No more 'mom mobile': Chrysler innovates to keep lead in heated minivan war

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Chrysler Group, with an unusual new-product twist, is defending its lead in the hard-fought war of the minivans.

Chrysler has dominated the segment since it introduced its minivans in 1984, but has been criticized for failing to keep pace with the category innovations. While its models introduced the industry's first power liftgate, they didn't have hideaway third-row seats available in competitive minivans.

Now, the automaker is going a step further by offering an industry first in its upcoming Town & Country and Dodge Caravan minivans: Second- and third-row seats that fold flat into the floor, dubbed Stow'N Go.

"We remain the minivan sales leader and we'll continue to stay ahead of the pack," boasted Wolfgang Bernhard, chief operating officer. He did not disclose advertising plans for the new models, handled by Omnicom Group's BBDO Worldwide, Troy, Mich.

bullish on prospects

Industry experts are bullish on its prospects. Jim Sanfilippo, exec VP at Omnicom's AMCI auto consultantcy, said the Stow'N Go feature is a "mid-cycle surprise" to Chrysler's current minivan that may boost the segment to a comeback. He said the changes "greatly improved the flexibility of the package and raised the bar on an existing product." Todd Turner, president of consultant CarConcepts, predicted Chrysler's disappearing seats will help it start in 2004 to recapture some of its lost share.

Mr. Sanfilippo compared Stow'N Go to American Honda Motor Co.'s mid-cycle upgrade of its Odyssey minivan last year with an offering of a 240-horsepower engine. Honda arrived late to the segment in fall of '98 with its 1999 Odyssey, which gets its first total redo next year. Honda is second in minivan sales this year through November behind the Dodge Caravan and Grand Caravan. But the Odyssey sales last month slipped to 10,457 units from 14,024 in November 2002. Independent Rubin Postaer & Associates, Santa Monica, Calif., handles.

Kia Motors America has done well since introducing its first minivan model, the Sedona, in the spring with an impressive five-star government safety rating. After the initial blitz in March, the South Korean importer planned to run Sedona TV spots in alternating months through year's end. Independent David and Goliath, Los Angeles, handles.

simple spot

Ford Motor Co.'s Ford Freestar went on sale in October, replacing the Windstar. Freestar is backed by a single, simple TV spot from WPP Group's J. Walter Thompson, Detroit, showing an auto journalist standing next to minivan and touting its virtues. Steve Lyons, president of Ford Division, said the vehicle's main blitz will begin in mid-February, when minivan buyers traditionally shop.

Toyota Motor Corp. is sitting pretty since it launched its second-generation Sienna minivan earlier this year. The campaign, from Publicis Groupe's Saatchi & Saatchi Los Angeles, Torrance, Calif., used a "Kids Rule" theme. Toyota sold 81,000 Siennas last year with its old model and Don Esmond, senior VP-general manger of the Toyota division, projected sales would rise to at least 130,000 units this year.

Nissan launched its first competitive minivan in August when its launched its restyled Quest with the ad theme, "Moms have changed, so has the minivan." Omnicom's TBWA/Chiat/Day, Playa del Rey, Calif., is the agency.

Indeed, though mocked as uncool mom-mobiles, minivans remain an important industry segment. Sales in have consistently topped 1 million every year since 1993, according to the Automotive News Data Center. Minivan sales through November jumped 12% to 981,418 units vs. a year ago, according to Automotive News.

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