CCotW: Dodge Kahuna (2003)

10 November 2017 | by Karl Smith

At the turn of the century, Chrysler could proudly point to nearly two decades of leadership in minivan sales, dominating a market it had largely created.

But trouble was on the horizon. Tastes were changing, and SUVs and crossovers were increasing in sales. Peak Minivan had been reached a few years previous. Although Chrysler’s offerings were still very popular, a number of leaders at the company began talking about a refresh of the whole minivan concept.

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1948 Dodge station wagon – a classic Woodie workhorse

The classic American Woodie seemed a worthy model for Chrysler to examine. An interesting hybrid between a station wagon and a van, the memory and image of the woodie was a very positive one, a holdover from the ‘Surfing Safari’ sixties. Designing a vehicle that could evoke the endless summer of American youth seemed a worthwhile project.

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Kahuna – meant to be a strong design statement about the possibilities of a minivan alternative

Enter the Kahuna, a concept car from Dodge – a six-seat people hauler with flexible seating, an open-air feel, and plenty of retro-styled fun.

Said Trevor Creed, then Senior Vice President, Design, Chrysler Group, “Active individuals, true free spirits, demand vehicles that are flexible with appropriate room for gear, but they want it with style. The Kahuna was named for its extreme attitude and approach – both Dodge brand attributes.”

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Kahuna front view – the bold Dodge truck mask is softened by the round headlights

The exterior immediately recalled the woodie, with its wood panel sides and panel-truck form. The proportions were a bit chunkier than an original, but the long wheelbase and short overhangs, along with a sure-footed stance, evoked the surf wagons of old.

At the front, the bold Dodge front mask was employed with a short rounded hood. The aggressive truck face was softened somewhat by the round headlights flanking Dodge’s signature crossbar.

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Kahuna on the red carpet – strong woodie references (see main picture too)

The side elevation revealed the long (3000mm) wheelbase and short overhangs. The long glass house had no ‘B’ or ‘C’ pillars to clutter the sides; there was glazing all along its length. The side glass could disappear into the lower body, too even at the rear for open air cruising, recalling the open-air nature of early woodies which had side curtains but no glass.

The top was made of a water-resistant see-through canvas, again echoing heritage woodies. This top could be pushed back for completely open touring. Above this were mounted two bespoke carbon-fibre surfboards to assure that the owner is ready for the waves at any moment.

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Soft canvas top, mounted surfboards ready for that big swell…

The strong sill shared the Pacific blue colour (though it often looks silver in photos) with the wheel arches and front and rear assemblies, and created the illusion that the doors above them are only half-doors that require a big step-over to enter. But, a closer inspection reveals shut lines that were carefully incised into the sill fascia to allow for a full-height door.

The ‘wood’ on the sides of the car was birds-eye maple laminated over a melanine and fibreboard substrate (think laminate flooring), trimmed with metal strips. It gave a strong horizontal character to the car and made it look longer than its 4700mm.

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Kahuna interior – wide open space, big wave themes, and folding seats that become tables

The interior continued the soft blue colour theme, with wave-like forms appearing in elements throughout the cabin. The most prominent of these was the big wave on the instrument panel which sheltered a variety of retro-styled gauges.

The seats folded to create tables, or could be folded away completely – a feature that would become Chrysler’s signature Stow-N-Go seating a couple of years later.

The flooring was a version of sisal in a soft grey and its texture was similar to the canvas top, providing a bit of contrast to the smoother surfaces surrounding the passengers.

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Kahuna was introduced at the NAIAS

The Kahuna was introduced at the 2003 NAIAS in Detroit, a bit of Beach Boys sunshine in the middle of the frigid Michigan winter. But the reception to the Kahuna was mixed. It was hard not to like the woodie connection and the evocation of carefree summer fun in a vehicle that could hold your friends or family... but some were less than impressed with the Kahuna’s overall looks. Allpar.com wrote at the time, “Ugly is as ugly does, and the Kahuna is often referred to as incredibly ugly.”

Ouch.

And then there was the name.

“Kahuna means ‘master’ in Hawaiian,” noted Jordan Meadows, the Kahuna’s exterior designer, at the time. “This car represents coastal culture, a California frame of mind.”

But one critic wrote that: “A kahuna is a person, a shaman, who participates in religious ceremonies... this misuse of the word is offensive among Hawaiians and Hawaiian culture, and I feel that the car should be renamed something else.”

Whatever accidental cultural appropriation might have been involved, it started long before the Kahuna concept car debuted in Detroit. Surfers were using ‘Kahuna’ as slang for ‘surf god’ (the best surfer on the beach) as far back as the 1950s.

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The Kahuna – could electric power, a new name and more tech make it the minivan of the future?

Today, after a decade of severe market share losses to the SUV and crossover segments, minivan sales are again rising as Millenials move back to the suburbs and start families. Might the Kahuna be a model for the family transportation of tomorrow? To be sure, the overall design, form and packaging are promising. Modern updates to its technology would certainly be needed – even minivans are rolling temples of high tech now,  and they come with on-board vacuum cleaners.

Perfect for all that sand you’ll track into the car.