As it Turns 30, Does Chrysler’s Minivan Have a Future?

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The next-generation Chrysler minivan, expected for the 2016 model year, will likely be center stage at the North American International Auto Show at Detroit’s Cobo Center in January. But as the product line enters its fourth decade — its 30th anniversary falls on Nov. 2 — there are more questions than answers about its future.

Code-named RF, auto suppliers that design tooling for assembly lines have yet to see a contract released for the future Chrysler Town & Country and the Dodge Caravan. The automaker has been looking at a number of options, including concepts intended to put some style into the traditionally boxy and utilitarian people-carrier. It showed off the 700c concept vehicle several years ago to gauge consumer response.

Apparently, potential buyers yawned. Chrysler Group CEO Sergio Marchionne has suggested the alternative now leading the fray is a more CUV-style vehicle, which would share the same platform as the minivan, according to Jesse Toprak, senior automotive analyst with TrueCar.com. Despite a sales decline in the minivan market, the segment remains hotly competitive — Honda’s Odyssey has outsold both Chrysler offerings this year — though the Auburn Hills OEM retains a collective lead.

Marchionne has suggested one of Chrysler Group’s two remaining minivan models might be eliminated for the 2016 model year, whether the new design is more of a crossover or akin to the Flex people-mover Ford introduced when it abandoned its own minivan line a few years back.

“The problem is, they’re just not cool,” says Toprak, referring to the minivan. Indeed, minivans have become an object of derision in comic strips and TV comedy shows alike, with primary users routinely derided as “soccer moms” or “harried dads.”

That said, Toprak quickly adds, “minivans aren’t going to go away,” because, like them or not, “They have a stable following because, if you take image out of the equation, they are the most practical and affordable solution for families with more than one child.”

Over the years, as millions of potential buyers have migrated from minivans to sport-utility and crossover-utility vehicles, the minivan is down, but not out. Sales are nowhere near the 1.4 million peak at the turn of the new millennium, as volume slipped to 554,825 units last year, according to TrueCar.com. This year’s numbers are showing a modest rebound, and could rise as much as 10 percent, according to some forecasts.

The real question is what Chrysler will do next. It’s clear the automaker hopes to keep its one remaining minivan plant, in Windsor, running at full capacity. And it remains dominant in the segment, in part, due to its head start, but also because of a 30-year history of innovation. Over the years Chrysler has launched such minivan features as:

  • Integrated child seats
  • First air bags and other safety systems for minivans
  •  Rear seat entertainment systems
  •  Stow-and-Go foldaway seats.

Of course, that’s not to say its competitors haven’t fired back. Honda is heavily promoting the industry-first built-in vacuum cleaner on the 2014 Odyssey model. Hyundai and Kia also offer highly competitive models.

 

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