Nov. 2, 1983, was not just another autumn day at Chrysler Corp. Across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario, a boxy-shaped new vehicle rolled down the assembly line for the first time.

Under development since 1977 and given the green light in 1980, it symbolized Chrysler's $700-million commitment to create a totally new segment: Small, passenger-friendly, utilitarian "minivans" with decent fuel economy to replace gas-guzzling large passenger-car station wagons that, despite their size, provided scant room for people.

More than 12 years and 4 million minivans later, Chrysler reigns as the world's overwhelming minivan champ. Last year the No.3 automaker grabbed a 64.5% share of the U.S. small-van market and a 41.3% slice of the overall "compact van" segment, which in Ward's segmentation also includes slightly larger models that compete for some of the same customers. Some 20 vehicles now compete in the compact-van market.

Staying on top is no small challenge as Chrysler's American and foreign-based competitors belatedly zero in on the Pentastar with newly-developed front-drive minivans. To keep ahead of the pack, old blueprints and tired tooling simply would no longer do.

Starting in the late '80s, Chrysler began working on an all-new minivan for the 1996 model-year introduction. Things got serious in 1991 when a minivan team, which subsequently grew to 800, was formed under Chrysler's then-new "platform team" product-development concept that draws together all disciplines required to develop and manufacture a new vehicle.

A key element was early supplier involvement, which since has blossomed into what Chrysler calls "extended partnerships" that in effect position them as part of the family. The seat suppliers, Integram in North America and Lear Seating Corp. in Europe, were chosen from the start, as were many other outside suppliers.

The 1996 minivan team started out in Chrysler's aging Highland Park, MI, technical facilities, but in 1992 moved to its brand-new Technical Center 20 miles (32 km) north in Auburn Hills. In its new home the team could work side-by-side rather than in facilities scattered around the Detroit area, creating major efficiencies.

Only 32 months after the project received management's final approval and a heft $2.3-billion commitment, the first of the new breed was ready for production. That was scheduled for February at a formerly vacant and totally revamped Chrysler assembly plant in St. Louis, MO, but more likely full production won't get under way until this spring. Hammered by critics concerning questionable quality, Chrysler these days takes a very cautious approach to fullscale production and moves only when it's satisfied all of the issues have been resolved.

The $2.3 billion includes a new 2.4L, 16-valve 4-cyl. engine also to be shared with the new JA (Cirrus, Stratus) compact cars.

And after the initial program was set, another $300 million was earmarked when the company decided to bump up annual production by 110,000, bringing yearly capacity to 725,000 including 670,000 in North America - more than 200,000 above 1994 sales of the old model.

Although the $2.6 billion is nearly four times what Chrysler spent on the '84 launch, it includes inflation over the last dozen years, the new engine, three plants instead of one - Windsor is scheduled to switch to the new model in July and Graz, Austria, follows in September - and a vehicle line that is immensely more complex and sophisticated than the original.

It has, for example, an optional left-side rear sliding door and will have right-hand-drive (RHD) late next year for markets such as the U.K., Japan and Australia, where that driving position is the norm.

There are four trim levels - base, highline, premium and luxury - covering the Dodge, Plymouth and Chrysler nameplates, and in the U.S. four engines are offered: The new 2.4L double-overhead-cam 16-valve powerplant generating 150 hp; a 3L single-overhead-cam 12-valve Mitsubishi Motors Corp. V-6, also producing 150 hp; a 3.3L V-6 overhead-valve V-6 at 158 hp, and a 3.8L overhead-valve V-6 rated at 166 hp for top-of-the-line models.

European versions separately will be offered with a 2.4L 4-cyl. engine, 2.5L 4-cyl. turbodiesels and a 2L 4-cyl., all with 5-speed manual transmissions.

If that's not complicated enough, in North America 3- and 4-speed automatic transmissions and all-wheel-drive (AWD) also will be available. AWD was an add-on to the previous model; this time it's engineered in.

It's also designed to operate on compressed natural gas (CNG) and electric power, both of which become optional in model-year 1997.

The North American version, code-named "NS," goes on sale this spring. European sales of the companion "GS" series start late this year.

Not too unlike the first time around - when a $1.5-billion federal loan kept the company afloat and the minivan project alive - the early work took place under heavy financial pressures; Chrysler once again was on the skids. Profits in 1989 sank to $323 million from 1 billion in 1988, then dropped to $68 million in 1990 and plunged into the red by $795 million in 1991 just as the new-generation minivan was getting off the ground. Chrysler's fortunes rebounded in 1992, producing $723 million in black ink, and it has generated big profits ever since, keeping the project's timetable intact.

