview interior conversation mirror, Chrysler's back-up warning system, and the best rear entertainment system yet devised for an automobile.
The entertainment system includes separate LCD screens that drop down from the ceiling for the middle and third rows, and they can display different programming at the same time, including DVD movies, Sirius satellite TV, or the signal from a video-game console. There is even a 115-volt power outlet in the third row for a game console.
There are many interior storage compartments; a multi-function, front-row sliding console that moves up to 21 inches rearward; two glove boxes; and more cup and bottle holders than there are seating positions.
Also available are Chrysler's new YES Essentials stain-resistant fabric seats and floor mats, which can withstand the most stubborn of stains, including those from red wine and permanent markers.
Other features of the new vans include power windows for the second-row passengers; second- and third-row retractable sun shades; a power tailgate; power sliding doors for both sides; reading and map lights; and either single- or three-zone heating and cooling systems.
G. Chambers Williams III firstname.lastname@example.org
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