There are not many innovations that can make a minivan as attractive as a sports car, but Stow 'n Go is one of them.

Sure, sports cars go fast and look good, but that doesn't count for much if you have to drop kids at soccer practice and then bring home a couple of 4×8 plywood sheets from the lumber yard.

The attractiveness of such versatility has not been lost on the vehicle-buying public. A mockup of the Chrysler Town & Country minivan demonstrating how the Stow 'n Go system allows second- and third-row seats to disappear into the floor was a big hit at the 2004 North American International Auto Show. At times, it stole the crowd away from some of the show's hottest new models and concept vehicles.

Most minivans now have third-row seats that fold flat into the floor, but so far, Chrysler is the only one with two rows that fold flat. It spent $400 million redesigning the underpinnings of its '05 minivans and eliminated the all-wheel-drive option, as well, to accommodate the necessary changes.

Those moves paid off for Chrysler, which co-developed Stow 'n Go with Magna International Inc.'s Intier Automotive Seating unit.

Ward's 2005 data show year-over-year sales of the Town & Country minivan (Chrysler also offers the feature on the long-wheelbase version of the Dodge Grand Caravan) soared 40% following the introduction of the flexible seating system in 2004 on its '05 models. Today, Chrysler continues to dominate the segment.

Of course, the sales run-up is not solely attributable to Stow 'n Go. Attractive pricing and lease rates certainly helped, but there is no denying the feature played a major role in pumping up minivan sales.

A Chrysler spokeswoman says the auto maker can't pin down exactly how much of Chrysler's market share gain in the 1 million-unit minivan segment is due to Stow 'n Go. However, she says the company's internal data shows the feature is a key factor in pulling minivan intenders into Chrysler showrooms.

“People are asking for it by name. They say ‘I want the Stow 'n Go minivan.’ It's driving traffic and consideration,” she says.

Now the question is, how do you improve on a good thing? The answer: You make the seats more comfortable, adapt the concept to other types of vehicles besides minivans and make seats even more adaptable than they are now.

Chrysler owns the Stow 'n Go name and numerous related patents and clearly is aiming to expand flexible seating concepts to more of its vehicle lineup. Last February, the auto maker featured a similar system in the Rampage, a unibody pickup concept unveiled at the Chicago Auto Show.

But Chrysler has limited exclusivity to the technology, based on its supply agreement with Magna. And Magna President Mark Hogan revealed last June the supplier is quoting on similar technology for other auto makers, aiming to increase the reach of flexible seating concepts to many more customers.

“You won't see it next year, but we're quoting,” Hogan says after delivering a keynote address at the Ward's Auto Interiors Show in early June. “You're going to see it in cross/utility vehicles and SUVs, as well,” Hogan adds.

Several Intier engineers recently gave Ward's a sneak peek at concepts currently being shopped to auto makers. The new systems are expected to be available in 2009 for 2010 programs.

The next generation of Stow 'n Go, or what Intier refers to generically as “stow-in-floor” seating will be more comfortable, easier to fold and unfold and will be able to slide fore and aft 4 ins. (10 cm), says Randy Koenigsknecht vice president, sales & marketing-Intier Seating.

Intier also is trying to enhance the functionality of vehicle interiors with several other concepts as well, says Koenigsknecht, including an innovative reversible seat that can face forward or backward with a flip of a lever, and a multifunction rear seat that can provide luxurious seating for two or practical comfort for three.

The changes in the Gen III stow-in-floor seating are subtle, but significant. The new generation replaces the current high-density foam with a suspension-type seat that is more supple and leaves room underneath for passengers' feet, or to slide through long objects such as skis or 2×4s.

The seats also are more comfy and inviting, thanks to articulating bolsters that pop up when the seat is unfolded, giving the seating area a more comfortably shaped and supportive surface.

Perceived comfort is as important as real comfort, because if potential buyers kicking tires at a dealership think the seats don't look comfortable, a sale can die before it ever gets started, explains Imtiyaz Syed, Intier's vice president-engineering.

More consumer-friendly ergonomics were another key design goal, adds Syed. The motions involved with articulating the seat during stowing and opening operations now are simpler and more fluid. The revised design also imbues the seats with a more elegant, highly crafted appearance, as opposed to today's more functional-looking seats, Syed says.

Furthermore, the Gen III design is slightly offset when it folds and can “kneel” on the floor prior to the final motion of folding into the bin in the floorpan. This provides two major advantages: Seats can be partially folded and locked into place even if floor bins are being used for storage, and the location of the bins can be shifted sideways to provide a tunnel in the floorpan big enough to allow for a driveshaft to accommodate all-wheel drive.

Prior to this, potential OEM customers had to choose — as Chrysler did — between offering fold-flat milddle-row seats or AWD. Not a crucial tradeoff for a minivan, but a major problem for an SUV or CUV.

The Gen III headrests also meet tough FMVSS 202A anti-whiplash safety standards that will be required for rear seats in 2010 — but still fold up neatly and automatically when the seat is stowed, Koenigsknecht says.

Intier Seating's reversible seat is disarming in its simplicity, as it effortlessly flips back and forth from front- to rear-facing positions.

The initial concept is to allow the two rear rows in a vehicle to face each other when desired, without the awkward movements found in today's aftermarket “captains chairs.”

But Koenigsknecht is careful to point out that lots of complicated actions have to happen when the seat reverses: the cushion angle re-orients itself; the seat bolstering is re-articulated; and the head restraint and seatbelt buckles all transition to accommodate the new position.

The supplier also is trying to win new business with what it calls its 2-3-1 seat. In its “2” configuration, the seat provides two wide, highly bolstered seats separated by an expansive center console. In its “3” configuration, the console folds up and the bolsters retract to form a flat bench seat that can accommodate three people comfortably.

In its “1” configuration, the center portion of the seat slides far forward, so an infant in a child seat is within easy reach of the front seats.