Why the stakes are high for Chrysler's new minivan

The Chrysler 700, shown at the Detroit auto show in January 2012, was designed to serve as a starting point for improving the styling of Chrysler's minivans. Photo credit: RICK KRANZ

After way more than a year of debate back and forth, Chrysler Group has settled on a design for its next generation minivan.

But in an interview with the Detroit Free Press at the New York auto show this week, Chrysler design head Ralph Gilles wouldn't disclose whether the single minivan would remain a Chrysler Town & Country or stay as a Dodge Grand Caravan.

"We are down to one and we are having a good time with it," Gilles told the Free Press. "I can't tell you the brand. All I can tell you is that we are deep in development."

Judging just from the conflicting executive statements over the last 18 months or so, this is great progress. But those statements also show just how important the minivan -- an entire segment Chrysler created from scratch in the early 1980s -- is to the automaker's identity as a company.

At the 2012 Detroit auto show, Chrysler showed an unannounced concept, a vehicle it called the 700, which CEO Sergio Marchionne identified as a styling buck to measure public reaction to a design. And a future product plan unveiled earlier this year seems to indicate that development of the minivan has been delayed a year until 2015.

The differences between the current Town & Country and Grand Caravan are largely cosmetic. That's a problem for dealers, the vast majority of whom sell both brands and have to stock the twin minivans side-by-side and then convince consumers that there is a difference.

But inside Chrysler's management team, the stakes are higher.

The Chrysler brand has just three vehicles in its lineup, including the higher-priced Town & Country. But the Grand Caravan sells better -- although many of those sales are because it is a popular fleet vehicle -- and retains Dodge's people-moving brand identity.

Chrysler has been dithering over its next minivan for so long that it really would not surprise me if the now-settled design that has emerged has two front ends welded back-to-back: one badged as a Dodge and another badged as a Chrysler.

You can reach Larry P. Vellequette at lvellequette@crain.com -- Follow Larry P. on Twitter: @LarryVellequett

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