- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Dodge Grand Caravan passed away Tuesday, surrounded by loved ones. It will be remembered fondly for countless trips to and from soccer games and ballet lessons, for weekend errands, long car rides to Grandma’s house, and the mysterious sticky substance and stale Cheerios lodged behind the strapped-in booster seats.

Indeed, the era-defining Caravan, credited with helping save parent company Chrysler from bankruptcy when it first rolled off the assembly line in 1983, was the first mainstream minivan, and is still viewed by many as the most iconic. Nearly a million sold between 2008 and 2012 and a 1986 model has been put on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, wood panels and all.

The minivan has transported a generation of Americans since its debut, a suburban workhorse with the sliding rear doors that was high in practicality and low in sex appeal. But now, in what a top Chrysler official called a brand “purification,” Fiat Chrysler officials announced Tuesday in Detroit that they will be dropping both the Grand Caravan and the Dodge Avenger, while continuing to produce the Chrysler Town and Country minivan.

“It was a tough decision but … it was time to move on,” said Chrysler spokesman Rick Deneau.

The Caravan’s final production year will be for 2016, an expiration date that inspired nostalgia and angst on multiple mommy blogs and a slew of stricken posts on the Chrysler Minivan Fan Club website.

“Really disappointed with the end of production for the GC in 2016,” wrote user ‘fastgc’, accompanied by an emoticon of a face holding back tears.

“Disappointed in the Grand Caravan’s demise,” echoed another poster.

And Canadian user ‘04anniversaryedition’ questioned the business decision.

“Best to buy one since their [sic] still in production,” the user wrote. “Dropping the GC will be a terrible idea, especially for Canada where the GC is, and always will be #1.”

Mr. Deneau said that often the Grand Caravan and the Town and Country were sold side by side, and that the company wanted to streamline their model lines and give a sharper focus to the Dodge nameplate.

“As much as we’ve done over time with different model lines, we’re going with a singular offering to make it easier for customers,” he said. “The two of them together represented 50 percent of the market, so obviously we hope that will continue.”

The Grand Caravan has faced extinction before, and reports first widely circulated of its demise in 2011, something that ultimately did not come to pass. The smaller model — the Dodge Caravan — passed to its reward in 2007, but its larger cousin lived on.

Since 2000, the automotive industry has weathered a number of shifts that have seen popular brands fall by the wayside. Buyouts, mergers, high oil prices, the 2008 economic collapse and bailouts by the government have all reshaped the industry. Gone are Plymouth, Saturn and Ford’s luxury line, Mercury. But the Grand Caravan did not succumb to market indifference.

The model’s sales have actually remained strong. Chrysler reported its best April in sales in seven years, and the minivan was a large part of that. Sales were up 36 percent last month, “the largest percentage sales gain of any Dodge vehicle during the month,” the company’s latest report said.

The Town and Country was introduced in 1990 and is viewed as a more upscale model, costing about $30,000 versus the Grand Caravan’s $20,000 price tag. The Town and Country’s sales over the past few years have also been roughly half that of the Grand Caravan, but Chrysler officials sounded optimistic Tuesday they can shift over potential customers to the newer models.

Chrysler largely created the minivan market, with the Caravan leading the charge. Critics were skeptical of the boxy, unwieldy design, but it proved to be a hit with American families who needed a reliable way to get growing families around. It made a national business hero of Lee Iacocca, who took the idea to Chrysler after his previous employer, Ford, rejected his “mini-max” proposal.

And as a mainstay of suburbia, the vehicles have always focused on family-friendly features, including extra rows of seats for more kids, more storage space, easy-to-open sliding doors, and, most recently, entertainment systems like TV screens to keep unruly backseat passengers occupied.

Chrysler is currently exploring a number of new model options, Mr. Deneau said, including a utility vehicle. Expert reports have also said the company is launching a new crossover, sedan and hybrid. The company has been reevaluating its business model this year as it merges with fellow automaker Fiat.

In lieu of flowers, Chrysler is asking that customers to buy next year’s model.

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