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The new Chrysler to be the first out with mini-van

It's one of the most innovative designs to come down the pike since the Arab oil embargo of 1973-74. And guess who's introducing it: Chrysler Corporation.

Despite its hand-to-mouth past, Chrysler is trying to build more fun and excitement into the business. As part of its game plan, the resurgent carmaker is beating its main domestic competitors, General Motors and Ford, to the finish line in the mini-van race.

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Chrysler's K-derived, front-drive mini-van will have room for 5 or 7 passengers, depending on the seating arrangement, and a reported gas mileage of up to 40 miles per gallon on the open road. It's due to reach the showroom next January.

The GM ''M'' mini-van, by contrast, won't reach the road till the fall of 1984, while the Ford mini-van won't arrive till 1985.

Unlike the front-drive Chrysler van, both the GM and Ford products will have a rear-drive layout, the Ford mini-van an offshoot of the Ranger mini-truck; the GM mini-van, the S-10. Thus, Chrysler gains an inside space advantage over its two big opponents although it loses out in hill-climbing ability with a heavily loaded rear, as well as towing.

How much market is there for such a new-size vehicle?

''The potential mini-van market is in the 300,000 to 500,000-unit range,'' projects Chase Econometrics, an economics forecasting firm, or 9 to 15 percent of the US light-truck market. However, Chase points out, ''this sales level comes largely at the expense of the full-size family wagon and full-size van segments.'' In other words, it will mean few, if any, additional sales for the auto industry.

The Chrysler mini-van, at 66.6 inches in height, is nearly a foot taller but roughly the same length as the Dodge Aries wagon. It is, however, much lower than a standard full-size van.

Larger than the Japanese wagons, and with far zippier performance than the Volkswagen Vanagon, the new Chrysler mini-van is a whole new look in van travel. The innovative concept, in fact, can be adapted to numerous other styles and uses, as Chrysler Corporation showed in its new-product show which toured a half dozen US cities in January.

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Chrysler Corporation is now in the midst of a $6.6 billion new-product program which will bring a whole array of new vehicles and engines to the road over the next few years. This year, for example, Chrysler will lay out $1.5 million for new products, improvement of current products, and new factories, compared to $823 million in 1982.

As for the forthcoming mini-van, vice-chairman Gerald Greenwald asserts: ''We're betting $700 million that we're right.''

Besides the super-small van, Chrysler will also introduce a pair of front-drive, 97-inch-wheelbase sports cars in the fall, the 2+2 Dodge Daytona and Chrysler Laser. The 2.2-liter, 4-cylinder engine, rated at 142 hp., is turbocharged.

Then in the fall of 1984, Chrysler will unveil a midsize specialty car, also K-derived, with a 103-inch wheelbase aimed at the Honda Accord market. In late 1985, it will replace the Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon, which already have been around for more than five years.

Chrysler has shelved its diesel plans because of low demand.

The Dodge and Plymouth versions of the new mini-van will be called Caravan and Voyager, respectively. In commercial form, it will be dubbed the Mini Ram Van. An executive version, the Chrysler Commander, will hit the road at a later date.

Chrysler claims it's spending a higher percentage of its research-and-development budget than either Ford or General Motors on new products in relation to its sales volume.

''It isn't just how much you spend, but what you do with what you have,'' Mr. Greenwald declares.

Right now the company, which almost went belly-up three years ago, claims 10 percent of the US car market, including imports, and 10 percent of the truck market.

''We're shooting for 12 percent,'' says chairman Lee Iacocca, the longtime Ford executive who was president of the No. 2 automaker in 1979 when he was fired by Henry Ford II, then chairman. Mr. Iacocca switched to Chrysler soon after his departure from Ford.

In rebuilding ''his team'' at Chrysler, Iacocca drew a large number of Ford executives to the company, including Harold A. Sperlich, considered one of the best product people in the industry and the prime motivating force behind the development of the innovative mini-van.

Another indication that Chrysler is flying higher these days is a decision by the Chrysler Loan Guarantee Board to allow the company to have its own corporate aircraft, a plum it had to give up as it struggled to survive.

Chrysler Corporation, in the last three years, has:

* Cut its blue- and white-collar work force in half - from 160,000 to 80,000.

''Yet those people are producing a wider range of cars and trucks today than they ever did before,'' according to vice-chairman Greenwald.

* Reduced its break-even point from more than 2 million cars to 1.1 million.

* Shut down 20 obsolete plants and modernized the remaining 40 plants with state-of-the-art robot welders, computer-controlled engine and power-train test stands, and modern paint shops.

* Improved the quality of its cars, as reflected in a significant drop-off in the number of warranty claims it receives from car owners.

''We're half the size of three years ago,'' Mr. Greenwald reports, ''but twice the company.''

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