CHRYSLER’S ’08 MINIVANS: Raising The Bar

Article From: 9/1/2007 Automotive Design & Production, , Editor-in-Chief from Gardner Business Media, Inc.

Are minivans going away? Not according to the sales numbers. And the rise of “crossovers” notwithstanding, Chrysler is bullish on the future of the vehicle architecture, and has improved on its vehicles for the segment it pioneered.

Every vehicle manufacturer has a signature vehicle. In the case of Chrysler—things like the 300C or Viper notwithstanding—the signature vehicle is the minivan, a vehicle that it brought to the market in a notable way in 1983. Since then, Chrysler has built more than 12 million of them. In the meantime, of course, it gave rise to a number of competitors, some of which—most notably General Motors and Ford—have thrown in the towel. The competitive landscape is now one where Chrysler is, primarily, competing with Toyota and Honda, the two companies that have taken, for example, the midsize car market and come to own it with the likes of the Camry and the Accord. But while the Sienna and Odyssey are reputable products with solid features and credentials, it is evident that Chrysler, with the 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country, is not going to have itself relegated to third place in the minivan market. The Chrysler designers, engineers, and manufacturing personnel have unparalleled experience in this segment, and they have brought it to bear on the new products, which are being produced at both the Windsor Assembly Plant (Windsor, Ontario) and St. Louis South Assembly (Fenton, MO). Given that Dodge has been the minivan sales leader for 23 years underscores this bench strength, to put it mildly. (Its share of market with the Caravan/Grand Caravan is a segment-leading 22%.)

Minivans carry a stigma unlike almost any other kind of vehicle. And with all of the talk of “crossovers” by its domestic competitors (a type of vehicle that it brought out in model year 2004, with the Pacifica), it might seem as though the minivan is something that is being relegated to the scrap heap of automotive history. Except for one thing. Mario D’Ovidio, senior manager, Front-wheel Drive Product Team, points out that since 1993, the minivan market has averaged 1.1 million units per year, or about 1 in every 15 new vehicles sold. So if the segment was going south, wouldn’t there be some fall off? When asked whether there was any sense of unease based on a “What do they know that we don’t?” feeling as Chrysler was developing the fifth-generation minivan and GM and Ford indicated they were leaving the market, Larry Lyons, Chrysler vice president, Front-wheel Drive Product Team, just smiles, like the cat that ate the canary. “While others might be exiting the segment, we’re raising the bar,” he comments.

Statistically and demographically, Chrysler thinks that the minivan—arguably the most functional of all personal vehicle architectures for transporting people and stuff—has a solid future ahead of it. The Baby Boom generation made a success of the minivan. Gen X was cool on the product. But now there is Gen Y, which, apparently, is more family-oriented than their predecessors. As two kids is the point at which the minivan becomes more of a purchase consideration, they are hopeful they’ve got a brighter opportunity ahead of it. Having the guy who was just off designing the SRT versions of the 300C, Charger and Magnum involved in the design of the minivans, Jeff Gale, doesn’t hurt, either.

 

Profound Knowledge

There is more than design talent that put Gale in a good position vis-à-vis the design of the ’08 minivans; he has what can be considered profound knowledge of the needs and necessities of the product. He and his wife have three kids, all under three (including a set of twins), and they have an ’07 Town & Country. “Minivans are near and dear to me right now,” he says. Personal transportation needs aside, what is it like for a hot young designer to get the brief for a minivan? He answers, “If you tell a designer, ‘You’re going to be working on a minivan,’ it might raise a few eyebrows.” But he goes on to explain that (1) it has a tremendous impact on company sales, which means it is an important vehicle and consequently a good thing to have one’s hand in, and (2) “a lot of my fellow designers have kids the age of my oldest daughter”—2-1/2—“so it’s really personal to us.” So beyond just a formal exercise in automotive design, there’s more. About it, he says of the challenge, “You’re designing a product for yourselves and for the people around you.” Who wants to be the one who doesn’t create a good-looking product that many of them will be driving?

Gale acknowledges the minivan “stigma.” “We want you to want to drive a minivan,” he says. “You want to push out as far as you can, and have people talk about the newest, freshest thing. But they are minivans, so you have to stay realistic.” In other words, there are some boundaries that are predicated on the bulk of the customers who buy them. He admits, “Whenever you say ‘minivan’ you’ll always have some people who go ‘eeewww! I’ll never buy one of them.’ But we wanted to set out and develop a minivan that you would be comfortable in, you can be proud of, and that you can drive.”

“Even I grew up with a minivan,” Gale says, recalling the family drivesto northern Michigan. (The other car in his garage, incidentally, is the Dodge Magnum, which he describes as “an awesome alternative to a large sport utility.”) 