Although the original design has remained in production for 12 1/2 years, it has been tweaked numerous times, notably with more powerful engines and revamped styling cues. Major changes came in 1991 with the addition of safety items such as driver-side air bags and antilock-braking systems (ABS) plus new exterior and interior styling.

Even so, the old war horse was getting a bit creaky. Nothing less than a metamorphosis was called for. The basics, however, remain the same: Extremely versatile, utilitarian vehicles with ample interior space and broad customer appeal.

Chrysler engineers and designers were inspired by exactly those targets in the late '70s. Pressed by two oil embargoes (1973 and 1979) that sent gasoline prices soaring, automakers worldwide scurried to build more fuel-efficient vehicles.

To say that the original minivan saved Chrysler, maybe more than once, is no exaggeration. Now it remains to be seen whether the new version can successfully evade serious attrition from the flourishing schools of the piranha gathering on all sides.

Ford Motor Co. already has the front-drive Windstar and Mercury Villager as close competitors. General Motors Corp. next year will scrap its sluggish-selling APVs and introduce a much more directly competitive minivan. Honda Motor Co. Ltd. recently introduced the Accord-based front-drive Odyssey to widespread plaudits. And Toyota Motor Corp.'s next-generation Previa likely will come closer to matching the attributes of Chrysler's pacesetting architecture.

If anyone at Chrysler is really worried about this flurry of competitive action, it's not readily evident.

WAW interviews by a team of five editors with dozens of sources at Chrysler and its major suppliers elicit nothing if not supreme confidence that the '96 minivan sets a new standard.

"It's like when you make a movie," says President Robert A. Lutz. "Some movie-makers make one hit movie and others, like Steven Spielberg, consistently produce hits."

Chrysler makes a big deal of "leapfrogging" the competition, and even sent a '96 minivan hurtling through space and landing on a lilypad when it unveiled the new model at the North American International Auto Show in January.

But that's not to say fear was totally lacking at the outset. "We asked ourselves, `Could we do it again?'" allows David P. Bostick, director of corporate market research and minivan operations liaison. "The question was, how do we get to the next lilypond? In the beginning many thought we would unload our six-guns in our feet without unstrapping the holster. What we did is set our focus and then not jump at every idea, and we seem to have found a solution."

Thomas G. Gale, now vice president design and international operations, who had responsibility for minivan operations during most of the '96 minivan development period, obviously is proud of the final exterior and interior designs. But he refuses to credit any single individual, arguing that sketches and overall-package ideas resulted from the team's efforts. "It's not true any single person can claim success," he says. "There are a lot of imprints."

Although looks are important, Mr. Gale - who worked on both the interior and exterior designs of the '84 model - says that's not the end-all. "In this segment I don't think styling is going to be at the top of the list, but design is - the packaging, placement of components, the stance of the wheels, the glass areas of the vehicle and things like HVAC (heating/ventilation/air conditioning). In the past we'd just style and put the lines where the crease marks were."

Fully aware that the competition, especially Ford's Windstar, was nipping at its heels, Chrysler benchmarked every minivan extant including its own, plus numerous passenger cars, targeting engineering and design improvements that would put and keep it ahead into the next century.

Even though it had not yet reached production when Chrysler was locking in the '96, Windstar had Chrysler's attention.

"We had a good guess what the Windstar might look like, so we wanted to make our minivan different," says Mr. Lutz.

Viewed from a distance, Chrysler's new minivan and Windstar look remarkably alike. "I'm not surprised when you look at the lines," allows Mr. Gale, "but the difference is in the packaging; it's a matter of reach. Ours is lighter looking; it sits just right on the wheels."

The differences becomes greater when the two are compared directly, he and other Chrysler sources quickly point out. For one thing, Windstar is offered in only one body style, which approximates the size of Chrysler's long-wheelbase version (LWB), while Chrysler also offers a standard short-wheelbase (SWB) model. Chrysler's analysis shows that its LWB version has 13% more cargo capacity and nearly the same passenger capacity as Windstar, even though it's 15 inches (28 cm) shorter. And though the LWB series is close to Windstar's dimensions - it's 1.6 inches (4 cm) shorter - it boasts 18% more cargo space, Chrysler claims.

