New minivan 'solidifies' FCA in Windsor: Bigland

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Windsor Star/Grace Macaluso

DETROIT — The $2-billion investment in the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica minivan “solidifies” Fiat Chrysler Automobile’s manufacturing footprint in Windsor, but the carmaker has yet to decide whether to build a new full-size crossover, according to top executives.

“This is a big day for Windsor, a big day for the minivan, and I think it really solidifies our manufacturing in Windsor,” Reid Bigland, CEO of FCA Canada, told reporters Monday on the sidelines of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

FCA unveiled the next-generation minivan — the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica and its hybrid variant at the auto show. It was the company’s sole vehicle debut at the two-day media preview.

Both Bigland and his boss, CEO Sergio Marchionne, touted the Windsor Assembly Plant’s new flexible platform, which is capable of building different vehicles.

“What’s important from our standpoint is when you look back at what we’ve done over the last 6½ years, that is the first truly in-house architecture developed from scratch,” Marchionne told reporters at a separate auto show news conference.

“And it was designed to do a variety of things; the minivan being one of them,” said Marchionne.

A Chrysler-badged large crossover and hybrid based on the minivan architecture was still a possibility, but it hasn’t received final approval, said Marchionne. Tim Kuniskis, FCA’s head of passenger car brands, “is fighting” for the vehicle, but “he hasn’t won the battle yet.”

The company’s plan to build both the current Dodge Grand Caravan minivan and the new Pacifica has led to the hiring of more than 600 additional workers at the Windsor plant, which runs on three full shifts. Bigland said he would unveil total job numbers at next month’s Canadian auto show in Toronto.

“We’ll do a little event for the new minivan at the Toronto auto show — obviously a big time, homegrown product — and we’ll talk a little more about the exact employment numbers,” he said.

Windsor Assembly, Bigland added, was “always the logical choice” for the new minivan.

“Windsor has always been the home of the minivan,” he said. “The plant runs extremely well for us, building 1,400 vans a day.”

Maintaining the two-van strategy “will create a great market dynamic for us in the future where we’ll have the value, Dodge Grand Caravan at the lower end, and then consumers can step up to the Chrysler Pacifica,” said Bigland.

Pricing will be announced closer to the vehicle’s arrival in showrooms, likely within the next three months, but the Pacifica will be “a little bit more expensive” than the current Town and Country, which has a starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $31,600.

Consumers will be willing to pay more for the vehicle’s new technologies, such as hands-free sliding doors, said Bigland.

But Jake Fisher, Consumer Reports’ director of automotive testing, said FCA will have to overcome quality issues plaguing its lineup.

“The history we’ve seen with reliability is not good,” said Fisher, whose publication has consistently given top quality grades to the Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey minivans. “Fiat, Chrysler, Dodge and all of its brands have consistently been at the bottom. Hopefully, they’re doing something (with the new Pacifica)  to improve quality.”

Marchionne said he was pleased with both the minivan’s new look and engineering. “Technologically, it’s a hell of a move forward,” he said.

He also defended the decision to revive the Pacifica nameplate despite its association with a crossover vehicle that had only a five-year production run from 2002 to 2007.

“We checked before we went back to Pacifica to find out what the historical remnant is in people’s minds about the Pacifica and it’s nothing negative,” said Marchionne. “It may not have been incredibly successful in terms of volume, but I don’t think it was damaging to the brand of Chrysler. I’m not sure it’s a big gamble.”