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Can Chrysler Save the Minivan After Years of Decline?

Image: Car Makers Reveal New Models At N. American International Auto Show In Detroit

Chrysler introduces the 2017 Pacifica minivan at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan on Jan. 11, 2016. Scott Olson / Getty Images

It went from being one of the hottest products on the auto market to the butt of jokes. But is the minivan slated for oblivion, or can Chrysler make it cool again?

No automaker is more closely identified with the minivan. The Detroit side of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles invented the modern family-mover back in 1984, and for years it struggled to keep up with booming demand, with overall U.S. minivan sales at one point nudging 2 million annually. But as demand has fallen by nearly 75 percent in recent years, some skeptics are wondering if minivans will even survive.

"There's a martyrship about owning a minivan for some people," acknowledged FCA's chief designer Ralph Gilles. "We wanted to get that out of the ownership experience."

The test will come in the months ahead as Chrysler begins rolling its new Pacifica model into showrooms. It's the first major remake of the company's primary minivan line in more than a decade — a lifetime by automotive standards — reflecting the struggle the product development team had coming up with something that wouldn't leave potential buyers cold.

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The challenge was coming up with a design that moved away from the admittedly boring box-on-wheels design of the classic minivan, picking up some of the more macho styling cues that have led millions of one-time minivan owners to switch to SUVs. But the irony is that, to get the looks they like, customers have often been willing to sacrifice the family-friendly features that once made minivans so popular.

"You lose a lot of functionality with a utility vehicle," said Dave Sullivan, a senior auto analyst with AutoPacific, Inc.

Chrysler officials insist they've changed just about everything with the Pacifica — even the name, abandoning the old Town & Country nameplate that had been around for decades. The new minivan starts out with an entirely new platform and a body that's a bit more like a utility vehicle, with a more sharply raked windshield, lower roofline, and more muscular wheel arches.

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Some things haven't changed, however, notably the power-operated sliding doors that are both a key advantage of the minivan — and one of the visual cues so many folks have come to hate. The Pacifica also carried over and enhanced the old Town & Country's foldaway second and third-row seats. And the when they're open, the bins those seats fold into can now be used as giant ice buckets for tailgate parties and picnics.

The new Pacifica is a huge vehicle but gets surprisingly good mileage, with an EPA highway rating of 28 mpg, second-best in the segment. Meanwhile, a plug-in hybrid version is set to follow late this year, and will deliver an equivalent rating of as much as 80 mpg-e, while also allowing up to 30 miles in electric-only mode using a 16 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery.

To further enhance its appeal, the new Chrysler model adds a raft of family-friendly technologies, including twin 10-inch video screens for the second row with built-in video games. There's also a long list of advanced safety features, including active cruise and a forward collision warning system that can brake the van to a complete stop if a driver fails to respond to a potential crash.

"We've reinvented the minivan for today's modern family," says marketing director Bruce Velisek. Whether those family buyers will take Chrysler up on the offer is far from certain, however, cautions analyst Sullivan.

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Simply holding current sales levels would be something of an accomplishment after years of steady decline. At one point in the 1990s, minivans accounted for more than 2 million sales annually. That slumped to 504,900 last year, according to AutoPacific. For its part, Chrysler was forced to close one of its two original minivan plants — but it fared better than cross-town rivals Ford and General Motors, both of which abandoned the segment entirely.

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Today, only Honda, Toyota and Nissan among the Japanese automakers, and Korean companies Kia and Hyundai continue to market minivans in the U.S.

AutoPacific is upbeat about the short-term prospects for both Chrysler and the minivan segment. It expects an overall jump of more than 10 percent, to 568,200 vans this year. And it predicts the smallest of the Detroit makers will deliver a more than 60 percent increase, to 150,300.

Longer-term, however, the consulting firm is less upbeat. It expects minivan demand to resume its downward spiral in 2017, the segment dropping to barely 421,000 by the beginning of the next decade.

"There's an image problem, a stigma," that just can't be overcome, said Sullivan.

Chrysler is intent on proving the skeptics wrong, and the new Pacifica could be the real test of whether there's any life left in the minivan market.