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Door Wars: Chrysler Rules, Ford Learns and GM Is Missing the Boat

July 30, 1998|DONALD W. NAUSS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DETROIT — When Ford Motor Co. introduced its new Windstar minivan in 1995, it was hoping to knock rival Chrysler Corp. off its perch as the segment leader.

Chrysler, however, had a surprise up its sleeve. Its redesigned 1996 minivans came with a curious feature: an extra sliding door on the driver's side. It proved so popular that Chrysler remains the unquestioned minivan king today.

Ford President Jacques Nasser was quick to admit his company's mistake and vowed it wouldn't happen again.

"When in doubt, always add a door," Nasser instructed Ford's design engineers.

Indeed, Chrysler's minivan innovation opened a door war among the nation's auto makers. Not since the rush to add cup holders in the late 1980s have auto makers become so absorbed with a single creature comfort.

The proliferation of doors is riding the shift of consumer tastes toward light trucks and away from passenger cars. Extra doors are helping to transform sport-utilities, minivans and, now most notably, extended-cab pickups from practical cargo haulers to comfortable people movers.

"It's all about utility," said Csaba Csere, editor in chief of Car & Driver magazine. "It doesn't help to have all this room in a vehicle unless you can get to it conveniently."

The growing popularity of sport-utes can be traced in part to the prevalence of four-door models beginning in the early 1990s.

Soon afterward, four doors hit the minivan market. While adding the extra door may seem like a no-brainer today, both Ford and Chrysler said initial consumer research showed that less than a third of potential minivan buyers wanted a fourth door. Ford passed while Chrysler took a chance.

Today, 90% of the minivans Chrysler sells have a fourth door. General Motors Corp. and Toyota Motor Corp. both offer four-door minivan models. Ford and Honda Motor Co. will belatedly offer four-door minivans later this year.

"It's pretty much the price of entry now," said Ralph Sarotte, general product manager for Chrysler's minivans.

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After the minivan debacle, Ford wasn't about to miss the next wave: extended-cab pickups. Both Ford and GM jumped into the pickup arena in 1996 with three-door models, providing customers better access to the back-seat area. Sales jumped dramatically. Extended cabs now account for about two-thirds of all full-size pickup sales.

Chrysler was first to market with a four-door model, introducing the Dodge Ram Quad Cab earlier this year. It has been a runaway hit.

Ford is right on Chrysler's heels. The Dearborn, Mich.-based auto maker is the first to offer four doors on its entire line of extended-cab pickups--from its top-line Super-Duty F-350 to the bread-and-butter F-150 and F-250 models and the compact Ranger.

"The marketplace is voting every day for more doors," said Paul Morel, Ford's truck group brand manager.

GM, however, is late to the latest four-door party. It will launch new Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra full-size pickups later this year with a third door on extended-cab models. A fourth door is likely next year. GM officials said the cost and complexity of adding the extra door contributes to the delay.

"GM is missing the boat," Csere said. "It's a major error.

Adding a fourth door isn't as easy as it may seem. There are structural and safety issues that must be addressed. That's why it took Ford four years and $560 million to put a fourth door on the Windstar.

Quality Improvement: If there is any question that planned obsolescence is dead, consider the latest figures on the median age of vehicles in the United States.

The median age of a car in 1997 was 8.1 years, the oldest ever, according to R.L. & Polk Co. That compares with 6.5 years in 1990 and 4.9 years in 1970, before the Big Three auto makers were challenged by a flood of well-built Japanese imports.

The median age of trucks is 7.8 years, also the highest ever. That compares with 6.5 years in 1990 and 5.9 in 1970.

"Vehicles are proving more durable," said Richard Spitzer, director of analysis for Polk. "With more cars on the road lasting longer, the median-age number should continue to increase over the next few years."

Ford Efficiency: Ford last year surpassed Chrysler as the most profitable U.S. auto maker.

The Harbour Report, a closely watched study of manufacturing efficiency, found Ford was the most improved domestic auto maker and was competitive with the U.S. assembly operations of most Japanese auto producers.

Ford reported a pretax profit of $1,520 a vehicle. Chrysler earned $1,336 and GM lost $104 a vehicle. The GM figure included one-time charges for asset write-offs. Without those charges, GM earned $825 a vehicle.

Most surprising, Ford takes 22.85 hours to produce a vehicle. That compares favorably with Toyota, which takes 21.31 hours, and Honda at 22.31 hours. GM takes a whopping 30.32 hours.

"Just to get competitive with Ford, GM has to shed 38,000 workers," said James Harbour, author of the report.

Too Cool: The 1999 Saab 9-5 comes with an air-conditioned glove box. The storage area is equipped with an adjustable vent that can deliver cool air from the vehicle's air-conditioning system.

The glove box can be cooled to about 42 degrees Fahrenheit, about the same as a refrigerator. It is large enough to hold two soft drink cans, a couple of juice bottles and three or four chocolate bars.

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Donald W. Nauss is The Times' Detroit bureau chief. He can be reached via e-mail at don.nauss@latimes.com.

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