(First Published 3/20/2014) It’s no secret that of the Big Three, Chrysler seems to have the worst luck with extreme ups and downs. Throughout nearly every decade of its ninety-year history, the company has looked death in the eye, rebounded to prosperity, then faced sharp decline again. The mid Nineties were some of the best years for Chrysler, and the crowning achievement of this era was the first total redesign of the vehicle it popularized–the minivan.
Backtrack to the early Nineties however, and Chrysler was in another state of crisis. During the final years under Lee Iacocca’s leadership, dysfunction was high. Focused on short-term profit, penny-pinching upper-level executives were neglecting what would ensure Chrysler’s future–new vehicle development.
With the continued peddling of gussied-up K-cars, sales were tanking and market share eroding. The few projects then under development were constantly being delayed due to perpetual back-and-forth bickering among endless committees and the
Le barons of Highland Park. With a total of fourteen separate departments almost totally isolated from one another below executive level, the start-to-finish process of building cohesive, competitive and high-quality automobiles was a near-impossible task.
Additionally, chairman Iacocca’s squandering of cash was diverting urgently needed money from a requirement far more important: improving the cars. (To be fair, some of Iacocca’s unwise spending was in fact vehicle-related: For example, in an eleventh-hour decision, he demanded that the curved corners of the upcoming new 1991 minivans’ rear-quarter windows come to a sharper point–at a cost of $100 million.)
More troubling, however, were the millions going towards assets having nothing to do with the automobile business. Like a teenager who’d been given Daddy’s credit cards, Iacocca went on a reckless spending spree, purchasing such automotive-unrelated companies as Gulfstream Aerospace, and the defense contractor Electrospace Systems.
The one lucrative result of this shop-‘til-you-drop experiment turned out to be the purchase of AMC. In addition to their valuable Jeep brand and plans for the new Grand Cherokee, Chrysler acquired from AMC a group of individuals who brought along their working style of “cross-functional teams.” Modeled after the concept successfully used by Japanese car companies, these cross-functional teams brought together members representing various departments and stages of the development process and opened up interdepartmental lines of communication while encouraging teamwork and cooperation.
While this cross-functional approach certainly played a role in the development of the Jeep Grand Cherokee and the LH sedans, not everyone within the organization was so quick to adopt it. Under Chrysler’s team of younger, more open-minded leadership, the cross-functional method would not be applied until the first ground-up redesign of what became Chrysler Corporation’s most valuable asset – the T115 minivans. Planned for a mid-’90s introduction, the fate of the entire corporation was riding—quite literally—on these completely new minivans, which were codenamed NS.
With over 4 million units sold since their introduction for the 1984 model year, minivan sales accounted for no less than half of Chrysler’s annual profits. Although Chrysler was still dominating with their second-generation “AS” minivans, viable competition was finally beginning to emerge, meaning Chrysler couldn’t continue to push their K-based boxes around much longer. The NS team was about to take on the most critical redesign in the company’s post-bankruptcy history—failure would spell certain disaster.
The working concept of the cross-functional teams included the carrying out of efforts at every level. Within the “minivan platform team” of personnel assigned specifically to the task of creating the next-generation minivan were sub-teams, each dedicated exclusively to one of seven key strategic areas: Design; Finance; Marketing, Manufacturing, Product Planning, Purchasing and Sales.
Similarly, five dedicated corporation-wide teams were formed to focus on Body Interior; Bodies-in-White; Chassis; Electrical and Electronics; and Exteriors. Each of these teams was responsible for designing various components for all Chrysler vehicles. Within these five general teams were smaller, more sharply-focused teams that had responsibility for specific tasks.
There also was direct input and communication from outside suppliers, the factory workers who’d actually build the minivans, and various other Chrysler departments. As confusing as all that sounds on paper, in practice it was a much more effective and holistic approach to vehicle design than the isolationist, one- department-versus-another ways of the past. The cross-functional approach allowed for a shorter start-to-finish project time as well as crucial and substantial cost savings.
In terms of primary market research, Chrysler conducted numerous focus-group studies of randomly selected current Chrysler minivan owners during 1990 and 1991, in order to help determine what should and shouldn’t be changed on the upcoming vans. Generally speaking, owners liked the setup, versatility and features of their current vans; somewhat unsurprisingly, their main quibbles regarded poor build quality.
