Count Fenton in on new minivan
January 8, 2007Count Fenton in on new minivan
By Christopher Boyce
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
DETROIT — Facing increasing competition in the line it debuted in 1983, Chrysler unveiled the fifth generation of its minivans Sunday and announced the company's south plant in Fenton will begin making the new signature product this fall.
The announcement appears to remove doubt about the future of the South Fenton plant as Chrysler struggles to compete with foreign automakers. Some industry observers had questioned whether Chrysler might close the South Fenton plant.
Chrysler chief executive Tom LaSorda presented the 2008 Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country vans at the North American International Auto Show's press preview. The company is slated to begin production at its Windsor, Ontario, plant in July. Fenton will begin producing the vans in September, said Michelle Tinson, Chrysler's manager of manufacturing and labor media relations.
The minivans will be among the first vehicles to roll off the South plant's new flexible manufacturing line. In December 2005, the Detroit automaker announced a $1 billion investment to install this assembly method at the plant. The 3,200 employees at that plant have been assembling minivans since it reopened after a four-year closure in 1995. The plant will close in mid-May to be outfitted with new manufacturing robots.
Flexible manufacturing allows automakers to produce multiple vehicles during the same shift on the same assembly line. The change is intended to improve the plants' efficiency and allow Chrysler to respond to peaks and valleys in demand as quickly as some of its competitors.
The company's chief executive has recently been under heat to spark sales for the company after it reported a $1.5 billion loss in the third quarter. Last week, the company reported sales of the Caravan were down 7 percent for the year while Town & Country sales fell 12 percent from a year ago. Meanwhile, the Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey minivans have made significant strides in popularity in the market once dominated by Chrysler.
Chrysler also has seen sales of the Dodge Ram slip, causing analysts to speculate about the future of the North Fenton plant, where the Rams have been made since 1998.
LaSorda also announced the redesigned minivans will be one of eight new or redesigned vehicles Chrysler debuts this year.
LaSorda stood center stage with celebrity chef Bobby Flay at one point during the announcement as Flay prepared a chocolate layer cake — which LaSorda used as a loose metaphor for the vehicle that has recently been the main ingredient in the automaker's "recipe for success."
The cake would turn up later in the presentation, as Chrysler showed off the van's most significant new feature — "Swivel 'n Go" seats. The van's second-row seats were turned 180 degrees to face the rear row, and Flay displayed his cake on a removable table that installs between the second and rear rows.
This is not the first time Chrysler has turned to the seemingly pedestrian minivan line to grab attention at the industry's premier event. It made waves in 1996 with its sliding driver-side door and again in 2005 by adding the Stow 'n Go seating system with second- and third-row seats that folded into the vehicle's floor. Swivel 'n Go is the next step for what LaSorda called Chrysler's "bread and butter."
"As the originators, we know what goes into a great minivan," LaSorda told the auto show audience. "These vehicles mean a lot to our customers, and they mean a lot to us."
The minivan is slated to hit showrooms in the fall.