 

Shapes

In executing the exterior design for the two vehicles, Gale says that they worked with the clay models for each side-by-side in the studio. The objective was to make sure that they’d have the appropriate executions for each of the brands, with the Chrysler being more upscale and premium (Lyons: “You could go to a black-tie event in one”) and the Dodge more “bold, purposeful and aggressive.” Overall, however, compared with the previous-generation, the ’08 minivans are far more vertical and angular. Says Gale, “The previous generation is very round. The sill is tucked in, the wheels and tires are smaller, and the DLO is more elliptical in shape. These”—as in the ‘08s—“are more modern, almost architectural. There are cleaner lines and the surfaces are much tauter. There are wheel flairs that provide the look of a wider track.” And there is a wider track, as well, 2-in. wider in the front and 1 in. in the rear, compared to the previous generation; the new minivan is 2-in. longer and has a 2-in. longer wheelbase (202.5 in. and 121.2 in., respectively). “The plane of the tire in relation to the glass is better; it provides a more stable appearance. When you look at a minivan and think about your family, if it says ‘stable,’ you’re much more intrigued by it.” (The wheel size is now a standard 16 in., up an inch.)

The front clips on the vehicles are different, with the Chrysler having a grille that is clearly related to the 300 sedan and the Dodge having an “almost sinister eyebrow,” in Gale’s words, over the headlamp, a Charger-like cue. And the differences wrap around the vehicles, with bright chrome trim and moldings for the Chrysler and a cleaner, more functional appearance for the Dodge.

Inside, there are distinctive instrument clusters for both of the vehicles. However, one thing that the two share and is certainly a differentiator in the market is the optional Swivel ‘n Go seating system (Intier Automotive is the supplier of this, as of the Stow ‘n Go system, which debuted on the previous generation minivans and continues to be offered in the new models). Swivel ‘n Go permits the second row of seats to be indexed 180° so they face the third row; a removable table can be placed between the two rows.

 

Reduced Complexity

Design differences notwithstanding, there is greater simplicity in the vehicles compared to the previous ones. The last-generation minivan was available in more than 11,000 build combinations. The ’08 is available in less than 1,300. This is accomplished by creating standard equipment packages and option packages. As complexity is a driver of higher costs (think only of logistics) and lower quality, the buyers of these minivans should benefit. While the quality is something that will come out in time, it should be noted that the buyers of the ’08 models will realize reduced prices when they buy. Specifically:

 

2008 Dodge Grand Caravan Pricing 
(U.S. MSRP, including $730 destination)
SE
SXT
2008 MSRP
$22,470
$27,535
OUTGOING MSRP
$24,420
$28,505
Chrysler Town & Country Pricing 
(U.S. MSRP, including $730 destination)
LX
Touring
Limited
2008 MSRP
$23,190
$28,430
$36,400
OUTGOING MSRP
$26,775
$29,265
$37,335

 

In addition to which, they’ve added content to the vehicles even though the price has been reduced. Dave Rooney, director-Chrysler Brand, says that, for example, although the price of the Town & Country LX is reduced by more than $3,500, they’ve added $400 more content.

Interesting what you can do when you’ve had more than 20 years’ experience at producing minivans.

 

Building In Flexibility

Chrysler has spent some $1.5 billion in its two minivan assembly plants, Windsor and St. Louis South. At Windsor, where a underbody pallet system was launched in 2000 for the then-new model year 2001 minivans in order to achieve improved production flexibility, a system that has since been deployed at other Chrysler faclities (e.g., Sterling Heights Assembly; Toledo North Assembly), they’ve invested in new robots, metrology equipment, and a new paint shop that’s capable of accommodating at least 11 different body styles. At St. Louis South, a key focus has been on the implementation of a fully robotic body shop—the third such shop in the Chrysler system—so as to handle multiple models, as well as to minimize changeover time for new models.

 

Target: NVH

Let’s face it: A minivan is pretty much a shoebox shape being pushed through space. Steve Jakubiec, senior manager, Minivan Vehicle Synthesis, says that Chrysler engineers and designers spent a significant amount of time working in the wind tunnel at the Chrysler Auburn Hills tech center. One of their goals was to improve the aerodynamics of the vehicle; another was to reduce NVH. Aero plays a significant role in that. The Cd of the ’08 minivan is a comparatively sleek 0.321. In addition to which, Jakubiec says, they worked to make a more rigid body structure. As he points out, the unibody minivan is essentially “a very large drum.” So making that as rigid as possible is key. They did “a tremendous amount of CAE” in calculating the best way to achieve structural rigidity, and deployed 37% (by weight) high-strength steels in the structure. As a result, the body stiffness is improved by 18%.

 

Introducing the Six

The ’08 Chrysler minivans, all of which are equipped with six cylinder engines (a 3.3-liter, a 3.8-liter, or a 4.0-liter), can be speced with something that no other manufacturer of minivans offers: a six-speed automatic transaxle. This transmission is available on models with the 3.8- or 4.0-liter engines. The 3.3-liter engine is mated to four-speed transaxle, but it should be noted that it is E85 capable.