Forget The Cargo Bed. How Many Doors Does It Have?

When Chrysler added a fourth door to its minivans in 1995, the industry did a double take. Ford had introduced its Windstar model just the year before with only three doors, figuring a fourth was an option that consumers wouldn't pay for. What a mistake. Chrysler's minivan sales soared, Ford's stalled, and it was pretty obvious why.

The fourth door just made so much sense. Suddenly, a vehicle called a truck became much more like a car. Back-seat passengers could get in and out twice as fast. Parents could put the baby seat on either side of the middle row. And you no longer had to climb across the interior to reach packages on the no-door side. "What's the use of having space and not having access?" asks Lincoln Merrihew, auto analyst with J.D. Power & Associates in Agoura Hills, Calif.

Buoyed by that realization, the industry is now engaged in a full-scale door war. General Motors and Toyota restyled their minivan fleets last year to include four doors. GM has since upped the ante by offering an optional $200 remote-controlled door on the right side. Ford's redesigned Windstar arrives this summer with dual power sliding doors as an option, and Honda will follow suit in the fall. The power doors on the as yet unnamed Honda minivan can be opened or closed using a dashboard control, keyless remote, or by pulling the door handle. Ford and Honda have not set prices.

The fourth-door craze has also hit the pickup truck market, led once again by Chrysler. Its Dodge Ram Quad Cab has been a runaway hit since Chrysler rolled it out last fall. In the first three months of '98, Chrysler sold 32,000 Ram pickups, and 52% had four doors instead of the traditional two. The four-door option costs $800 on the Quad Cab, which runs from $20,392 for a shorter, two-wheel-drive version, to $27,050 for the biggest four-wheel-drive model.

The benefits of a four-door pickup differ from that of the minivan. In the minivan, the rear doors are large and slide open on a track. One notable exception, the Honda Odyssey, flopped partly because its rear doors opened outward. The sliding doors can be used easily in tight parking spaces, where there may be little room to swing a door outward.

Because minivans are used mostly to haul human cargo, an additional door enhances what they do best. Adding extra doors to pickups gives them an added dimension. The Quad Cab features a short rear door behind each of the regular-sized front doors. The pickup's back seat becomes more inviting for passengers, who don't have to squeeze through a narrow space behind the front seat. Chrysler has also integrated the seat belts into the front seat, rather than attaching them to an interior pillar. So there's no front belt in your way when using the rear doors.

The two rear doors can't be opened unless the front doors are, a safety advantage if children are riding in back. The rear doors also open up to make it easier to stow in the rear seat groceries, golf clubs, or other items you don't want bouncing around an open pickup bed. Instead of regular handles on the outside of the rear doors, you'll find flip-up handles that are hidden from view on the edges when the doors are closed.

NO LEAKS. Why wasn't the apparently simple innovation of two extra doors brought to the mass market sooner? Suburbanites with families, after all, are buying full-size pickups in increasing numbers. Engineering issues were one reason that the doors took so long. The two doors on each side come together without a pillar in between, so they needed to fit securely to prevent leaks. "We faced the same structural issues as we did with the fourth door in the minivan," says Rich Ray, head of Chrysler's truck planning.

Ford and GM have had passenger-side third doors available as options on their pickups for two years. Ford added a standard fourth door on its heavy-duty F-350 series last fall, but the option won't be available on its popular F-150 and F-250 models until later this year. GM and Toyota are expected to bring out four-door pickups in 1999.

The fourth door became the standard for minivans, and eventually will for full-size pickups. "I wouldn't be surprised if Quad Cab becomes 90% of Ram sales," says Merrihew. He notes that fewer and fewer cars are sold with just two doors. Why should trucks be any different?

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