Doubts greet minivans from DaimlerChrysler

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The minivan market is heating up as segment leader DaimlerChrysler Corp. readies ad launches for its core products. But several auto experts and rivals are also throwing punches, saying the new Chrysler and Dodge models don't offer as many goodies as competitors.

DaimlerChrysler's new 2001 minivan models "are not protecting the family jewels," said Jim Hall, VP at consultancy AutoPacific, referring to the car marketer's minivans, its bread-and-butter lineup since their 1984 debut. DaimlerChrysler "underestimated the competition," he added, citing the absence of hideaway third-row seats as an example. But he conceded the new minivans have more powerful engines than American Honda Motor Co.'s Odyssey minivan.

Tom Barenboim, the Massachusetts' dealer who heads the Chrysler-Jeep Dealer Council, said the automaker researched the idea of folding seats, but "the negatives outweighed the positives." The seats, when up, create interior noise. "We'd rather have less noise."

Honda's Odyssey already has hideaway third-row seats and General Motors Corp.'s trio of 2001 minivans -- Chevrolet Venture, Pontiac Montana and Oldsmobile Silhouette -- offer the stowable seats for the first time. They are starting to arrive at GM dealerships now.

FURTHER AHEAD

A DaimlerChrysler spokesman said rivals have been unable to catch up with the success of its minivans and the new features on the '01 models put the marketer even further ahead. DaimlerChrysler's redesigned models "are all new from the ground up" and with their quality, amenities and refinements "are really setting benchmarks again," he said.

A DaimlerChrysler spokeswoman said the marketer would not discuss minivan advertising until this week.

The upcoming Chrysler brand minivan commercials, arriving in early September, discuss the Chrysler minivan's history, future and amenities, like the segment's first power liftgate. TV commercials from FCB Worldwide, Southfield Mich., also use a third-party endorsement that names Chrysler minivans best in class. The agency declined to comment.

BBDO Worldwide's Troy, Mich., office has created a new campaign for Dodge, but the marketer has so far declined to disclose details of the effort. In the past, BBDO has employed a consistent look for Dodge ads, using red vehicles on simple sets with actor Edward Hermann as voice-over and/or on-screen pitchman. But Mr. Hermann has refused to cross the picket line for striking TV commercial actors.

Campbell-Ewald, Warren, Mich., is touching up a 2000 model TV spot that breaks in October for the '01 Chevrolet Venture, said Michelle Stoutermire, assistant brand manager-marketing on the minivan. She explained the spot is "working well for us" building recognition of the Warner Bros. co-branded model that debuted as a 2000.

The commercial shows Warner's Bugs Bunny burrow from his rabbit hole into the Venture. Campbell-Ewald will create new executions early next year, she said.

Although the current spots don't highlight this feature, Ms. Stoutermire touted Venture's integrated, child-safety restraint system for toddlers of roughly 22-to-40 pounds, providing goof-proof seat installation. She said DaimlerChrysler's minivans don't offer this second-row seat feature.

Honda has been gaining ground in the segment since launching its 1999 model Odyssey in fall '98. Through July 2000, Honda sold 76,038 of the minivans -- just 1,763 fewer than it sold in all of 1999, according to Automotive News.

"The Honda Odyssey is fantastic and is the benchmark. [The benchmark] used to be Chrysler," said Wes Brown, analyst for market researcher Nextrend. To DaimlerChrysler's credit, the interior noise level on its '01 minivans has been significantly improved, which should please current owners, he said. "If you're in the market for a new minivan, you're going to look at DaimlerChrysler because they've always been No. 1, but you're going to look at Honda and Toyota too."

Jim Holden, president-CEO of DaimlerChrysler, has said the new minivans are evolutionary, not revolutionary, because research with current owners revealed they don't want major changes.

SHOULD MOVE BRISKLY

Mr. Barenboim, the Chrysler-Jeep dealer, said his 2000 model minivans should move briskly with a new incentive designed to clear them out before the newer ones arrive. But he said his models couldn't compete with the low financing Ford Motor Co. offered months ago on its Windstar.

Oldsmobile Silhouette, which gets the lowest production of GM's minivan trio, will stick to primarily print and Internet advertising for the '01 model, said Michael Danowski, assistant brand manager-product, on the minivan. Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, handles.

He said Silhouette competes primarily with the upscale Chrysler Town & Country. But he maintained Silhouette buyers get more features at a better value. The Olds' model ranges from $27,500 to under $35,000, while the top-of-the-line Town & Country will be in the high $30,000s, he said. The Oldsmobile comes with four wireless headphones for the audio-video system and the Town & Country comes with one.

The Chrysler model offers an entertainment video screen, but its not factory-installed like Silhouette's. "Theirs is dealer-installed, so there's no set process or consistent quality to it."

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