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DCX Sequitur

How does a company follow up a popular coupe, sedans that attained three of the four top spots in the 2000 Entry Mid-size segment of the J.D. Power Initial Quality Study, and the vehicle that it has essentially defined (i.e., the minivan)? Here are the answers.

Driving Forward in Cars.
"Cars still matter."
Which is an interesting comment from Ron Zarowitz, product planning executive, of the 2001 Dodge Stratus and Chrysler Sebring coupes, if for no other reason than the fact that he feels it's necessary to say it. Of course cars matter. But his point is that not everyone is buying sport utility vehicles (SUVs). In fact, he points out that as many of the Baby Boomers become Empty Nesters, they are rolling out of SUVs and minivans and back into cars like the coupes of their days gone by.

So in anticipation of meeting their needs, they have created a new platform for the coupes, and renamed the vehicle formerly known as the Dodge Avenger.

The coupes are built at the Mitsubishi Motor Assembly plant (formerly known as Diamond Star Motors) in Normal, Illinois (the plant that went on line in 1988 as a venture between Mitsubishi and Chrysler—and now Chrysler is DaimlerChrysler and DCX has a controlling interest in Mitsubishi Motors, so suffice it to say that what was known as Diamond Star is, well, we're not sure). And so they share a platform with the Mitsubishi Eclipse coupe (and also the Gallant, which is, curiously enough, a sedan)...but they are 3 in. longer than the Eclipse. The two DCXs are siblings in size and yet are visibly distinct: the hood, doors and roof are the only body panels that are shared between the two. Given that there is a conscientious effort by DCX designers to establish brand cues (e.g., Chryslers having the egg-crate grille and the Dodges displaying the signature cross-hair grille), the treatment of not only the fascias, deck lid and the tail lamps (with the rear of the Sebring seeming like a scale model of a 300M and the Stratus linked to the Intrepid), but even the window treatments are linked.

The Town & Country Limited. One of the many "firsts" that DCX claims in the minivan arena is available on the 2001 models: a powered liftgate. Notes Tom Moore, vice president, Liberty and Technical Affairs Div., "An electric-powered device was chosen to operate the liftgate not only for its simplicity and low cost, but also because it fit into the existing structure of our minivans." They are nothing if not pragmatic.

The bodies are a whole lot stiffer than their predecessors (+90% bending; +9% torsional). Not only was this achieved through the addition of materials (more steel), but also by improving component design. And the fact there is a one-piece body side aperture rather than the assembly of seven pieces that make up the side of the previous generation doesn't hurt, either.

And while on the topic of not hurting, there was plenty of attention to providing notable occupant protection through the implementation of materials: thick, high tensile steel side members are used to help absorb impact; there are extended reinforcements to the A-pillars to help oppose roof crushes; a high tensile steel roll-formed beam is used in the front bumper. And there is plenty of foam padding beneath the interior skin.

Meanwhile, over at the Sterling Heights Assembly Plant (SHAP) in Michigan, the Chrysler Sebring and the Dodge Stratus sedan are being manufactured. Just as the Dodge traded a name in the coupe segment, Chrysler is trading a name in sedans: the Chrysler Cirrus is now the Sebring.

The product development time for the sedans was 26 months. That's eight fewer than were necessary for the first-generation sedans, which debuted in 1995. Although it took less time, it cost more money: the development program for the first generation came in at $940 million. This time it was $985 million—but there are at least two nontrivial differences. For one thing, previously, the Sebring convertible was being produced in Toluca, Mexico. That plant is where the PT Cruiser is being built. Even before it was known just how popular that vehicle would be, the plan was to produce the convertible at SHAP—not in a separate area of the plant, but on line, along with the sedans. Also, they have been able to improve the layout of the plant and have instituted a lean approach to inventory (e.g., having about just two hours' worth at line-side), so that there is room opened up in the plant to be able to accommodate a future vehicle.

Once SHAP is fully running, the sedan capacity is 300,000 units.

Designers At Work: More Than Digital French Curves
DCX design is certainly one of the corporation's competitive advantages. In fact, those DCX employees who don't work in the design office are probably jealous of those who do since the designers tend to garner so much positive publicity (as in the preceding sentence).

But as one example from the development of the Chrysler Sebring sedan (see the photo on the cover of this magazine) indicates, there is a whole lot more going on in DCX design than the creation of clever shapes.

During vehicle testing (physical, not digital in CATIA) it was determined, recalls Trevor Creed, senior vice president of Design, that there was insufficient engine cooling on the Sebring, egg-crate grille notwithstanding. A solution that the engineers came up with was to add holes to the nose of the vehicle. This would have provided the necessary airflow for cooling, but the holes would have, Creed points out, been rather unsightly.

So, looking at the requirement from both functional (i.e., cooling) and aesthetic (i.e., this is a DCX vehicle, after all) points of view, the solution was found by placing an opening around the winged Chrysler badge on the front of the fascia. This does the job in a nearly invisible manner.

And Creed cites a bad Bette Midler-inspired pun about it: "We've put the wind beneath the wings."

