Chrysler Getting into the Sport Van Game?

Staff - CAP staff
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Is the minivan segment set to make a major rebound? Once a thriving segment serving almost every family in North America, the so-called "soccer mom" stigma did as good a job   of reducing the number of brands building what many see as the most practical vehicle ever made as the environmental movement did in nearly wiping out the full-size SUV. Like people who need to tow heavy loads continue to opt for large sport utes, those that need to haul a lot of people continue to go the minivan route. But could a cool minivan cause buyers to aspire to the segment?

That's a question no one seemed to be asking when Toyota answered it with the new 2010 Sienna SE, and one that Honda appears ready to respond to with a much more stylish 2011 Odyssey. Dodge is by far the number one minivan brand, however, so will Auburn Hills create a sport van of its own?

The Wall Street Journal reports that Chrysler's sportier Dodge brand could bring a performance-oriented minivan to market within a few months,  and that it will pull design cues from the Caravan R/T concept first showed at the 2007 SEMA show in Las Vegas and after that at the 2008 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

The vision for the R/T came from Chrysler's Product Design Office; a division headed up by design manager Jeff Gale, the son of ex-Chrysler head of design Tom Gale. This truly magic van, boasting some of the stock vehicles' most enticing options as well as some unique twists, showed that a cooler minivan was possible.

First and foremost the prototype model's Viper-like hood scoop gave the machine a rather menacing appearance, and more impressive was that the vent was functional, ramming air into a revised induction system. The front and rear fascias were modified too, lower and more capable of keeping air away from the van's underbelly, while the rocker panels had been recovered to send that air down the side of the vehicle, increasing stability and reducing drag. A unique rear spoiler was added, enhancing aerodynamics and styling, while fat 245/45 20 Goodyear performance rubber filled out the Caravan R/T's wheel wells, wrapping 20 x 9 SRT rims.

Those wheels connected through to a reworked sport suspension featuring a lowered ride height, giving the van a hunkered down, ready for business attitude, while a sport-tuned exhaust system added to the visual, auditory and dynamic punch of the van.

Having increased performance via the sport exhaust and new induction system, Dodge revised the powertrain control module for snappier acceleration, although the powers that be weren't willing to fess up to the R/T prototype's final output numbers.

The last item of business, on the outside at least, was to  coat the new R/T in a striking hue of Fire Red Pearl paint that made it look fast standing still.

Inside, the R/T got a sportier look, with dark slate trim, sport seats wrapped in dark slate leather complemented by fire-red stitching and perforated suede inserts. Not quite as aggressive as those in a Viper or one of Chrysler group's SRT8 LX cars, the seats nevertheless appeared capable of keeping driver and front passenger in place during spirited driving.

Those in back would have been kept in full multi-media bliss thanks to the Caravan's dual-screen DVD entertainment system, ideal for movie lovers or gamers thanks to multiple input ports no matter where they would have been sitting. And speaking of seating arrangements, this Caravan featured the then-new Swivel 'n Go seating system, with a second row that swivels 180 degrees rearward and a removable table that can be installed between second and third rows.

So, today we ask the same question we queried in 2008 when we covered the Caravan R/T in a full concept review: should Dodge build it? While we liked it at the time, we summarized that most minivan owners would probably rather not attract attention to the fact that they're "forced to forgo the stylish sports car of their dreams and travel in the most noticeable compromise to their idealized self image."

The times have changed, mind you, as SUV-styled crossovers have now replaced minivans as the new "soccer mom" vehicle of choice, and while their collective  stigma isn't quite as repellent as the minivan became as its popularity waned, their cool factor has diminished slightly as well.

There are two ways of looking at the Caravan R/T. One, for Dodge to be bold and build it. If anything they'll sell more regular Caravans for all the news made with the R/T, and truly own the minivan market from the volume perspective they already enjoy, as well as the performance angle that Toyota and Honda rightly deserve.

Dodge might also want to contemplate whether a performance minivan should look all that much different than the regular van, not drawing much if any attention until it blasts past unwary sport sedan owners.

A sleeper van? Now that might have more curb appeal.

©(Copyright Canadian Auto Press)

Topics: Minivan, Dodge, 2007, Caravan,

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