The Dodge Grand Caravan was the world’s first modern-day minivan—before it became so “Grand”—and today it’s the best-selling model in a segment that’s still worth roughly 700,000 units per year. It also happens to be Dodge’s top seller by a long ways, outperforming the second-place Dodge Charger by over 30,000 units on a year-to-date basis and representing nearly 25 percent of the brand’s total sales so far this year. But if you want one, you better start looking now: The Chrysler Group will be eliminating the Grand Caravan for 2013 and going forward with just one minivan entry—the Chrysler Town & Country—for the foreseeable future.
It’s the next step in the automaker’s retail strategy to eliminate “duplicate” vehicles from its overall lineup, allowing dealers to sell all brands under the same rooftop. And not only will this mean the end of the Grand Caravan, but, for what it’s worth, it also sounds the death knell for the Dodge Avenger. Those two products will end up being replaced by a single crossover that I can only assume won’t end up in the Chrysler family.
Perhaps even more surprising: Chrysler Group CEO Sergio Marchionne has now put off the launch of a mainstream subcompact entry of any kind for the automaker, which means the company’s only player in that segment will be the FIAT 500.
The party line here is that this will prevent any customer “confusion” that might ensue if shoppers were faced with both a Grand Caravan and Town & Country, or Avenger and Chrysler 200, if they were all featured in the same showroom. That may be so, but it’s certainly increasing my confusion.
Dodging Traditional Brand Strategies
Now, I fully understand the underlying rationale for these moves. Merely rebadging the same vehicle for more than one brand, even if the products are sold at different dealerships, is generally not a winning strategy in this day and age. I don’t want to get too far into a discussion of customer-buying behaviors, but it’s clear that most shoppers prefer a vehicle that offers an experience of “authenticity” that can’t be provided by badge-engineered products.
But that certainly doesn’t mean the same automaker can’t successfully sell two similarly sized products built on the same platform with the same body style. In fact, every single mainstream automaker does that, usually by offering one such vehicle in a popularly priced high-volume configuration and its sibling in an up-level premium segment. Thus, there are Toyota and Lexus midsize sedans built on the same platform, Chevrolets matched with Buicks, etc., etc. With the proper amount of differentiation, automakers don’t even have to follow the mainstream vs. luxury paradigm: Witness Hyundai and Kia, which share platforms throughout their lineups.
More to the point, consider the Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300. The cars present essentially the same situation in the full-size sedan segment that the Avenger/200 do among the mid-sizers, but there have been no hints that one or the other of the former pair will be going away anytime soon.
Now, I’ve heard that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, but this is a case in which it’s the inconsistency that seems a bit mistaken. Every reason for keeping both the Charger and 300 alive in the same dealerships also applies to the Avenger and 200, and to an even greater degree, since the mid-size segment remains so much larger than the full-size one. That is, the demand for distinctly positioned mid-size sedans (e.g., a sporty one, a lux one, an affordable one) is definitely high enough to support two entries that appeal to two different preferences, and conversely, a single entry, trying to attract multiple consumer types, is likely to run into the same basic problem as two badge-engineered vehicles. What is the difference between trying to attract more Dodge customers with a Chrysler product and trying to do the same thing with an actual Dodge product, even if it’s merely a Chrysler with a different badge? I suppose the first tactic may be more “honest,” but I don’t see how it would be any more effective.
And that’s especially true in the mid-size sedan segment, where it’s a lot easier to differentiate products—as it is, no one is going to confuse an Avenger with a 200—than among the minivans. Although, to be clear, while I admit it’s harder to bake in as much differentiation between the minivans as Chrysler easily could with the sedans, I still think it’s worth the effort when you consider the kind of volume the Grand Caravan represents.
The 500 Goes it Alone
As far as the Chrysler Group keeping its American brands out of the subcompact market for the nonce, well, that’s actually a fairly pragmatic decision. On the one hand, because Fiat is not part of the “let’s have all dealers sell all brands” business, customers at Chrysler stores will have literally zero subcompacts from which to choose. But at this stage in the game, who really cares? Not the customers themselves, that’s for sure. The Ford F-150 earned about 20,000 more sales in September than did the entire subcompact segment, and there’s no reason to think that’s going to change in the near-term future. A compact of some sort would come in handy, but investing the resources necessary to launch a new subcompact doesn’t look like a wise bet in the short-term.
Especially for an automaker that just rang up a 50 percent sales increase in September without one.