The Plymouth Grand Voyager SE, the most popular Plymouth minivan model, has lost all but one of its option packages for the 2000 model year. The switch is another restriction of Plymouth's role, feeding speculation Plymouth could eventually go the way of the company's defunct Eagle brand.
At the same time, DaimlerChrysler has cut the price of the 2000 Chrysler Town & Country base model by $1,490. The changes are part of DaimlerChrysler's strategy to expand the Chrysler lineup with less expensive models.
DaimlerChrysler executives acknowledge that adding less expensive Chrysler models will naturally cost it some sales on the Plymouth side. Last year, Chrysler sales passed Plymouth sales for the first time since 1929. Chrysler's lead is widening this year.
Dealer Steven Wolf said, 'Without a doubt, this (minivan change) will shift a lot of people from Plymouth to Chrysler Town & Country.' He is vice president of River Oaks Chrysler-Plymouth-Jeep in Houston.
Wolf also believes the Chrysler PT Cruiser is bad news for Plymouth. 'The No. 1 calculated move was naming the PT Cruiser a Chrysler instead of a Plymouth,' Wolf said.
When the 2001 PT Cruiser was unveiled at the Detroit auto show in January, DaimlerChrysler said it would be priced under $20,000, but it would be a Chrysler model, not a Plymouth. That under-$20,000 territory is normally for Plymouth customers.
DaimlerChrysler made a more subtle move that also brings the brand's future into question. The Plymouth badge has been removed from the liftgate of 2000-model minivans. The automaker said it was done to save money.
Those moves indicate the Chrysler brand will be the 'influential brand' of the company, Wolf said.
DaimlerChrysler says it has no plans to kill off Plymouth in the United States, but it has taken several steps that have raised many eyebrows:
DaimlerChrysler says it has no plans to give Plymouth any new nameplates.
It has eliminated the Plymouth brand in Canada, except for the low-volume Plymouth Prowler.
It is considering dropping the Plymouth Breeze when its redesigned 2001 mid-sized JR cars are introduced next year.
Now come the changes to the Plymouth Grand Voyager SE. Eliminating the L, E and N luxury option packages leaves only the lower-content D package. The three dropped packages carried 1999 suggested retail prices of $1,395 to $2,715. The remaining D option package had a 1999 suggested retail price of $705.
'The Grand Voyager is not as grand as it used to be,' said Clayton Smith, sales manager at Lochmoor Chrysler-Plymouth in Detroit. 'Loaded up, it was not too far from the Chrysler Town & Country.'
Plymouth minivans have been repositioned to be truly entry-level, Smith said. He sees the move as a way to simplify the buying process for both dealer and customer.
Smith does not expect the Plymouth brand to fade away just yet.
'There are a lot of loyal Plymouth customers who love Voyager,' Smith said. 'There are a lot of entry-level customers out there who want nothing other than a beer-can Voyager, inexpensive but a good value.'
The D option package has been the best-seller, so the decision was made to focus on that package, said Ralph Sarotte, DaimlerChrysler general product manager for minivan operations. It includes such items as power windows and door locks, floor mats and convenience lights.
Some Plymouth minivan customers probably will switch to the Chrysler brand, he said. But eliminating the option packages had nothing to do with the future of the Plymouth brand, he said.
'We have said all along that the market will decide its future,' Sarotte said.
The Chrysler brand has lost the short-wheelbase Town & Country SX minivan for the 2000 model year, Sarotte said. Town & Country buyers prefer the long-wheelbase models, he said.
By expanding the Town & Country minivans downward, the Chrysler brand will be better able to compete with the Honda Odyssey and the Toyota Sienna minivans, Sarotte said.
The 2000 Town & Country LX, the new base model, is priced at $26,950, including the destination charge. The highest-level 1999 Plymouth Grand Voyager - the SE equipped with the N equipment package - carries nearly an identical suggested price, $26,370, including destination. Customers could order individual options to increase the price of the Grand Voyager.
STILL A CONTENDER
But despite the diminishing choices, the Plymouth brand remains a strong contender in the minivan segment, Wolf said.
Through the first seven months of 1999, Plymouth sold 98,323 Voyagers, and Chrysler sold 39,899 Town & Countrys.
However, in combined car and minivan sales, Chrysler is growing, having surged ahead of Plymouth during 1998. In the first seven months of this year, Chrysler outsold Plymouth 192,281 to 184,027. The new Chrysler 300M sedan, which bowed in the spring of 1998, helped push Chrysler past Plymouth.
Through July of this year, Chrysler sales were up 7.9 percent, and Plymouth sales were down 4.9 percent, compared with the 1998 period.
Plymouth will continue to represent the entry point into minivans, DaimlerChrysler's Sarotte said.
The next telltale sign regarding the future of the Plymouth brand will be whether Plymouth gets a redesigned Breeze. The Breeze is a member of the JA family of mid-sized sedans which includes the Chrysler Cirrus and Dodge Stratus. The Cirrus and Stratus are being redesigned on the new JR platform for the 2001 model year.
DaimlerChrysler is deciding whether to include a Plymouth on the new platform.