The differences between the last of the old model and the new are even greater. SWB cargo capacity is up 27%, and the LWB 25%. Storage behind the rear seats is improved 33% on the longer model, 40% on the short job.

To increase visibility, Chrysler lowered the cowl height 4.7 inches (12 cm), dropped the belt line and increased window glass by 30%. These changes - coupled with colored glass, detailed side-trim treatment and a slightly higher roofline - give the new model a sleeker, sportier appearance from most angles. And from the driver's seat, there's truly a panoramic view: The driver's "up-angle" view, as Mr. Gale calls it, has been boosted by 50%.

Because Chrysler's philosophy was to design the vehicle from the inside out, it fell to Executive Director-Interior Design Trevor Creed and his troops to not only design an attractive interior but also a new benchmark in packaging. The details came right down to re-designing the ignition key.

"When we looked at the instrument panel (IP) we wanted everything within the driver's reach zone - all looking up at you and looking toward you," Mr. Creed explains. "We wanted a soft, friendly shape with everything where it should be."

Chrysler selected windshield wipers using an "opposed" pattern for a cleaner sweep, and built in an electric grid at the bottom of the windshield glass to keep ice from accumulating on the wipers.

Rotary, easy-to-turn HVAC switches were chosen, and Chrysler engineers developed a new system that gives totally independent temperature control to the driver and front-seat passenger. There's also a rear HVAC system, with vent temperature controlled by the driver.

Automatic window and side-mirror controls were moved from mid-door on the driver's side to the front of the door for easier access, and Chrysler designed new cupholders that rachet in and out to accommodate nearly any size container.

Two of these cupholders are available in the "non-smoking" package where the ashtray normally would be, and the lighter socket becomes an accessory power outlet. Another plug is located in the rear near the tailgate.

Chrysler offers a combined CD/cassette player, an industry first for minivans, says Mr. Creed. Rear speakers formerly built inside the liftgate were moved inside to the rear pillars, Another first is a seamless air bag on the front passenger's side.

A great deal of attention was paid to seating as well. Molded-foam seats, introduced in 1992, were carried over. A reclining feature, however, was added for the mid- and rear-passenger seats. And the rear bench seat sits on retractable rollers similar in size to roller skate wheels, making it much easier to roll out and store when not in use.

Reflecting the industry's trend toward stiffer body structures to improve ride and handling and reduce nagging squeaks and rattles, Chrysler also engineered more structure into the new generation minivans. "It was a big challenge," recalls Francois Castaing, vice president-vehicle engineering. "We wanted to improve interior space without getting too big on the outside. Overall we're about 10% larger inside and not much bigger on the outside."

Engineering the left-side sliding door which will be optional in perhaps the $500 range, was not a challenge of the space-shot variety. Different sets of roof reinforcements and other stampings are necessary during assembly, however, and a mechanism to stop the door from opening all the way when the fuel-filler door is open had to be developed.

That, and numerous other critical challenges, faced the newly formed minivan team as it got to work in 1991. Lee Iacocca was still chairman at the outset and had early input. After he retired in January 1993 it fell to his successor, Robert J. Eaton, to bring the minivan on stream.

Among the major minivan players are Dick Winter, general product manager-minivan operations; Dave McKinnon, chief engineer-exterior product design; Chris Theodore, general manager-minivan platform engineering; Ted Cunningham, general manager of minivan operations (Mr. Gale's former post) and corporate executive vice president of sales and marketing; Shamel Rushwin, vice president-international manufacturing and minivan assembly operations; Tom Stallkamp, vice president-procurement and supply and general manager, large car operations; and Peter Rosenfeld, executive-minivan platform procurement.

The issues, to say the least, were mind-boggling. "After we launched the (revamped) 1991 model we perceived that the customer did not want a dramatic change," recalls Mr. Winter. While the interior package was paramount, "Early on we went for exterior styling. The key was to round it off. When you do that it tends to make it look smaller. People (in marketing clinics) looked at them and we had to make them (slightly) bigger."

To test out various ideas, Chrysler built several fiberglass prototypes to show in clinics that included its existing customers and others. "Things we kept hearing back from customers were, `It would be nice if we could get in and out a little easier," says Mr. McKinnon. As a result, the door sills were dropped 1.4 inches (3.6 cm), but the seat height remains the same.

