DETROIT – They're calling it "Swivel n' Go," and it could be the most important innovation in Chrysler's recent history.
The new versions of the company's minivans to be unveiled this week at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit have second-row seats that swivel 180 degrees to face the third row, and a table can be installed for family card games, homework or a million other things that people might try to do on the way to wherever.
DaimlerChrysler AG's (DCX) struggling Chrysler Group is banking on the feature, the centerpiece of its redesigned minivans, to attract buyers at a time when minivan sales have sputtered. But there's also new opportunity because Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. have abandoned the minivan market.
"As we observed families, the family room of yesterday, 20 years ago, really doesn't exist any more," said Ann Fandozzi, Chrysler's director of front-wheel-drive product marketing. "Families are very busy, running to sporting events three, four, five times a week, traveling a lot. So what we wanted to deliver with this new minivan is literally a family vehicle, a family room on wheels."
Chrysler rolled out the first minivan in 1983 and has led the market ever since. Its new Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Caravan minivans are a little boxier looking than in the past but have more interior head and shoulder room than their predecessors. Yet Fandozzi said they don't lose any aerodynamics and even get better fuel economy, especially with an optional six-speed transmission.
Key to "Swivel n' Go" is that the safety belts are contained within the seats and work even while facing backward, helping the vans meet crash test standards no matter which way the seats are configured, Chrysler says. The new vans also have standard all-row side curtain air bags with rollover protection, the company says.
The new seating arrangement should help Chrysler stay ahead of Honda and Toyota, which have gradually chipped out slices of the minivan market in recent years, said Tom Libby, J.D. Power and Associates' senior director of industry analysis.
"I applaud them for innovation. If you don't innovate, you'll fall behind," Libby said. "They're innovating to remain leaders. They're showing that they're not going to go back into second place in terms of innovation."
Ford and GM never really made inroads against Chrysler in the minivan market. Ford officials believe sales in the segment are going to drop as baby boomers age out of child-rearing years and as the segment is overrun by dozens of car-based crossover vehicles that carry as many people but don't have the "soccer mom" stigma.
Chrysler, however, sees hope in the children of baby boomers, Generation Y, who Fandozzi says are more family oriented, less status-conscious and less likely to buy a truck-based sport utility vehicle.
Crossovers, she said, are more likely to take buyers from SUVs because buyers want better fuel economy.
U.S. minivan sales sputtered last year, dropping 12.2 percent from 2005. Consumers bought roughly 1.1 million two years ago compared with roughly 971,000 last year.
Fandozzi blames the drop on the sluggish economy affecting budget-conscious families.
"You're going to see it in the minivan segment before anywhere else," she said, predicting a minivan recovery later this year to around 1.2 million in sales.
Judging from its sales last year, Chrysler could use a new van. The current versions of the Caravan and Town & Country both dropped in sales last year, with the Caravan off 6.9 percent and the Town & Country down 12 percent.
Yet Chrysler's closest van competitors, the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna each showed sales increases, with the Odyssey up 2.1 percent and the Sienna rising 1.2 percent.
The new vans also can be equipped with separate video systems for the second and third rows of seats, and they have as an option a hard drive behind the dashboard that can store music and handle iPods and other digital music players.
The redesigned vans are critical to Chrysler's efforts to turn its sales around. Chrysler Group's U.S. sales fell 7 percent last year, and it lost $1.5 billion in the third quarter.
"This product is so incredibly critical for Chrysler because it represents their highest-volume selling vehicle in their product lineup when you put Caravan and Town & Country together," said Erich Merkle, director of forecasting for the auto consulting company IRN Inc. in Grand Rapids.
The 2008 vans are due in showrooms this coming fall. Chrysler won't say how much they'll cost, but Fandozzi said the company realizes that things are tight for families.
"We're very conscious of the fact that the economy has slowed down a bit," she said.