The minivan: a vehicle whose time has come
A favorite story making the rounds of Chrysler Corporation goes like this: An auto haul-away truck loaded with new Dodge Caravan minivans wends its way through the back-road hills in an Eastern state. For more than 30 miles it is tailed by a motorist. Suspicious, the truck driver makes a beeline to the Dodge dealership where he's to drop off his load.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The car, however, follows him right into the parking lot. Alarmed, the driver leaps from his cab and rushes toward the dealership, but he's caught short by his pursuer. ''I've been following you for miles,'' he says, ''to see where you were taking these vans. I'm going in and order one right now.''
The storytellers don't say whether he was successful, but chances are he failed in his mission. Dodge Caravans, along with companion Plymouth Voyagers, are the hottest new items on the market since perhaps Ford Motor Company's Mustang, which debuted 20 years ago this month.
If the Dodge dealer in question was typical of his colleagues around the country, all the arriving Caravans had already been sold and only served to chip away at his lengthening order list.
In fact, buyers are waiting two months and longer to get their hands on the new downsized vans.
Meantime, Chrysler is stepping up production at the only plant where they're made - Windsor, Ontario - and for the short term is planning to do something that has never been done in an auto-assembly plant before: three shifts.
Longer term, the company will convert a second plant to minivan production.
Introduced in January, the front-drive Caravan and Voyager right now enjoy a virtual monopoly in the new marketing niche. Volkswagen of America's Vanagon, a quite different vehicle whose engine is mounted at the rear, and a spate of substantially smaller minivans from Japan are its only competitors.
But starting in September, General Motors enters the minivan market with its Chevrolet Astro and GMC USV (utility sport van), to be built at a rate of about 200,000 a year in Baltimore; and Ford follows in January with its Aerostar ''compact'' van, also scheduled at about 200,000 a year in St. Louis.
Thus, by the 1985-86 period, US minivans will roll off assembly lines at a roaring rate of more than 600,000 a year, ensuring that they'll be far from passing fads. Chrysler could use more output now, but whether that will be needed when its larger competitors, General Motors and Ford, arrive on the scene is what perplexes its planners as they look ahead to the market a year or two down the road.
Based on early returns, however, it is evident that the small van is a vehicle whose time has come for a good many reasons:
* Compared with full-size vans, all of the new models are garageable. Moreover, depending on engine and transmission combinations, they offer fuel economy that often doubles that of their larger counterparts.
Caravan and Voyager, for example, are rated at 24 miles per gallon in city driving and 38 on the highway when equipped with Chrysler's 2.2-liter, 4 -cylinder gasoline engine and manual gearbox. With a larger, optional 2.6-liter, 4-cylinder engine, they still achieve a respectable 21 in the city and 30 on the road.