The steering wheel alignment with the driver was offset somewhat in the old model and that, too, was corrected. Lowering the cowl and moving from 15-in. (38.1-cm) to optional 16 in. (40.6-cm) wheels combined gives the new version a much more aerodynamic look, he says. "I was involved on the original in 1985 when we decided to do a long-wheelbase model." he recalls. "It was basically like working with a shoebox - very square, very straight lines."

The more sculptured shape of the 96 opens new niche possibilities. Already in the works are sporty versions of the short-wheelbase model with special trim, paint and mechanical features. They're called the Dodge Sport and Plymouth Rally.

Some of that thinking goes into the standard models as well. Chrysler chose in-mold, high-gloss paint for the B-pillar that coordinates with the dark-glass windows for a sleek appearance. "We wanted a mix that would say, That thing looks pretty neat. I need the function but I'm not going to be embarrassed to drive it. It's sporty and I get a little of the feel of that, a little handling," says Mr. McKinnon.

Mr. Cunningham was quite candid about snafus the team encountered: "If somebody tells you everything went smoothly, I think you're getting a little bit of a snow job."

Mr. Theodore says Chrysler "front-loaded the program" to provide ample time to tweak the engineering. "We went from styling to a running minivan in only seven months," he says.

Then he rattles off a laundry-list of features: isolated front and rear- suspensions; a common plastic fuel tank, replacing one steel and one plastic tank; speed-sensitive rear wipers; a large 1.3-gal. window-washer fluid bottle feeding both the windshield and rear tailgate glass; four engine mounts vs. three; and a tighter turning circle - 38 ft. (11.6 m) on the short-wheelbase version, or 3.4 ft. (1 m) less than the old version.

Pulling it all together into high-quality minivans falls under Mr. Rushwin's purview.

It starts with what he calls a "global cookie-cutter strategy using standardized production equipment and processes at all three plants to lower investment and training costs and improve quality and productivity.

This strategy, be believes, gives Chrysler a big advantage over competitors, who have widely dissimilar products. Ford, for example, uses the Mercury Villager engineered by Nissan Motor Co. as its SWB entry and Windstar to cover the LWB market two different schemes compared with only one at Chrysler.

Reusing existing equipment and shunning earthshaking new technology will save Chrysler between $70 million and $90 million at St. Louis and Windsor alone, he estimates. "That was a great advantage - to be able to pick up those processes we wanted to carry over and dovetail (them) into the new processes," says Mr. Rushwin.

Chrysler gained strong logistical advantages by having the closed St. Louis plant to lead the launch, he says. And collating executives from diverse backgrounds on the team was yet another big advantage. "Ten years ago you sent a memo to engineering telling them there was a problem," he recalls. "Now you just walk next door."

Toyota Motor Corp.'s lean, world-leading production system and process planning were thoroughly analyzed and emulated including "The Wall," a 1,000-ft. (305-m) mockup of the production line that details every workstation, what tasks are assigned there, who supplies the parts, working heights and much more. Toyota's pull-cord system, that lets workers stop the line if they spot a quality problem also was borrowed.

General Motors Corp.'s "net form and pierce" process that greatly improves panel fits, makes stamping precision somewhat less critical and eliminates ponderous alignment equipment, also was adopted. Among other things, it helped slash the number of fasteners by 45% vs. the old model, he says.

Mr. Rushwin's entire thrust is to "couple volume and quality together," he says. "We're not saying anymore that we'll look at the vehicle as it comes off the line and check to see if it's okay. Now if it comes off the line, it's okay. That's a tremendous change for us here at Chrysler."

Playing an indisputably critical role in the manufacturing and assembly equation are some 300 direct suppliers, half the number on the old model.

Bringing them in early was a must if everything was to jell as planned. Mr. Rosenfeld says some 80% were signed up between three and three and a half years ago. Mr. Stallkamp says his goal is 100% sourcing at program approval, which he thinks is possible by 1998.

Most minivan parts, components and subsystems are single-sourced for greater efficiency and reliability, although because of the huge volumes some have more than one source, he says. "The ('96) minivan probably has been a great case of very difficult (supplier) cost objectives, but it helps when you have the largest single vehicle in the segment," Mr. Stalikamp adds.

Some suppliers failed to make the cut because they didn't measure up, says Mr. Rosenfeld. "Frankly . . . there have been some performance problems on suppliers' part; it is not all a love-in."

