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Fiat Chrysler’s decision to stop making the Dodge Grand Caravan in 2016 is a big shift for a manufacturer credited with inventing the modern minivan in 1984 and that once offered the family-friendly vehicles under a variety of different badges.
The move ─ which leaves the maker with just one minivan, the Chrysler Town & Country ─ reflects not only the changes coming as Fiat Chrysler Automobiles rejiggers its brand strategy, but also the long and steady decline of a once-popular market segment that today is largely disdained by American motorists.
Minivan sales shrank by 4 percent in 2013, according to industry data, to 532,357. That’s still enough volume that the industry can’t completely write off what critics have dubbed “mom-mobiles,” but it’s a far cry from the 1.4 million minivans manufacturers like Chrysler sold at the segment’s peak in 2000.
And the odds are that when it cuts its current lineup in half, Chrysler will see a further decline in total sales, says David Sullivan, a senior analyst with consulting firm AutoPacific Inc. But the surviving Town & Country model just might reinvigorate the segment if the Detroit maker delivers the sort of surprise-and-delight redesign it came up with for its original 1984 models.
“They could come up with a new model that will awaken or redefine the segment,” says Sullivan, who attended a daylong briefing on FCA’s product plans this week. “They are doing more research on this new minivan than I’ve seen in a long time. “
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Good, new product has traditionally been a way to reinvigorate a weak product segment. But with just a few exceptions, the minivan market hasn’t seen much in recent years. Chrysler’s No. 1 competitor, the Honda Odyssey, added a built-in vacuum cleaner for 2014, but that’s a far cry from such once-revolutionary breakthroughs as sliding doors, foldaway seats and a dozen cup and juice box holders.
Meanwhile, there are fewer players in the current minivan segment since the mid-1990s, when the segment captured a peak 8.5 percent of the total U.S. automotive market. Chrysler alone has killed off the old Plymouth Voyager and the short-wheelbase Dodge Caravan. Both General Motors and Ford Motor Co. have pulled out of the segment.
The only other models now available are the Odyssey, the Toyota Sienna, the Nissan Quest, the Kia Sedona and the Mazda5.
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Chrysler has been toying with ideas designed to reshape the concept of the minivan for years. It’s a challenge considering the basic functionality demanded by those who love the vehicles forces them to stick with a basic “one-box” design. Chrysler tried to go for a more radical look with the 700C concept of a few years ago, and it remains to be seen if that will influence the styling of the next Town & Country due out in 2016.
One thing the maker has confirmed is that the new model will be offered with the minivan segment’s first plug-in hybrid powertrain, which is expected to yield “an estimated 75 mpg,” according to Chrysler brand CEO Al Gardner. And by using the electric motor to drive one axle and the gas engine to power the other, the minivan might offer an unusual all-wheel-drive capability that, analyst Sullivan believes, could further enhance its appeal.
Meanwhile, with millennials just reaching the age where they’re starting their own families, some analysts believe the 2016 Chrysler Town & Country could come along at precisely the right time for a modest minivan revival.
The decision to drop the Dodge version reflects, as much as anything, that brand’s shift to concentrate on its high-performance heritage with models like the Charger and Challenger muscle cars. But in a Q&A session wrapping up Tuesday’s strategy session, FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne cryptically hinted that the Grand Caravan nameplate itself might not go away. That leaves open the possibility that either it could become a second minivan badge for the Chrysler brand or, alternatively, be used for one of the crossover models the Detroit maker is working on as an alternative for folks who want minivan amenities without the segment’s stigma.
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