On August 28, 2007, we joined a number of other journalists in Central Park, including representatives of Forbes, Reuters, Winding Road, and familycar.com, to view a selection of revised Chrysler products: the minivans, the Liberty, and the Dakota. (Not present were the mildly redesigned 300, Magnum, and Charger.) On this day we got the strong impression that Chrysler will be on the upswing, if its leaders invest in its future. The vehicles seem more intelligently engineered and styled (or more thoroughly tested), and they seem to have been positioned with more thought. Naturally, there was also no reference at all to German engineering.
The Dodge Dakota wore a new face; the Laramie on display had a fully chromed grille which made the truck look considerably more compact than the baby-Ram styling, and we were told that the other trim grades have other “faces.” With the new front end, the Dakota was still a bit awkward from some angles, with the unavoidable side bulges up front, but it looked much cleaner and had at least a stylistic differentiation from the big Rams that it ended up uncomfortably close to, in style, size, and price. The interior was nothing to write home about in appearance, but neither was it particularly bad, and there are some clever new features: an open shelf above the glove compartment, a cell/iPod shelf folds from the console, and hefty underseat storage with milk-crate like removeable bins. You can buy extra bins and keep fishing gear or other items in them, swapping bins rather than reloading them when going on different trips. The bed has been updated, with models from SLT up having tie-downs, a top protector, and a dual position gate that can be locked in the halfway-down position.
Over a half million mid-sized pickups were sold; many people prefer them to full-sized trucks and they tend to skew less to contractors and businesses than the Ram (which, in turn, seems to have a larger proportion of “really need it” buyers than Ford and Chevrolet.) There are six Dakota classes now including - SXT, SLT, Sport, TRX, and Laramie - each with its own face. The Sport is monochromatic, the TRX off-road oriented, the Laramie more luxury oriented. There are just two engines, the 3.7 V6 and the newly boosted 302 horsepower 4.7 V8 (which can run on E85). Two cabs are available, extended and crew. It is still the only truck in its class with a V8, and has the highest payload - 1,750 pounds, with 7,050 pounds of towing - and both part-time and full-time four wheel drive.
According to the trucks platform PR manager, they want to move the Dakota from the "baby Ram" concept to being a lifestyle vehicle, and have been discussing different features, size, and other aspects of the Dakota with customers. Expect lots of changes to the Dakota in the future - but for now, we have new styling that looks far more at home on the mid-to-large pickups.
The new Liberty, the first revision of the Cherokee replacement since 2002, has just Sport and Limited models, with a slight increase to 16 city, 22 highway with the 3.7 engine. The Selectrac II now has an electronic shifter, which is nifty - a three position, little-resistance black knob with chrome that takes no effort to move. The optional canvas top can be left in any position, not just open or closed; the Liberty is the first American vehicle to have this type of roof. It is indeed huge, and inside, it looks like a normal roof when closed. The interior generally looks nicer, with more bright chrome around the dash, two-tone fabric, doors, and dashboard, more storage places, the new corporate climate-control knobs, and doors that close with little pressure and a nice solid thunk. The exterior looks neat, trim, and Jeep-like.
The two minivans were there, side by side. The Dodge instrument panel had three huge pods, with a ribbed plastic glove compartment; the Chrysler (a Limited version) had light wood trim, including large pieces on the dash and instrument panel, and dull silver accents, with a flatter set of four gauges surrounded by dull silver trim rings. The grade of leather looked better on the Chrysler, as did the fabric on the back of the middle seats. There were similar "small but important" differences on the outside, with the Chrysler having more chrome accents and chrome door handles, and the Dodge having subtly different sheet metal to make it look more sporty. The Chrysler hood was not ribbed; they were striving for a 300 look, and apparently the ribs didn't work out. Michael Berube also said that they were seeking a “tailored” look for the Chrysler, and athletic for the Dodge; the Chrysler target is somewhat older and wealthier than the Dodge.
The new minivans are cheaper than the ones they replace - and have more features - and get slightly better gas mileage. The first ones have already hit dealers but the mass launch will be in October, when a sufficient number are at the dealers. All ads will target families.
