Industry analysts predict Chrysler’s new Pacifica ‘crossover’, developed in 30 months for about $US1 billion, will sell well, perhaps reversing slumping sales of Chrysler’s namesake brand and minivans, The Detroit News reported.

The newspaper said that the new Pacificas now rolling off the line at the Chrysler minivan plant in Windsor, Canada, have the challenge of boosting the image of a “tired, middle-class brand” while establishing Chrysler as a force in the growing crossover utility vehicle market.

Due in United States showrooms next month, the Pacifica is one of the first high-volume products to benefit from the much-touted German-American cooperation made possible by the 1998 union of Daimler-Benz and the former Chrysler Corporation, the Detroit News said, adding that the new model is a key vehicle in Chrysler’s offensive to increase global sales by a million units within the next 10 years.

“It’s huge,” Chrysler vice president of brand marketing Tom Marinelli told the Motown newspaper. “We look to vehicles like Pacifica to help us grow our volumes. But maybe even more importantly, enhance the image of the brand.”

The Detroit News said Zetsche delayed development of the vehicle for six months to revise the front end, in part so the Pacifica would achieve the highest possible rating in government crash tests, a concern for potential buyers now driving sport utilities and minivans.

According to the newspaper, Marinelli said safety would be highlighted in Pacifica marketing, and added that strong safety ratings may help Chrysler avert the kind of concerns raised in 2000 when the firm’s redesigned minivan lineup did not receive consistent five-star ratings for front and side impact crashes.

The Detroit News said motor industry analysts’ opinions are however mixed on whether Pacifica can help the marque move upscale.

“They have a real problem with the Chrysler brand,” Mike Schmall, managing partner at The Planning Edge, a motor industry consulting firm in Farmington Hills, told the paper. “Can you tell me what Chrysler stands for and why you would go to a Chrysler dealership? Challenge anybody to answer that question,” Schmall reportedly said.

The Detroit News said the Pacifica is a so-called ‘crossover’ vehicle that combines attributes of a saloon car, minivan/MPV and sport utility. It comes into the market just as the segment is beginning to take off and The Planning Edge estimates crossover demand will grow from 1.4 million vehicles in 2002 to 2.9 million in 2007, the paper noted.

The Detroit News said Chrysler, however, shuns the ‘crossover’ label for Pacifica, preferring to describe it as a ‘sports tourer’ and ‘segment-buster’ in the tradition of its company’s minivans [first launched in 1984] and PT Cruiser [launched in 2000].

The ‘sports tourer’ will also apply to the upcoming Dodge Magnum and Mercedes-Benz GST due out in 2004, the newspaper added.

According to the Detroit News, Marinelli would not say how many Pacifica models Chrysler expects to sell, but the newspaper noted that the company can build up to 100,000 a year.

The Pacifica is targeted at the three million North American consumers annually who switch vehicle types, moving, for example, from minivans to SUVs or wagons, the paper said.

“They weren’t 100% content with the vehicle they had, so they moved on,” Marinelli told the Detroit News. “If we could get a very minuscule number of those, we’re going to sell out our 100,000-unit capacity.”

US Pacifica prices will start at $US31,320 for a front-wheel drive Pacifica, and $32,980 for all-wheel drive, the Detroit News said, adding that the new Chrysler will compete with luxury crossovers, such as the Acura MDX and Lexus RX 300, with sticker prices between $1,500 and $6,400 higher.