Fiat Chrysler will roll out a pair of special edition minivans at the Chicago Auto Show later this week to mark the 35th anniversary of the automaker’s original “people-movers.”
Few individual vehicles have had a more dramatic impact on the U.S. automotive market as did the original Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager when they came to market in 1984, instantly clicking with buyers and rapidly spawning an array of competitors.
While minivan sales today are running little more than a third of their one-time peak, they still remain a go-to product for millions of American families and, FCA hopes to take advantage of that with the 35th Anniversary Models it will roll out on Thursday at Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center.
These will include special versions of both the Chrysler Pacifica, the automaker’s newest minivan, as well as the Dodge Grand Caravan, the latter originally expected to be dropped with the debut of the Pacifica. Instead, the Caravan has stuck around as the value model in the FCA line-up.
(Waymo kicks off autonomous ride-sharing service with Chrysler Pacifica minivans. Click Here for more.)
Both the regular, gas-powered Pacifica, as well as the plug-in Pacifica Hybrid will be offered in 35th Anniversary trim. That will include special exterior and interior badging, liquid chrome Chrysler wing badges and unique front and rear black trim. The two will feature black interiors with Cranberry Wine accent stitching on Napa leather seats, as well as door panels and the steering wheel. Buyers also will be able to add black grilles and other details with a custom appearance package.
The Dodge Grand Caravan has been living on borrowed time. It was originally expected to go away with the 2017 model-year debut of the Pacifica, then was given a reprieve of a year while the automaker decided whether it wanted to continue offering a second minivan line. At this point, it’s anyone’s guess how much longer the Dodge model will last but it is clearly growing old, the latest iteration dating back to 2008.
The Grand Caravan will get the special 35th Anniversary touch on its SE and SXT models, tweaks including a bright silver griller, special fender badges and 17-inch silver aluminum wheels. It will also get the black interior with Cranberry Wine accents, as well as piano black details on the console and gauge cluster.
Chrysler hasn’t announced pricing yet but plans to roll out the new models over the summer.
(Waymo will convert Pacifica minivans to run autonomously at new Michigan facility. Click Here for the story.)
Exactly when the minivan first appeared – and who created it – is a matter of debate. Some give credit to Volkswagen and its classic Microbus, but most feel the modern-day minivan was really Chrysler’s. It could have been Ford. Hal Sperlich, Ford’s product development chief in 1974, came up with the basic people-mover concept, including a sliding side door, and he had the support of then Ford President Lee Iacocca. But the idea was vetoed by Chairman Henry Ford II.
It was only after Iacocca was fired, going to what was then the Chrysler Corp., and bringing along Sperlich, that he was able to put the idea into production.
Following the 1984 debut, sales exploded and, within a few years, virtually every automaker was rushing to add a minivan to their line-up. “It was the go-to family car,” said Stephanie Brinley, principle automotive analyst for IHS Markit. At peak in 2000, American motorists purchased 1.4 million minivans.
Today, it’s a very different picture, said Brinley, pointing to what she calls the minivan’s “soccer-mom image.” Their boxy shape “is really better for moving around families and their stuff,” but she says minivans have lost their cache to sport-utility vehicles and crossovers that “have a more robust image of being able to do more than just move your family around.”
U.S. minivan sales were down to around 489,000 last year, according to IHS data. A number of players have pulled out of the segment, including FCA’s cross-town rivals Ford and General Motors. For its part, the smallest of the Detroit automakers struggled to hold its own against Honda’s Odyssey model for much of the past decade, though the arrival of the Pacifica has given FCA new moment. It captured 55% of the U.S. minivan market last year, with total sales of 270,000 units.
That said, it could use a little pick-me-up after weak January sales of its two remaining minivan models. The Pacifica saw a 13% year-over-year decline in sales, while the Grand Caravan plunged 32%.
Despite the slow start to 2019, Brinley is betting that minivan sales “have found a natural level” and, barring a major recession, should stabilize at somewhere north of 400,000 in the years ahead.
(Auto sales stabilized in January, despite Polar Vortex. Click Here to see who won and who lost.)