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The road to redemption is long and winding. With the German overseers at Mercedes-Benz beginning to have second thoughts about their acquisition of Chrysler Corporation two years ago, redemption is very much on the minds of America's DaimlerChrysler executives. Compared to a $1 billion operating profit in the third fiscal quarter of 1999, the company has just posted a $512 million loss for the same quarter in 2000. Mind you, that's a 12-month, $1.5-billion fall from grace for a company that once assumed it had the world by the tail.
After all, this is the company that, back in 1983, stumbled onto the mother lode by daring to invent the minivan category, which it subsequently dominated for at least the next 15 years. Today, the Dodge Caravan and Grand Caravan (and their siblings the Chrysler Voyager and Town & Country) remain the benchmarks by which all other minivans are measured. The problem is that the number of all other minivans has grown dramatically in the last few years. It has therefore been incumbent upon DaimlerChrysler to update its mommymobile for the new millennium in hopes of safeguarding this critically important market franchise.
If my week in Dodge's all-new Grand Caravan Sport is any indication, the DaimlerChrysler folks have an exceedingly smooth yet excruciatingly narrow path to follow in shoring up their minivan's reputation--smooth because the Grand Caravan is a mechanical masterpiece with very clever and unique features; narrow because consumer buying habits may be transforming the formerly broad minivan category into an increasingly slender specialty niche.
The list of industry firsts in the Grand Caravan is impressive: A power rear door or liftgate is available that opens and closes automatically, just like the available power sliding doors on each side of the van. Accelerator and brake pedals are adjustable. An optional cargo organizer pops up out of the floor behind the rearmost seats. The center console, with its power outlets, can be moved from the front row to the middle row. An in-dash CD player loads up to four discs. Automatic HVAC operation is adjustable for three distinct seating zones.