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This year's biggest head-to-head automotive shoot-out is shaping up in the minivan segment.

Ford Motor Co.'s Ford Division, armed with an estimated $50 million launch budget for the new Windstar that hits the road March 24, is taking dead aim at ending Chrysler Corp.'s decadelong dynasty in the segment.

For its part, Chrysler has done all it can to ruin the Windstar's coming-out party by soaking up minivan demand with a sale that began Feb. 1, featuring a rare $500 rebate and up to $2,100 in discounts on options. The result was record-busting February sales of 46,314 Dodge Caravan, Plymouth Voyager and Chrysler Town & Country minivans, up 38% from the same month the year before.

"Chrysler has defined what a minivan is," said Thomas O'Grady, president of Integrated Automotive Resources, a Newark, Del., marketing consultancy. "The Windstar is their first serious challenge."

With sales expected to reach 1.2 million units this year, the minivan segment accounts for about $25 billion in sales. Last year, Chrysler accounted for 44.9% of the nearly 1.14 minivans sold in the U.S.

Adding spice to the Ford-Chrysler brawl are the symbolic and emotional aspects.

At Chrysler, minivans are nothing less than "the family jewels," as former Chairman Lee Iacocca described them. Big profits from those vehicles kept the company afloat and independent when it faced a financial crisis at the start of the decade.

Chrysler claims its loyalty rate among minivan owners is 73%, the highest for any vehicle in the industry, despite some quality glitches along the way.

"Our minivan owners have been forgiving because the product is so functional and utilitarian," said A.C. "Bud" Liebler, VP-marketing and communications.

As part of an effort to maintain that loyalty, Chrysler conducted a direct marketing campaign aimed at 2.5 million minivan owners earlier in the model year, Mr. Liebler said.

For Chrysler and Ford, the minivan battle is an important front in the struggle to claim psychological leadership of the domestic car industry as General Motors Corp. struggles to put its house in order.

Chrysler has a slew of critically acclaimed products, such as the LH sedans and new Neon subcompact, but Ford can brag about having the top-selling truck, car and sport-utility vehicle. And if the Windstar comes close to its eventual sales target of 300,000 units a year, it could bump Chrysler's Dodge Caravan, the minivan leader last year at 271,523 units.

Despite the rivalry, neither plans on mentioning the competition in advertising. Chrysler for now is running ads for its "national minivan sale," with BBDO Worldwide, Southfield, Mich., doing the work for the Dodge division and Bozell handling Chrysler/Plymouth.

"We think Windstar can stand on its own," said John Vanderzee, Ford Division advertising manager. "We're going to concentrate on telling people the superiorities of our vehicle and not mention Chrysler at all."

Ford's advertising from J. Walter Thompson USA, Detroit, will focus on claims of safety leadership with features such as standard anti-lock brakes (an option on Chrysler minivans) and attributes like the most cargo space of any minivan. The Windstar is longer than even the "stretch" minivans Chrysler markets, the Plymouth Grand Voyager and Dodge Grand Caravan.

Ford began with a 15-second teaser, followed with a pair of 30-second launch spots on March 24 and a four-page insert in USA Today the next day.

To generate test drives, Ford enclosed business reply cards in ads that are running in 50 million copies of 17 magazines. Most of the cards offer a free sales catalog, but 10% of the cards offer a videocassette on the Windstar, as Ford tests which method will produce more dealership visits.

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