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2003 Dodge Kahuna: Playing with materials, teasing a Dodge version of the Pacifica crossover

by David Zatz

The minivan-based Chrysler Pacifica crossover was still new when the concept Dodge Kahuna, hit the auto-show circuit in 2003. As the Pacifica brought a new sophistication and sportiness to the minivan platform, the Kahuna was meant to bring “Next Wave cool” to “minivan function.” The press release announced that the “next wave of fun and function blew in like a warm Pacific breeze” at the Detroit Auto Show when it was launched in January 2003.

2003 Dodge Kahuna concept car based on minivans

Styling chief Trevor Creed said it was meant for “Active individuals, true free spirits.” It was named to include the “Dodge brand attributes”  of “extreme attitude and approach.”

What does Kahuna actually mean? It’s a Hawaiian word referring to experts or priests, but Creed was likely referring to a slang meaning of “the big kahuna,” made popular by the 1959 movie Gidget, where the Big Kahuna led a group of surfers; in later surfer movies, the term referred to the best surfer of the beach. It’s worth observing that a Hawaiian surfing master refused to be labeled as “the big kahuna,” since while he qualified as a surfer, he didn’t qualify for the Hawaiian meaning.

2003 Dodge Kahuna concept car

The Dodge Kahuna was a six-passenger car with an athletic exterior and a good deal of storage; but what attracted the most attention was its syling, done up in maple laminate accents along the side panels, “Point Break Blue”  exterior paint, and a translucent silver/gray water resistant canvas retractable top. That top opened from the B-pillar all the way back to the rear bumper. All the windows were frameless, and all the door glass retracted completely into the doors.

2003 Dodge Kahuna interior

Unlike minivans, the Kahuna had minimal front and rear overhangs, which cut its length and likely its weight, and probably improved its handling and feel. In front was “an all-new and bold interpretation of the face of Dodge.”

The interior used Pacific Blue two-tone colors; the instrument panel, seats, and switches were modeled after flowing waves. Three rows of dual seats were standard; two rows could be turned into tables. The load floor was a Sto & Go® design, letting the seats fold flat into it.

The engine was borrowed from the PT Cruiser: a turbocharged 2.4-liter four-cylinder with 215 hp and a four-speed automatic driving the front wheels. The suspension was taken from the minivans—independent in front, beam axle and coil leaf springs in back. The rear hatch was clearly influenced by the PT Cruiser, except for the tall tail-lights, which resembled Cadillac efforts. The PT Cruiser was still immensely popular at that time, before its unsuccessful, cost-savings-focused refresh.

2003 Kahuna concept crossover (Dodge)

So what was the point? The vehicle didn’t get a huge amount of positive press, and the reaction of fans was not especially positive either. Chances are there were two major rationales for the Kahuna. First, it was a test of materials and colors for the company’s stylists and designers. Second, a more sensibly named Dodge with that basic shape would have gotten more mileage from the minivan platform, and been a predecessor of today’s larger crossovers. Indeed, with its vast interior space and likely superior ride and handling (from the minimal front and moderate rear overhangs), the Kahuna may well have been quite popular if it had been renamed and mainstreamed (e.g. with a solid roof and without the excessive wheel arches, wood sides, and cartoon front). This version of the Kahuna could have saved the minivan; as it is, the acclaimed Pacifica crossovers withered on the vine, never coming to customers’ attention, and Dodge never had its chance at a sporty minivan-based crossover.

DimensionDodge Kahuna Caravan Grand Caravan
Length 185.6” 189.1 200.5
Wheelbase 122” 113.3 119.3
Width 77.8” 78.6 78.6
Height 67.0” 68.8 68.9
Track (F/R) 65.3” 63.0* 63.0*
Tires 255/80R22 215/70R15 215/65R16

* 64.0” rear track

The front overhang was 28.9 inches and the rear overhang was 34.7 inches. The Kahuna had a three-inch longer wheelbase than the Grand Caravan, but was fifteen inches shorter than that big minivan; that was all taken out of the overhang.

In metric...

Dimension Dodge Kahuna
Length 4,714 mm
Wheelbase 3,099 mm
Front Overhang 734 mm
Rear Overhang 881 mm
Width 1,976 mm
Height 1,702 mm
Track F/R 1,659 mm

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