Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCAU - Get Report) is betting big that the minivan isn't toast -- and won't be anytime soon. As Millennials start having children, Fiat Chrysler hopes they'll choose the vehicle that schlepped many of them to school, to soccer games and to grandma's house.
Only the new van won't be a Chrysler Town and Country -- that name has been mothballed. Instead, Fiat Chrysler has dubbed its next-gen minivan Pacifica, a new name (albeit formerly used for a discontinued crossover) meant to signal an all-new look, a new mechanical architecture and an array of new features, such as easy-opening push-button sliding doors.
Fiat Chrysler's $2.6 billion investment in Pacifica includes an overhaul of its 88-year-old factory in Windsor, Ontario, which is across the river from Detroit, where previous Chrysler minivans were built.
Jill Ciminillo, an automotive reviewer, cited "surround view cameras" as one of several "cool features" in Pacifica.
"Chrysler invented the minivan, and it invested heavily in it, and has dominated the market. It makes sense for Chrysler to stay with it," said Michele Krebs, senior analyst at AutoTrader.com, to the Detroit Free Press. "My big question is how good is the quality going to be. They are going up against two brands (Honda (HMC - Get Report) and Toyota (TM - Get Report) ) that have great quality ... and there is no way of knowing that until it is on the road."
Fiat Chrysler's bet looms large for two reasons. First, the automaker carries more debt than its competitors and can ill afford a mistake. Second, the U.S. minivan segment has shrunk drastically as crossovers have become the hot multipurpose vehicle category preferred by many families, as well as couples.
For the moment, Fiat Chrysler makes most of its profit from Jeep models and from Ram pickups. If the automaker's calculations are correct, minivans could improve the automaker's overall profit margin. Overtures last year by Sergio Marchionne, Fiat Chrysler's chief executive, to General Motors (GM - Get Report) raised questions about whether the company can be self-sufficient in the long term.
In 2000, nearly 1.4 million minivans were sold in the U.S. Last year, the number hovered at about 500,000. FCA remains the leader in the category, as automakers including GM, Ford (F - Get Report) and Nissan (NSANY) have dropped minivans from their lineup in favor of crossovers. Toyota's Sienna, Honda's Odyssey and Kia's Sedona are competitive. Honda is expected to introduce a new Odyssey later this year.
GM employed a similar gambit to Fiat Chrysler, to great success, with its decision to double-down by investing in new versions of full-size, truck-based SUVs even though the segment was shrinking. GM is profiting with the new Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Sierra -- partly thanks to moderate gas prices and partly because competitors pulled back.
Pacifica starts at about $29,000, including destination charge. The vehicle's newly engineered underpinning will make it feel more stable on the road and handle much better than predecessors or competitors, the company said. The priciest versions, with all available electronics, safety equipment and leather upholstery, will cost nearly $45,000.