Pushing to leverage its worldwide resources, Chrysler has turned increasing responsibilities over to the shrunken supplier base, he says. Textron, which supplies IPs, and the seat suppliers now are responsible for all of the parts that make up their systems. "We used to deal with mechanism suppliers separately," Mr. Rosenfeld explains.

Meshing suppliers to deliver what Chrysler wants can present issues, but not insurmountable ones. Osram Sylvania and Lescoa, for example, each contribute components for the minivan's lighting system, with Sylvania supplying park and turn lights for Lescoa's module.

Sally Moran, Osram Sylvania general marketing manager-automotive and miniature lighting, allows that "There were issues there; we wrestled with fit and finish and warranty (but in the end) it was a win, win, win situation for us, Lescoa and Chrysler."

The J.B. Rather Tooling Div. of the Becker Group Inc. won contracts for 85% of the new minivan's tooling. Paul Williams, a Becker vice president, says his company had plenty of leeway. "They don't tie your hands - they are receptive to our being experts in certain things. Chrysler is very pro-active in that sense."

Textron has long supplied IPs for Chrysler minivans and was an integral part of the 1991 redesign. Hi Powers, Textron's NS instrument panel project manager, says relationships with Chrysler since have improved.

"Back then there was a lot of team talk, but it was our team and their team. This time it was one team'" he says. Cost targets, however, were tough. "Sometimes there were more accountants than anything else," he confides.

Mark Drumheller, vice president-marketing & sales for Donnelly Corp.'s Modular Systems Business Group (minivan windows), says his group had considerably more latitude as well. "They (Chrysler) were always there to help, but they didn't babysit."

With a huge owner base, high loyalty rate (Chrysler says 60% to 70% of existing owners buy another one) and dominant market position, Chrysler moves into the escalating minivan war with substantial marketing clout.

It will be some months before final prices are revealed, but insiders say they'll likely start at around $16,000 with approximately 80% delivered in the $17,000 to $18,000 range, and the fanciest going for upwards of $30,000.

Median age for all buyers is about 48, and median income for the lower-level Dodge and Plymouth versions is pegged at $50,000 to $60,000 a year and $90,000 for the upscale Chrysler Town & Country.

But Chrysler clearly is shooting for all comers. "This is not a life-stage vehicle," says Mark Clemons, minivan marketing planner. Besides traditional couples with children, he sees the new version appealing to singles, pre- retirees and retirees.

"There are a lot of mature minivan owners who really don't need the people-carrying space but want to stay in minivans because of their versatility."

That all-around utility is, after all, the magic that created the market in the first place.

[TABULAR DATA OMITTED]

Make it drive well, hold lots of stuff, and they will come ...

The new Chrysler minivans appear ready to join the Honda Motor Co. Ltd. Odyssey as the only ones that can be utilitarian - and entertaining.

Chassis tuning is the new minivan's standout dynamic feature. The upscale Dodge Caravan ES prototype we drove retained the supple ride one expects from a long-wheelbase vehicle, yet managed to exorcise much of the nose-heavy "plow" and queasy body roll that corrupts the handling of most front-engine/front-drive minivans.

And the steering itself comes close to the precision standard set by Honda's new Odyssey, a decidedly smaller vehicle (and based on a sedan platform). The prototype's steering was light but properly geared, an all-too-rare combination that imparts a nimble cornering confidence without heavy-handed over-assistance. A turning circle that's decreased by at least 3 ft. (0.9 m) (depending on model) only adds to the overall feeling of increased agility.

Chysler chose to present a prototype fitted with the largest available engine, the carryover 3.8L V-6 rated at 162 hp and 213 ft.-lbs. of torque; the transaxle is a four-speed, electronically controlled automatic. As with other minivans. the powertrain does the job - no more, no less.

High marks go to the driving position, which - combined with the newly lowered step-in height - makes for a commanding view without the teetering-on-a-flagpole feeling found in some high-sitting minivans.

The driver's reach to major controls is more sedan-like and they are skillfully designed and placed. In particular, the high-placed rotary HVAC controls, door-mounted window/lock switches and cruise-control buttons (housed in the best-looking minivan steering wheel I've seen) make the most common tasks less hunt-'n-poke.

I recently drove the Honda Odyssey, enjoying its dynamics but questioning its utility. The new Chrysler is as rewarding to drive and has volumes more volume. Chrysler's careful blend of these two key ingredients in its '96 minivans could be the brew to beat for another decade.