Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Windsor Star/Grace Macaluso

The Windsor Assembly Plant "should" be home to a new, more versatile platform for the next generation minivan and crossover vehicle, Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne said Monday, Jan. 14.

Marchionne also raised the possibility of a smaller mini-van coming off the new platform. "The architecture that we've chosen to replace the minivan has the built-in versatility to both be shrunk and narrowed," Marchionne told reporters at the North American International Auto Show. "The reason we made the choice is we recognize at some point in time and also for international distribution the shrinking of the minivan may be required."

Marchionne said he has yet to decide which of the two minivan nameplates will be phased out. "That we don't know yet, although I can tell you we're going to be present with both brands in the people carrier business," he said. 

"Whether both brands will have sliding doors or not, that answer has been pretty well set. You will have one brand with sliding doors, but you will not be disappointed in going to the other brand that doesn't have sliding doors but will have the same type of capabilities of a people carrier."

The Windsor Assembly Plant builds the Dodge Grand Caravan and pricier Chrysler Town and Country minivans on three full shifts.

Settling the nameplate question has proven difficult, admitted Ralph Gilles, head of Chrysler's SRT brand who is spearheading the minivan's redesign. "You know why? Because both of them are successful, but it takes a lot of money to market two vans and the Caravan is extremely successful in Canada and Chrysler is slightly more successful in the United States," said Gilles.

"It's a tough one but I think we can satisfy the market needs with one product."

Last year, the Dodge Grand Caravan was the best-selling minivan in U.S, with 141,648 units sold in 2012, a 28 per cent increase over 2011.

In Canada, the Caravan and Town and Country are the automaker's second-best sellers and command more than 80 per cent of the minivan segment, said Dave Buckingham, chief operating officer.

"Of our 244,000 sales in 2012, 22 per cent were minivans. So, there's no strategy that we can put in place that isn't going to have a very important look at the minivan."

Gilles said he is working with up to eight different designs that could produce vehicles from the new platform.

"I have eight solutions that are possible on that platform," he said. "It's extremely flexible and a pillar of our future so I can't say if we'll end up with all eight of those or four or three."

Though the North American minivan segment has fallen significantly from its peak of more than one million annual sales in early 2000, Marchionne expects sales to stabilize anywhere between 500,000 and 700,000 units.

Minivans don't have to shrink in size to become more fuel efficient, said Gilles.

"We can make the vehicle lighter - a lot has to do with aerodynamics, weight and with our transmission technology we can get there without making the vehicle smaller."

One of his biggest tasks?

"One of my challenges for the minivan is finally to have a home for a woman's purse," Gilles said. "Women's purses have grown and grown and grown and just when we thought we had it covered, they keep growing. "