DaimlerChrysler Corp. finally plans to join the domestic side air bag race. After years of expressing doubts about the cost-effectiveness of side air bags, DCC now plans to offer the safety devices on its '01 minivans.

DCC also is hard at work preparing its '03 model year minivans with side curtain air bags, sources tell Ward's.

Breed Siemens Restraint Systems is supplying both the side air bags on the '01 minivan and the curtain air bags for the '03 model year minivan. But because of Breed Technologies Inc.'s financial troubles (see p.4), DCC seriously is considering de-sourcing the joint venture on the curtain air bag in favor of Autoliv Inc., sources say.

No vehicles in the former Chrysler Corp. lineup currently have side air bags, not even the '99 Grand Cherokee. The '99 Ford Explorer has side air bags, while General Motors Corp. does not offer side air bags on any of its sport/utility vehicles.

DCC's change of heart concerning side air bags partly may be due to its desire to have its market-leading minivan score better in the government's New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) frontal and side crash test ratings.

Chrysler minivans are rated four-star for driver and passenger on a frontal crash, but earn just three stars for the second seat on a side impact. The side impact rating for the front seat passenger is five-star, the highest score given. Ford's Windstar currently leads the minivan pack, scoring five-star for front and side impacts for both driver and passenger, the first quadruple five-star rating for a minivan. Ford has been playing this fact up in TV and print advertising, which has translated into some sales gains.

GM's Montana/Venture/Silhouette minivans have side air bags. Those minivans are rated four-star for the driver and three-star for the passenger. Side NCAP ratings are five-star for front and rear occupants.

Sources say DCC has made improving its NCAP scores a priority, which likely is why the minivan will be among the company's first vehicles to get side air bags. DCC hopes to beat Ford and GM to market with side curtain air bags. The DCC bags, scheduled to appear on '03 minivans, are installed in the headliner and run from the A-pillar to the D-pillar. Ford's '03 Windstar currently is scheduled to get curtain air bags too, but Ford is said to be working to get that date moved up.

The Explorer is expected to be Ford's first vehicle to get a curtain air bag. Autoliv had developed one for Ford earlier, but the automaker elected not to offer it. Ford now is said to be looking at offering the device on the '01 Explorer.