Minivans have long been the crown jewels of the DaimlerChrysler family. So when it came time for a redesign, company designers opted for an evolution rather than a revolution.
The result is a softer, rounded profile on the outside and a bevy of changes inside the cabin and beneath the skin.
DaimlerChrysler's share of the minivan segment plunged to 37.6 percent in 1999, from 42.7 percent in 1998. It was only the second time in the decade that the automaker's share of the minivan market dipped below 40 percent. It also marked its smallest one-year share of the market segment during the 1990s.
The new design, unveiled at the Detroit auto show on Monday, Jan. 10, will bump DaimlerChrysler's share up above 40 percent by the end of 2001, said Robert Eaton, DaimlerChrysler's chairman.
Despite the dramatic tailing off last year, the automaker felt its minivan customers did not want it to stray too far from the familiar exterior design. Most of the work takes the shape of new features - such as dual power sliding doors and a power liftgate.
'You do these from the inside out,' said Frank Ewasyshyn, general manager of minivan operations. 'We weren't looking to tear it up. It's more robust looking than the current generation. The design team had an open book, but they came back and said the customer base will like this.'
DaimlerChrysler spent $2.8 billion on the redesign, Eaton said. Of that total, $700 million went to retooling the line and putting in a new body shop at the Windsor, Ontario, plant. The minivans will continue to be built in Windsor and St. Louis.
The Chrysler Town & Country tops the new lineup, available only with a long wheelbase. The Chrysler Voyager will be available only with a short wheelbase. Dodge will offer the Grand Caravan and the entry-level Caravan.
DaimlerChrysler spent $400 million developing a new line of powertrains, said Gary Henson, executive vice president of manufacturing.
New to the 2001 lineup is a 3.5-liter V-6 engine, adapted from the 3.5-liter V-6 used by the Chrysler 300M and LHS sedans. The engine generates 230 hp.
The 2.4-liter inline-four engine has been retained and the 3.3-liter and 3.8-liter V-6 engines have been retooled for 2001. The 3.3-liter V-6 will generate 180 hp, up from 158, and the 3.8-liter V-6 will generate 215 hp, up from 180. Torque is up slightly on both engines. The 3.0-liter V-6 has been dropped for 2001.
SPLIT REAR SEAT
A split rear bench seat has been added to all of the vehicles. DaimlerChrysler did not go with a version of the stow-and-tumble style rear seat popular in the Honda Odyssey. In that vehicle, the rear seat folds back upon itself and stows beneath the rear deck.
DaimlerChrysler executives say the split seat will be more flexible. The split seats each weigh 55 pounds, meaning that one person can easily remove one or both seats, they say. They said the stow-and-tumble version was impractical because the hollow storage space increases ambient noise and is a magnet for junk when the seats are in position.
Both sliding side doors and the rear liftgate are power-assisted when opening and closing. All are equipped with an obstacle-detection device that stops the door if something gets in its way.
In the safety department, the minivans get dual-stage front airbags along with supplemental side airbags. The middle and rear seats have built-in anchors to tether child safety seats.
Production is scheduled for July. Shipments to dealers should begin before September.