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JUNE 24, 2010

Chrysler Readies a Manly Minivan

Chrysler Group is working on a plan to make the soccer-mom minivan more macho, turning it into something even dad wouldn't mind driving.

Chrysler is calling it the "man van"—a special version of its Dodge Grand Caravan—and it is expected to appear at dealerships and be available for orders within the next few months, according to several auto dealers briefed on the matter.

Chrysler declined to comment. Company officials, including Dodge brand Chief Executive Officer Ralph Gilles and Chrysler Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne, discussed with dealers what they called the "man van" in Detroit late last month.

The vehicle will feature a slightly sportier look on the outside, possibly finished off with a black-and-gray interior trimmed with hot-colored stitching on the seats and steering wheel.

"A man van won't generate huge sales, but it's one of those vehicles that gets people talking and heads turning," said one dealer. "We need that now. I mean if it gets one guy to give the minivan a second look, its worth it."

It's part of Chrysler's wider strategy to make some older vehicles new again, as it continues wrestling with sluggish sales and increased competition. Later this year, Honda Motor Co. plans to launch a sleeker "athletic" design for the Odyssey, the top-selling minivan in the U.S.

Chrysler's man van may help overcome the stigma surrounding the minivan in the eyes of many men. With its focus on cup holders, sliding doors and a ho-hum driving experience, the minivan has an image as a boxy vehicle of convenience, driven by mothers to get the kids to soccer practice or pick up groceries.

Overall, automakers' U.S. sales of minivans have been falling, hitting 424,007 minivans last year, down more than 50% compared with 2005 levels, according to Autodata Corp. data.

The man van is expected to inject some excitement into the Dodge portfolio, which hasn't had much attention since "That got a hemi?", a talked-about 2006 ad campaign.

Dealers say Chrysler's man van may borrow heavily from the Grand Caravan R/T, a prototype it quietly rolled out in 2008 at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Auto makers use prototypes—known in the industry as "concepts"—to test consumer response.

In photos from the auto show, the prototype appears as a hot reddish-orange vehicle with a scoop in the hood finished off with an air vent over the engine. Inside, black-leather seats were trimmed in hot-red stitching.

The vehicle got little notice and was shelved amid mounting financial problems and the sale of Chrysler to Cerberus Capital Management LP.

In addition to the man van, Chrysler also is working on a souped-up luxury version of the Dodge Durango sport-utility vehicle, which is also being refreshed and will begin rolling off the production line later this year. That vehicle is dubbed the Citadel.

Mr. Gilles, who joined Chrysler's design studios in 1992, also serves as senior vice president of product design in his role as head of Dodge, a post he got last year following the auto maker's bankruptcy and subsequent merger with Fiat SpA.

Mr. Gilles is a long-time believer that auto makers can create, with a few tweaks, compelling products without the need to start all over again. And Mr. Marchionne is a staunch supporter of ideas that can broaden the Chrysler's design capabilities. Since taking over at Chrysler, he has spent the majority of his time on the look of Chrysler vehicles both inside and out. Recently he ordered changes on the headlights of the new Jeep Grand Cherokee that went into production this month.

Analysts are skeptical about whether these ideas—what Mr. Gilles calls "package innovation"—will work in an economy where people are still reluctant to spend.

"Consumers are looking for something different. They want value. They want a product that will take them through the next downturn," says IHS Automotive analyst Rebecca Lindland. "Generating sales by making cosmetic changes doesn't work when overall sales are low and the competition is fierce."

"In the end these vehicles bump sales," one dealer said. "Let's say you are ordering five minivans. You may choose just for fun to throw in a couple man vans. That's two more vehicles that Chrysler just sold."

LINK: Chrysler Readies 'Man Van' Minivan Based on its Grand Caravan R/T Concept Car -
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