FRANKFURT – Chrysler Group’s next-generation minivans will take front-end design cues from the auto maker’s popular LX sedans.

Trevor Creed , senior vice president-design, tells Ward’s the success of the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Magnum confirms for the auto maker that bold, American design resonates with the public.

“The vehicle will look different from today’s, but we believe the reaction will be, ‘Wow! I never knew a minivan could look like this,’ – without going bizarre like the Nissan Quest,” Creed says during an interview at the international auto show here.

Critics have criticized the Quest for its radical departure from conventional minivan design, and the public has been slow to appreciate Nissan’s approach to the segment. Quest sales were down nearly 13% through the year’s second quarter, compared with the first six months of 2004 – its first full year of production.

’06 Chrysler Town & Country

Chrysler in the period held 30% of the minivan market. Its nearest competitors are Honda Motor Co. Ltd.’s Odyssey and Toyota Motor Corp.’s Sienna, which boasted market share levels of 11% and 10%, respectively.

Creed says American design is embodied in the passion long exhibited by backyard customizers. “The first thing they do is pull the track out,” he says. “(Their cars are) usually slammed and chopped and channeled.”

But don’t expect Chrysler’s next-generation minivans, codenamed RT, to look like street rods. The auto maker won’t abandon the segment it established in the mid-1980s with the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager.

“We invented the minivan,” Creed says. “It’s been ours (all along). And now it will have a very vintage Chrysler front end, inspired by the 300C. And the Dodge version will be a very Dodge front end, inspired by the Caliber (and) Magnum.”

The Caliber is a front-wheel-drive small car that will launch early next year to replace the Chrysler Neon. It also will be sold in Europe as the brand expands its presence here. (See related story: Dodge Right ‘Caliber’ for Europe)

It is no coincidence that Chrysler’s fourth-generation minivan will feature cues from the 300 and Magnum. Designer Ralph Gilles, recently assigned to the auto maker’s truck programs, helped develop both product lines.(See related story: Chrysler Shuffles Designers)

Creed says Gilles embraced the challenge of evolving Chrysler’s minivan designs, despite the inherent limitations presented by the segment.

“There are design limitations on the exterior and design limitations on the interior,” Creed says. “But that’s what good designers are all about. You’re not a one-trick pony.”

Creed also credits former Chrysler President and CEO Dieter Zetsche with ensuring the success of groundbreaking products such as the 300, the leading U.S. seller among large cars with nearly 21% of the segment through the second quarter – up from 13.6% in the first six months of 2004, the year it was introduced.

“Dieter came over just as the 300C was being formulated,” Creed recalls. “And to his credit, he could have come in and seen the car and said, ‘I don’t understand it. I’m used to more traditional proportions.’ To his credit, he walked in and said, ‘Wow! This is really something. Explain this to me.’”

On Sept. 1, Zetsche assumed the chairmanship of corporate parent DaimlerChrysler AG, as well as the top job at Mercedes-Benz.

Chrysler has kept a tight lid on specific plans for its segment-leading minivans. Until now, it has allowed only that styling would be a paramount consideration as the RT develops. (See related story: Styling Innovation Top Priority for Next Chrysler Minivan)

But Creed says there will be no attempts to take the segment in an entirely new direction, as Ford Motor Co. suggests with its Fairlane concept – a more wagon-like vehicle unveiled in January at Detroit’s North American International Auto Show.

“We don’t suddenly have to abandon the minivan formula and give them something that looks like a mini Range Rover,” he says. “We’re happy to continue on.”

emayne@primediabusiness.com