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Chrysler Corp. executives are already claiming they have reinvented the minivan with the 1996 models that go on sale this spring. But success will depend just as much on whether the automaker can reinvent the image of a vehicle now identified mainly as a suburban kid hauler.

Chrysler's marketing goal is to impart the cachet that sport-utility vehicles like its popular Jeep Grand Cherokee now carry.

"Until just a few years ago, sport-utilities weren't acceptable at the country club," said Steve Torok, general manager, Chrysler/Plymouth division. He said it was a focused marketing effort-including ads that showed the vehicles in upscale, sophisticated settings-that improved the image of sport-utilities.

The broadening minivan image is a key part of Chrysler's ambitious plan to expand sales by developing sharper brand identities.

In the past, Chrysler sometimes advertised its three minivan brands in one umbrella campaign. That won't be the case this time because of the new stress on brand identity, said Theodor Cunningham, exec VP-sales and marketing.

Chrysler will spend an estimated $100 million on the launch, starting in April with direct mail and following with advertising in mid-May. That's about what it spent in 1992 on the introduction of its LH sedan series, its biggest marketing send-off to date.

Plymouth Voyager will be presented as the value choice for first-time buyers, Dodge Caravan will carry the broadest line of models for the core family and Chrysler Town & Country will be positioned as a luxury car alternative.

Bozell is developing the campaign for the Chrysler and Plymouth minivans; BBDO Worldwide, also Southfield, Mich., will do the same for Dodge. Ross Roy Communications, Bloomfield Hills, is overseeing the April direct marketing effort going to 1 million prospective buyers.

"The old paradigm that minivans are only for aging baby boomers has been broken," said Chris Theodore, general manager-minivan platform and vehicle engineering. About 25% of Chrysler minivan buyers last year were single; about 5% were under 30.

The minivans represent an important introduction for the No. 3 automaker. Cars grab more headlines, but it's the high-profit minivans and Jeep models that contribute most to the bottom line.

The first Chrysler minivans, the front-wheel drive Caravan/Voyager models introduced in late 1983 as 1984 models, saved the company from bankruptcy and triggered a shift in consumer preference for trucks over cars that still hasn't peaked.

Despite a raft of domestic and import competitors, Chrysler remains the big dog in minivans. In 1994, the company sold 41.3% of the industry's 1.26 million units.

Ford Motor Co. is the only automaker making a serious run at Chrysler. Ford last year added the front-drive Ford Windstar to its rear-drive Ford Aerostar and the upscale Mercury Villager. Ford, with a 29.2% compact van share last year, hopes to take an even bigger bite this year as Chrysler retools factories to build the new models.

Mr. Cunningham said Chrysler spent $2.6 billion to redesign its minivans from the ground up, the most the company has ever invested in a vehicle project. Chrysler paid special attention to the views of its current 4.5 million minivan owners.

Chrysler sees its biggest potential with the Town & Country, projecting sales will at least double the 33,656 units sold in 1994. The automaker hopes to attract affluent empty nesters and other luxury car buyers.

A top-of-line Town & Country is expected to be priced near $30,000. At the other end, the Plymouth Voyager will likely begin in the $16,000 range.

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