From the beginning, designers toyed with the idea of adding a driver’s-side sliding door – something that had been featured on some Japanese minivans, but never on a domestic van. The potential drawbacks of adding this feature included loss of structural rigidity and, naturally, greater expense. At any rate, the focus group studies revealed that an additional sliding door was not a crucial feature. Ultimately, it was decided that dual sliding doors would be implemented, although as an optional feature in order to reduce build costs.
Designing the new minivans involved the building of four prototypes, each having a unique appearance, wheelbase, and setup. It was a true collaborative effort: no single designer was responsible for one prototype. In the end, elements of all four prototypes were combined into the ultimate design. Computers played a substantially greater role in the design process, yielding significant time and cost savings.
The overall shape of the final exterior design was far more fluid and aerodynamic than that of the outgoing boxes. In your humble author’s opinion, these were the most attractive minivans ever: thoroughly modern, but not futuristic like the GM “Dustbusters” or Toyota Previa.
Engineers worked hard to achieve better quality— a major area for improvement in the current AS minivans. While its predecessor had been criticized for its loose-fitting panels, all of the body panels and doors on the new NS would adhere to the strict “one-millimeter” standards used by most European and Japanese brands.
The new vans were painstakingly tested on the road, as well as in Chrysler’s new $22 million sound-deadening lab, in an effort to find and address sources of excessive noise, vibration, and harshness — another complaint common to their immediate predecessors.
When it came to the interior, the primary goal of the NS minivans was increased passenger comfort and convenience. The instrument panel layout and all controls were ergonomically designed. So were the seats, which could accommodate a 95th percentile adult. “Easy Out Roller Seats” greatly simplified rear seat removal, thanks to an easy latching mechanism and added roller wheels.
Storage capacity also grew, thanks to larger wheel arch cubbies, a net between the front seats and an available compartment on the left side of the front passenger’s seat. Finally, to the satisfaction of many soft drink-loving consumers, redesigned and additional cup holders now accommodated 7-Eleven’s then-largest “Big Gulp.”
Versus their predecessors, the new vans were substantially roomier. Hip and shoulder room increased by four and five inches, respectively. Overall interior volume was up by 30% percent in short-wheelbase models and by 27% in long-wheelbase versions. Visibility was also improved, thanks to side glass now three inches taller, a lower hood and a windshield some 32 percent larger.
Mass appeal and class-leading versatility continued to be among the Chrysler minivans’ greatest strengths. With two wheelbases, two body styles, three transmissions, four engines, front- and all-wheel drive—as well as a dizzying array of trim and equipment levels sold under five nameplates across three brands— the 1996-2000 Chrysler minivans truly offered a configuration for virtually everyone, with even more available outside the U.S. and Canada.
Personally speaking, I feel that the NS represents the pinnacle of Chrysler’s mid-Nineties “Renaissance.” Following the Jeep Grand Cherokee, the LH sedans, redesigned Ram pickup, compact Neon, and mid-sized JA cars, the NS minivans completed Chrysler’s transformation from building archaic boxes to stylish, award-winning vehicles. I also feel that the NS represents the high point of the American minivan in general.
Minivans were still relatively “hip” in the mid-to-late 1990s, and the NS vans embodied everything that made them so great both in form and in function. In the new millennium, Japanese minivans would follow Chrysler’s template, with Honda in particular taking the mantle as having the most attractive, cool minivan. As at Ford and GM, though to a lesser degree, SUVs stole the show, relegating the minivan to a lower rung, in terms of status.
In then end, the entire lineup of NS minivans, from their development stage through their swan song in 2000, may be regarded as successful. The vast team comprising Chrysler designers, engineers, technicians, analysts and others succeeded in their mission to create a minivan far superior to not only the model it replaced, but also to most of its competitors—all while keeping manufacturing costs down, streamlining processes, and generally creating a more efficient and effective Chrysler Corporation. An instant sales success, the NS ensured Chrysler’s continued dominance of the minivan segment. That streak of success could have arguably continued were it not for the big elephant in the room, the merger with Daimler, and the many tragedies it brought to Chrysler products. For today though, let’s just focus on one of Chrysler’s most notable comebacks in a series of ups and downs.