Special Coverage

2011 Chicago Auto Show

CHICAGO – Ralph Gilles was at a crossroads. In 1996, the budding Chrysler automotive designer was 27 years old and starting a family. His wife was pregnant with their first child, due in about two months.

He cherished his sleek 2-door Volkswagen Corrado but knew it had to go. Gilles took delivery of a white Dodge Caravan and sold the Corrado.

He liked the minivan just fine. It was a short-wheelbase R/T edition, “but I wanted it to handle better.”

Never afraid to get his hands dirty, Gilles ordered a sport suspension kit from Germany and got to work. He called Tire Rack and bought 18-in. 5-spoke rims. “They were beautiful,” he recalls fondly.

“When I did all that, I was shocked how well it handled,” he says. “The center of gravity is actually very low on a minivan, much lower than on an SUV or crossover because the engine is pretty much where it is in a car. Dynamically, it’s much more stable than you’d realize.”

He didn’t stop there, adding a custom exhaust system. “Then I put Viper bucket seats in the front, with 5-point harnesses, says Gilles.

Back then, he was an instructor at a driving school. He’d remove the other seats, but keep the two Viper seats up front, then lead students in their own cars out to the track. “They’d follow me in their Audis, whatever. And no one could ever keep up with me. It was that much fun.”

Gilles eventually put silver racing stripes on the van and drove it four years.

The tricked-out minivan set the stage for Chrysler’s unveiling at the the auto show here this week of the Dodge Grand Caravan R/T, affectionately referred to as the “man van” and set to go on sale in spring.

Inside and out, the vehicle is intended to attract male buyers who generally wouldn’t give minivans a second look.

The only engine available is Chrysler’s new 3.6L Pentastar V-6, which recently earned a spot on the Ward’s 10 Best Engines list. It delivers 283 hp, compared with 197 hp from the previous 3.8L V-6, and 260 lb.-ft. (353 Nm) of torque (compared with 230 lb.-ft. [312 Nm]).

A 6-speed automatic transaxle drives the front wheels.

The Grand Caravan R/T also features a performance-tuned suspension, with a beefier rear sway bar and springs that are 40% thicker. The vehicle was lowered a half-inch (12 mm).

Gilles, who today is president and CEO of the Dodge brand, says the vehicle “is incredible to drive, almost gravity-defying.” He considers it “a gift to the enthusiasts, even the dads out there who need a minivan that are enthusiasts.”

“Once people discover it, it will be, ‘Damn, I didn’t know they made a van with a black-on-black interior,’ with a standard subwoofer and a lot of things that appeal to a young male or a male with a family who likes that look,” he says.

The interior of the Grand Caravan R/T is meant to emulate a “man cave,” a dark, warm place for loud music and comfortable overstuffed chairs.

The all-black interior features perforated leather seats with red stitching, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob and a premium sound system with nine speakers and 506-watt amplifier.

Flexible seating allows quick access to plenty of room, in the event the man cave needs to hold several sheets of plywood from the lumber yard.

Exterior styling is punctuated by a "dipped" body-color grille, new spoiler, body-color side moldings and exclusive 17-in. wheels.

Eight colors are available, including Deep Cherry Red, Dark Charcoal Pearl, Deep Water Blue and Mango Tango Pearl.

Dealers are ordering the vehicles now, and Gilles says his kids – soon to be teenagers – are stoked to get one. He expects the R/T to account for about 10% of Dodge minivan sales.

Aggressive marketing is not in the gameplan, Gilles says. “I want it to be organic. I’m not going to put crazy marketing behind it; that’s not my core business.”

Instead, the R/T will be integrated into Dodge’s overall minivan marketing strategy. “It’s a fun tongue-in-cheek way to talk about minivans,” he says. “We may position it in late-night shows and do some things where that audience is watching.”

Gilles sees a ready market for the R/T: customers who have driven performance sedans but need the flexibility and functionality of a minivan.

He says the vehicle wasn’t clinic-tested with men or women, but instead was inspired by Chrysler engineers and designers who have wanted to do a vehicle like this for years.

“Sometimes you create demand by creating the thing,” he says. “Sometimes you just put it out there.”

For instance, Toyota gained considerable traction with its clever urban marketing of the Sienna minivan as the “swagger wagon.”

If the Grand Caravan R/T fails to catch on with buyers, Gilles says it’s no big deal. “We just don’t make them anymore. It’s a very low amount of investment here – virtually none.”

The starting price is $30,595 (excluding $835 destination). The vehicle will be built in Windsor, ON, Canada.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com