The Last Van Standing

When Chrysler designer Ralph Gilles first became a family man, he wasn't ready to drive a dowdy minivan. So he pimped out a '99 Dodge Caravan with big wheels, dual racing stripes and a monster engine. "I thought, 'If I'm going to have a minivan'," he says, " 'I'll have it my way'." Now Chrysler is letting him have his way with its entire minivan lineup, injecting some style into what is essentially this generation's station wagon. The Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Caravan that will be unveiled at this week's Detroit Auto Show sport the big rims, blinding chrome and massive grilles that are a hallmark of Gilles's designs. Far from egg-shaped eyesores, these minivans are direct descendants of his 300C sedan, a car so cool that 50 Cent drives one. "We asked ourselves, 'How can we sprinkle some of the magic bling dust from the 300C on the minivan?' " says Gilles.

Chrysler badly needs a sequel to its 300C, a blockbuster when it was introduced in 2004. The company lost about $1.2 billion last year and fell behind Toyota to become the No. 4 automaker in the American market. Minivans might seem an unlikely platform for a comeback, but they are Chrysler's franchise, accounting for nearly 20 percent of its sales and upwards of $2.5 billion in profits in good years, analysts estimate. When the new models go on sale this fall, they'll drive into a market as ruthless as the pickup lane at your kid's grade school. Boomers who created the minivan market are exiting their childbearing years, sending sales skidding, and Toyota and Honda have come on strong with offerings of their own, eating into the shrinking share. Ford and General Motors are giving up and pulling out, leaving Chrysler as the last minivan standing in Detroit.

To overcome the soccer-mom stigma, Gilles has designed a car with 'tude: broad shoulders, a chest-out front end and cool stuff like a 2,000-song MP3 player and a digital dashboard screen that displays photos. "They've muscled up the minivan," says car consultant John Wolkonowicz of Global Insight.

NEWSWEEK rode shotgun in the new cars with Chrysler engineers as they worked out the final bugs in a two-day drive across Michigan last month. The engineers have logged 125,000 miles in a dozen road trips like this over the past year, but there's plenty of work to be done before the vans start rolling off the assembly line this summer. Huddled with his engineers in a cramped motel conference room after a day of test driving, minivan-development chief Steve Jakubiec ticks off a litany of problems he found after the cars spent the previous night in zero-degree cold chambers: power windows that won't go up, a dead power seat, a windshield washer that trickles out "like an old man peeing." "I'll look into that," a subordinate responds.

The next day, the engineers show off the feature they hope will turn the most heads: the swiveling seats in the second row. Designers initially wanted a front passenger seat that rotates, to allow mom better access to the kids, but that configuration put mom's head dangerously close to the windshield. Taking a cue from RVs, the designers threw in a table that snaps between the second and third rows. And to make sure customers won't get carsick while using the table, they put their own kids to the "puke test"--having them play games on it while the vans are in motion. "We never had anyone get nauseous," says Jakubiec. The real gut check comes at the Auto Show, when the public gets its first look. Gilles is confident consumers will respond to the "virility" he's injected into the minivan. "I wanted to provide people with an intellectual alibi," he says, "that makes them feel a little sexier and a little younger." Great. But what about those kids in the back who remind us we're not getting any younger?