The minivan is credited with saving the former Chrysler Corp. in 1983 and it has been a cash cow ever since.

To hear some tell it, the Chrysler division of DaimlerChrysler AG is in need of a white knight again, just as the fourth-generation minivan gallops into showrooms.

At press time, forecasts of dire third-quarter results for the Chrysler division are attributed to plant downtime for model changeover, investment in new plants and products, and incentives to clear out old inventory. Simply a costly priming of the pump, DC says, that will pay off in the fourth quarter.

To that end, DC has a trio of important new vehicles for '01:

Chrysler/Dodge/Plymouth minivans, Chrysler Sebring/Dodge Stratus sedan, coupe and convertible, and the Mercedes-Benz C Class sedan.

The most pivotal and profitable (about $4,700 per unit) is the minivan, for one simple reason: volume. The company has sold more than eight million in total and 607,000 in the 1999 model year; its closest competitor, General Motors Corp., falls an astonishing 200,000 units short. DC's sales for the last two months exceed Honda Odyssey's 1999 total.

But DC has cranked up incentives to buy its way back to a 40% market share, and September sales were tracking to exceed an annual 600,000 again, in a segment forecast to meet or exceed last year's record 1.6 million units worldwide.

The '01 hit showrooms backed by a new advertising campaign and high expectations it will lead a fourth-quarter recovery.

After almost 15 years of unchallenged supremacy, DC now faces 15 minivan competitors, some formidable for their ability to mimic and better the Chrysler model.

The '01 doesn't have an innovation to equal the fourth door it introduced in 1996. Nor does it have a bold new look, opting instead to add aggressive touches to the winning lines that have been on the road since 1995.

It does have the segment's only power liftgate, which opens and closes with the press of a button.

Time will tell whether the decision to forego a stowaway third seat will prompt buyers to go to Honda, Mazda or GM. Buying patterns may show the split third seat on DC models is sufficient, and won't deter customers from an otherwise great design with improved performance, quieter ride, and innovative creature comforts.

Horsepower has been boosted on the aging engines, and a new 3.5L engine offers 230 hp (best in class) when it becomes available next spring on the Town & Country Limited. Brakes and headlamps are larger, body structure bolstered, and the new power doors have a manual override system for the impatient.

The other all-new entrees are midsize cars: Chrysler Sebring/Dodge Stratus sedans and coupes and the new Sebring convertible. The hope is their styling is enough to convince midsize sedan consumers to make a detour en route to their Honda and Toyota dealers.

The new cars adopt styling cues from big brother LH car platform and address the shortcomings from the previous Cirrus/Breeze/Stratus family. Emphasis is on improved performance and handling, and providing a quiet ride. There are powertrain upgrades, too, including the availability of a 5-speed manual transmission.

The cars selectively steal styling from the best of the LH line: the low oval grille of the Concorde, jeweled headlamps from the 300M. The goal is to appear sportier and more European, a logical offshoot for a German company. Features such as a 60/40 split rear seat telegraph the desire to bill the 4-door as a near-luxury entry, the Stratus R/T a sporty coupe.

The convertible gets its first redesign and will go on sale with more horsepower from the 2.7L DOHC V-6 engine and better midrange performance. A new all-windows-down system operates in conjunction with the convertible top.

Mercedes-Benz redoes its volume leader, the C Class sedan for '01. (See story, page 41.) Its lofty goals include giving the brand a more hip image to bring down the average age of its buyers from 48 to 42.

While Mercedes methodically tackles one major product at a time, the Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep lineup is being overhauled over the next five years, and many '01 offerings have been bolstered to tide them over until their turn.

The big hit comes with the launch of the all-new '02 Cherokee next spring.

On the car side, the PT Cruiser continues to exceed expectations, and the LH line is enhanced with everything from new wheels on the 300M to traction control for the Concorde LX and a new information center on the LHS. The family must stay fresh until the '04 redesign that takes them to rear-wheel drive.

Neon has a redesigned braking system, better body sealing for a quieter ride, Sun and Sport packages offering such features as a sunroof. The R/T has a 150-hp 2L I-4 mated to a 5-speed manual, leather(!) buckets and redesigned instrument panel.

A limited edition Dodge Viper commemorates its win at the 2000 Daytona 24-hour race. New colors for '01: blue and yellow. Prowler offers a Black Tie edition (black and silver). And orange makes a debut, against Prowler's retirement of red, yellow, black and purple.

In trucks, the Dodge Dakota pickup has a new interior, Durango offers the 4.7L SOHC Magnum V-8 engine with 235 hp/295 lb.-ft. (400 Nm) of torque and a new interior. Ram Van/Wagon adds a new crew cab model for '01, but the vehicles themselves will be phased out after the '02 model year to make way for Maxxcab production.

Grand Cherokee has a redesigned 5-speed automatic transmission that now actually has five gears. Wrangler has a re-engineered soft-top that is quieter and more durable (the same Dura Automotive Systems Inc. design as GM uses for this year's Corvette convertible).

For Chrysler, the new minivans don't look bad, but that third-seat gaffe may be a problem. And some new engines wouldn't hurt those people-movers, either. We're having a tough time getting excited about the Sebring/Stratus, as nobody seems to care much these days about DC's cars. Go figure. For Mercedes, let's see. An aggressively priced S-Class flagship, an all-new, super-hot, super-competitive C-Class and buyers still lining up for the CLK and M-Class. You don't need our advice - you need an offshore bank account.