Chrysler Revamps Minivan Seats

In the tech world, they call it the “first mover advantage.” Roll out a breakthrough product or service and you’re likely to gain a significant lead in the market, even when your competitors start shooting back.

subscribeThat was certainly the story at Chrysler, which all but owned the minivan market after it rolled out the first Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager models exactly two decades ago. But in recent years, the automaker’s lead has begun to narrow. It didn’t help that Chrysler made some serious mistakes: falling short of a five-star rating in government crash tests, and suffering from years of transmission defects. Worse, the competition began to crack the code, Honda scoring big with the foldaway seats first introduced on its Odyssey minivan.

Now Chrysler is striking back in an effort to preserve a product line long-time Chairman Lee Iacocca liked to call, “the crown jewels.” At first blush, you might not notice many differences between the current Chrysler minivan line-up and the models coming for ’05. But looks can be deceiving, and these vehicles will offer some significant features aimed at bringing wayward shoppers back to Dodge and Chrysler showrooms.

Stow ‘n Go

2005 Chrysler minivansThere’s a flexible overhead storage system and uConnect hardware that turns a Bluetooth-equipped cellphone into a hands-free communications system. But clearly the most significant addition is the “Stow ‘n Go” seating system offered on all long-wheelbase models except for the entry-priced Dodge.

If one row of fold-down seats are good, Chrysler is betting two are better. With a couple quick maneuvers, the second and third rows fold into special tubs in less than 30 seconds. According to Chrysler’s count, the seats can be arranged in something like 250 different configurations. That includes a “tailgate mode,” where they flip over backwards, enhancing a popular pastime at sporting events.

While Nissan’s new Quest offers two rows of fold-down seats, and Ford adds a tailgate mode to the new Freestar, no one combines all these features and several other attractive touches. With the seats up, the tubs provide spacious cargo bins, complete with cargo nets and hooks for plastic shopping bags. The front bin has a fold-down cover for concealing a purse, briefcase or other valuables from prying eyes.

When the last generation of Chrysler minivans was launched, the automaker insisted it left out foldaway seats because the design would generate a lot of noise. And indeed, the Odyssey is not nearly as quiet as the current Town & Country and Caravan minivans. Chrysler engineers were told that the new design couldn’t sacrifice that advantage. And, if anything, they claim the new models are even quieter.

To get there, the storage tubs are stamped from the same Quiet Steel used in high-line luxury cars such as the Lexus LS430. There are two sheets of steel with a layer of sound-deadening plastic sandwiched in-between.

Stiffer, safer

To make room for the two storage tubs, Chrysler’s long-wheelbase platform underwent a significant tear-up. That meant cutting into frame rails that normally stiffen and support the vehicle. That problem was solved by ringing the two tubs with rigid frames. The automaker claims it’s improved the bending stiffness of the new minivans by 27 percent. That should also help improve crash performance, an area where the outgoing models didn’t quite do as well as the market expects these days.

There’s no question safety is at top of mind for minivan buyers. And Chrysler will add a number of new features to the 2005 minivan lineup, including multi-stage frontal airbags. The Occupant Classification System adjusts how aggressively they inflate by determining the severity of a crash and the weight and position of front occupants. An inflating knee bolster is added to keep the driver in the right position during a crash.

There’s a three-row side-curtain airbag system, but in a move that could come to haunt Chrysler, it’s being offered as an option only. That could open the automaker up to another frontal assault from Honda, which recently announced a major safety offensive. By the end of 2006, its Odyssey and other light trucks will all be equipped with side airbags, as well as head curtains equipped to function as rollover airbags. And the Honda vehicles will get standard stability control, a technology not even offered on the ’05 Chryslers.

Honda also is launching a redesigned Odyssey next fall. It is being so secretive about the details, it won’t even show it at any 2004 auto shows before launch.

Competitive all over

Honda’s recent announcement has shaken all three of the traditional American manufacturers, and during the reveal of their new models, Chrysler executives didn’t deny their concerns. After the flap over missing the five-star rating, the company cannot allow the perception that it is soft on safety.

“We will be competitive,” asserted CEO Dieter Zetsche, though he declined to say whether that means the automaker intends to switch its strategy and make the new technology standard.

That would be a difficult move considering Chrysler’s financial problems. It needs to make money – a lot of money – on the new minivans, and it wouldn’t be easy adding costly features it likely couldn’t charge for.

Retail prices won’t be revealed until the Detroit auto show next month – the ‘05s are in for an early, March launch – but company officials hinted the new minivans will be among the least expensive in their segment.

According to Chrysler President Wolfgang Bernhard, the automaker has invested $400 million to roll out the new minivans. That money not only buys Chrysler a pair of updated minivans, but a flexible platform that insiders hint might show up on a variety of spin-off products. That could extend Chrysler’s first-mover advantage well into the future.

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