It’s not a surprise that Chrysler -- the folks who brought us the minivan and created the Soccer Mom in the first place -- is cutting production on all but one model. It is evidently a tiny bit of a surprise, however, that it will be the Dodge Caravan that survives and not the Town & Country, which is undergoing reinvention as a crossover model. The latter name may, or may not, stick around.
Based on an interview with Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, Automobile magazine’s Jake Holmes broke the news yesterday online and in the July print edition, leaving the Detroit automotive press corps scrambling to catch up. Marchionne also revealed that the company would kill the Jeep Compass and Patriot compact crossovers.
“The Dodge Grand Caravan will be the company’s only minivan offering going forward; the brand invented the minivan segment in the 1980s, and it made little sense for Chrysler and Dodge to offer two essentially identical vans,” Holmes writes. “As we reported in our July 2012 issue, Chrysler’s T&C replacement will be an upscale crossover that might resemble the Mercedes-Benz R-Class.”
Chrysler sold 94,320 Town & Country vehicles and 110,862 Grand Caravans last year. Although he two vehicles share a common architecture, the Grand Caravan sells for about $20,000 to $30,000; the Town & Country for $30,000 to $40,000, as Brent Snavely points out in the Detroit Free Press.
AutoPacific analyst Dave Sullivan tells Snavely that some dealers favored keeping the Town & Country because it generates a larger profit margin than the Caravan. He also speculates that the company may be betting that the crossover that replaces it will sell better as a Chrysler than as a Dodge.
"It's likely that they are not going to kill the name off," Sullivan says. "A crossover vehicle could easily come back with that [Town & Country] name."
Since Chrysler boss Lee Iacocca launched the minivan rage with the Caravan in 1983, they “have gone from being heralded as utilitarian phenoms to the much-maligned butt of many jokes,” writes Bryce G. Hoffman in the Detroit News. “But these successors to the station wagon remain prized by the Pampers and play date set.”
Overall, nearly half a million minivans were sold in the U.S. last year, and consumers will still have time to squirrel away a Town & Country or two in the carport.
"We haven't wavered from our five-year cycle plan for our two minivans,” spokesman Patrick Hespen emailsUSA Today “Drive On” reporter Fred Meier. “This doesn't call for a change until 2014 and includes both Grand Caravan and Town & Country."
"Frankly, when you have a family, there are few alternatives that have the utility of a minivan," IHS Automotive senior analyst Aaron Bragman tells Hoffman. "You can't push a button and open the rear doors on a crossover like you can on a minivan. It's a big market still."
But Bragman says that the international market is limited, and feels that crossovers will fare better globally.
The developments are part of Marchionne’s grand plan “to eliminate product overlaps and offer each Chrysler group a more distinct identity, which is crucial for the company since it has four volume brands: Ram, Jeep, Dodge and Chrysler,” observes Inautonews.
Marking the production of the first Dodge Dart at a factory in Belvidere, Ill., yesterday, Marchionne told the assembled media that the company is developing hybrids to help meet fuel mileage rules. But the all-electric Fiat 500 due this year is being produced solely “to meet regulations in California and a few other states requiring it to make an EV and to give its engineers experience with electric powertrains,” Meier reports in USA Today. Marchionne reportedly expects the company to lose at least $10,000 on every Fiat 500 EV it sells.
“The Dart is really a bellwether of how well Fiat and Chrysler can make this partnership work,” Marchionne told the Belvidere workers, reports Michael Oneal in the Chicago Tribune. “This first child is the start of a big family that is going to grow.”
The Detroit Free Press is running an online poll today that asks readers, “Will minivans ever be hip?”
My take is that the family minivan is to the VW bus as an old guy in a ponytail is to the word “groovy.” That is, hip no longer. But I was surprised by the results, even if the self-selecting sample size of 97 is not quite scientific: “Yes,” aver 54.64% (53 votes); “no” sayeth 45.36% (44 votes) –- skewed somewhat by my share of the 0.36%.