"We shall call it ‘Mini van.'"
The now ubiquitous minivan had its start November 2, 1983, as a Chrysler Corp. product. DCX has, not surprisingly, maintained dominance in the segment. That is, it has sold over 8 million minivans in this period of time. In the auto industry, practice doesn't ever make perfect, but this experience makes DCX awfully damn good. At least that's what the market seems to be saying. Consider:

  • In 1999, DCX sold 607,000 units. Which represents almost 40% of the market.
  • In 1999, GM came in second in the minivan marketplace, selling some 408,000 units.
  • The Dodge Caravan alone has about a 24% marketshare (selling, on average, some 350,000 units per year).
  • When it comes to what can be considered economy models—those priced below $20,000—DCX dominates: a 62% marketshare.
  • When it comes to the mid market (between $20,000 to $30,000), the place where there is plenty of competition, DCX does well: 33% of the market.
  • And when it comes to the upper end, the luxury minivan segment, which DCX credits itself with creating in 1990 with the Chrysler Town & Country, it has 50% of the market.

All of which is to say that in a very real sense, DCX has defined what a minivan is; other companies have been doing variations on that theme.

Interesting enough, when talking with Trevor Creed, he mentioned that there are some characteristics of genus minivan (e.g., garageable, chair-height seating, a flat floor that can accommodate a 4 x 8-ft sheet of plywood [which is a somewhat bizarre characteristic, as though driving around with building products is a common way of life]), that essentially must be in order for said vehicle to be a minivan. Creed comments, "People expect a flat floor because that's what we told them." When you have 40% of the segment (in which you are vying with 15 competitive nameplates) that you created, you can pretty much define the rules of the game.

Pop-up rear cargo organizer
One of the options on the 2001 minivan is a clever development of one of the DCX suppliers on the program, Johnson Controls. It developed this pop-up rear cargo organizer, which provides steady transport for things like grocery bags, yet folds out of the way so that there is that flat floor that is so characteristic of real minivans.

The Physical Edge.
One of the issues that is being brought up vis-à-vis DCX's dominance in the minivan segment is that there are not only far more competitors in the game now than when the company literally owned the table, but that some of these players (e.g., Honda, with its current Odyssey) are sharp, indeed.

The DCX people are certainly cognizant that the stakes are higher, as customers are being increasingly drawn to the alternatives (e.g., pointing out, for example, that although the Odyssey's flat-folding rear seat may be clever, it necessitates a metal tub in the rear of the vehicle that, because of the laws of physics, amplifies road noise whereas they worked to create a vehicle that would be sufficiently quiet so that someone sitting in the rear seat speaking in a normal tone of voice could be heard by the driver*).

But there is currently an insurmountable edge that DCX holds compared with all of its competitors: production capacity.

The DCX minivan is produced in three plants: in Windsor, Ontario, Canada; St. Louis, MO; Graz, Austria. Last year, the production of units was 650,000. With the rolling changeovers that are occurring, it is anticipated that there will be an even greater number produced this year.

At Windsor Assembly, when full production is reached this year, the 6,100 team members will be able to produce 72 jobs per hour; with three seven-and-a-half hour shifts, this means 370,000 vehicles per year. At the Honda plant in Alliston, Ontario, Canada, where the Odyssey is produced, the capacity is 160,000 per year.

No other company has DCX's minivan production capacity.

What's more, DCX has another advantage, which is based, in part, on its longevity in the segment, familiarity with minivan build requirements, and sensitivity to customer needs: it offers a broad array of variants, such as four different engines; standard and extended wheelbases; all-wheel or front-wheel drive; and vehicles at all price points within the category.

Material Matters.
One of the apparent themes in engineering the new minivans is safety. Which has led to the implementation of a variety of materials, such as a polypropylene material called "Metalocene." This is used to trim the inside of the passenger department (on the A-, B-, C-, and D-pillars). Below its surface are molded ribs. The effect is that in the event of an accident, the Metalocene deforms, thereby absorbing crash energy better than more traditional materials. Molded polyurethane foam is bonded to the headliner and roof side rails for impact-absorption.

The Stratus SE coupe—formerly known as the Avenger—is still being manufactured for DCX at Mitsubishi Motor Assembly in Illinois.

The steering column was redesigned so that there is a stamped steel bracket at the forward end of the column; its purpose is to absorb and manage crash energy.

Speaking of steel, by way of making the all-new body structure stiffer, there was 47 lb. of steel added.

Which undoubtedly had a little something to do with the use of aluminum for the steering knuckles, which are 12 lb. lighter than the ferrous knuckles they replace.

*Its way to counter the origami approach to third row seating that Honda uses is to offer what it calls 50/50 Easy-Out Roller Seats. Simply stated, the bench seat is split in two. Each half is fitted to the floor such that it can be removed. It weighs 55 lb. so that it is a manageable exercise. From the standpoint of making sure that the vehicle is quiet, they addressed this both through engineering (e.g., stiffening the rear attachment locations by eight times compared to the previous generation; redesigning the front strut, control arm, and engine mounts and isolators; applying molded foam gaskets between the outside mirrors and the body; adding acoustic materials below the headliner, on the dash panel, under the carpet, and over the rear wheel houses, etc.).

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