Windsor minivan plant may receive funds for overhaul

Canadian spiffs for Chrysler?

Windsor minivan plant may receive funds for overhaul

Chrysler displayed an early styling concept for the next-generation minivan, the 700C, at the 2012 Detroit auto show.
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Chrysler Group's Windsor minivan plant is poised to grab a share of funds that Canada's federal government has pledged to keep auto plants operating there.

A budget approved last week by federal lawmakers in Ottawa included more than $500 million Canadian in incentive money.

The funds become available as Chrysler negotiates with officials in Ottawa and Ontario for incentives to upgrade the Windsor plant. Chrysler-Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne said the planned investment in the plant exceeds $2 billion Canadian.

The company plans to overhaul the plant to build a redesigned Chrysler minivan and a Dodge vehicle that won't be a minivan, according to Marchionne. The Windsor plant receives high scores in the automaker's World Class Manufacturing system.

The Windsor plant needs improvements to its body and paint shops. Chrysler also wants to install a metrology center, in which workers carefully measure the fit and finish of each process on the assembly line to improve quality. The upgrades could enable the plant to eventually build a wider range of products.

Canada's finance minister, Jim Flaherty, told reporters that the money would not all go to Chrysler.

Given Chrysler's recent experience upgrading its Toledo Assembly Complex for the 2014 Jeep Cherokee, the automaker is unlikely to shut down production of its minivans for very long while the plant switches over.

Marchionne called the Toledo shutdown a mistake that wouldn't be repeated because it left dealers without a mid-sized SUV to sell for nearly a year.

Gilles: Minivan has function and flexibility.

Chrysler designers have been working on the next-generation minivan for several years. The company showed an early styling concept vehicle, called the Chrysler 700C, at the 2012 Detroit auto show.

In comments at the 2014 Detroit auto show, Marchionne said the design for the next-generation Town & Country was 95 percent complete. He also said that the company would decide before March whether to press ahead with a renovation of the Windsor plant.

The redesigned minivan will get better fuel economy with the switch to a new nine-speed automatic transmission. It also is expected to get an optional all-wheel-drive system, updated Stow 'n Go seating that is easier to collapse, and Chrysler's latest Uconnect infotainment system.

It has been 30 years since Chrysler created the minivan segment, and its top designer feels pressure to make sure its next minivan lives up to the company's heritage.

"The pressure is in not screwing up something we started," Ralph Gilles, Chrysler's head of design, told Automotive News this month about the next-generation Chrysler Town & Country.

"The minivan package has always been a sacred thing: the function, the customers, the flexibility, It's basically a life tool. We're trying to push the envelope and not disturb what's good about the minivan."

You can reach Larry P. Vellequette at lvellequette@crain.com.


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