We were told that these vans had been through more wind-tunnel testing than any Chrysler-brand vehicle sold before. Dave Smith, who rose up from electrical engineering to platform management, discussed with authority the changes they made to the headlamps, A-pillars, mirrors, sills, and roof-rack; the metal crease in the rear is a "flick" for better wind flow. When questioned, Dave Smith enthusiastically described what they had done and discovered. They also used 20% thicker glass on side windows to reduce noise. One result of this is that the gas mileage, using tougher 2008 standards, is 17 city, 24 highway on the 3.3 liter model (with a four speed automatic), and 16 city, 23 highway on the 3.8 and 4.0 liter models (with six speed automatics). Another is reduced noise in the cabin. Presumably highway passing is slightly better as well.
Dave told me that the chassis was completely new on this van, with a suspension they have not used before - MacPherson strut up front, with a twist-beam in the rear. He also told me that the Chrysler people were given autonomy over these decisions, and were not ordered to use any particular configuration by the Daimler or Mercedes people (which is probably why it doesn't have a multilink rear suspension). He said that they spent a huge amount of time tuning the suspension, striving to reach a balance between Honda's sport tuning and Toyota's comfort tuning. The structure and use of stronger steel minimizes body roll, making it feel safer in aggressive twisting; and towing uses special shocks that pump up with a liquid so that the ride doesn't degrade.
They took these vans through a variety of places, and discovered that strong sunlight could cause problems; owners of pretty much any cab-forward car can describe some of those. As a result, they worked hard on issues of reflectivity (seeing the dashboard in the windshield, etc), visibility (the LED bulbs could get washed out in sunlight), and other issues. They did clinics with customers and employees and suppliers and their families; and engineers watched through the one-way glass or actually had conversations with the people to get more in-depth knowledge. These may be the most well tested vehicles Chrysler has produced.
Oh, and that wonderful windshield-wiper defroster element put into place with the second generation minivans, and dropped with the last generation before the 2008s? Dave said that instead of having a heating element, they optimized the front defroster so that it would achieve the same goal, namely melting ice on the wiper blade. That was partly a side effect of the better airflow, but it was also intentional, a way to solve the problem of wiper-blade icing.
That's not even to mention all the wonders of the new minivan feature lists - the switch-operated seats that fold into the floor quickly and easily, the swivel seats with tables, the video systems, the stability control and rollover protections, the in-floor storage, the mesh pockets and overhead storage rail system, the integrated child and/or booster seats, the heated front and rear seats, the sunshades, flashlight, removeable seat, umbrella holder, premium sliding center console, dishwasher safe removeable cupholders, LED lighting, and illuminated map pockets on the doors.
According to Michael Berube, 1.1 million minivans have been sold every year, on average, since 1993, 1/15 of all vehicles sold in the US. Chrysler’s share of that has been declining considerably lately, but it is still an important segment, with Dodge remaining the volume leader and Chrysler coming in with a respectable placement as well. The main buyer is families with two or more kids and $50,000 or more in income, a population that will be growing; empty-nesters also like the convenience and versatility, and may be less inclined to spend extra money and fuel on a body-on-frame SUV that doesn't provide any advantages to those who don't tow or need four wheel drive. By the way, Michael claimed 25 mpg on a long highway trip with his family and the air conditioning on.
Finally, we had a long chat with a Chrysler rep who wasn’t wearing a nametag; we recognized him but never did recall his name. He told us about the new Dakota strategy, and said that they were asking customers what they wanted for the next generation - yes, there will be one, as far as we know. He also said that the Ram was doing very well, especially considering the hit taken by Ford and GM in their full-size pickups; the heavy duty, in particular, is doing well, with the Cummins engine proving to be a primary attraction. The chassis cabs are being sold, but they have not been on the market long, and the heavy duty (4500/5500) pickups are not due to be sold until September or October.
This show gave us considerably more confidence than we've had in the past; Chrysler seems to have been getting its act together since Dieter Zetsche started running the show in Stuttgart. Hopefully the advances will continue with the new people in the executive rooms.
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