by Jeremy Cato
Is there a chill coming over the heated love affair we Canadians have had with minivans for all these years? The numbers certainly say yes, despite a surge of new models and features in the past two years.
In truth, the popularity of minivans has been in steady decline since 1993, when minivans accounted for a whopping 39 per cent of the total Canadian light truck sales. Since then, reports DesRosiers Automotive Consultants, minivan sales have plunged to account for just 26.6 per cent of all light truck sales through the end of October. (The light truck category includes minivans, pickups, sport-utility vehicles and many crossover vehicles.)
“It is getting ugly for minivans in Canada and it is even worse in the U.S., where minivan (sales) have been deteriorating for years,” says auto analyst Dennis DesRosiers.
The family hauler, born in 1984 with the arrival of Chrysler’s K-car-based Magic Wagons, is still a major player. Canadians will buy more than 190,000 of them this year, out of a total new vehicle market that will come in around 1.55 million units in 2004.
Still, sales this year are slipping in terms of total market share, although to be fair, five of the top ten best-selling light trucks are minivans this year (Dodge Caravan, Pontiac Montana, Chevrolet Venture, Ford Freestar and Toyota Sienna). In particular, Ford’s share of the minivan market has sunk to 12.1 per cent this year, from a high of 28 per cent in 1997. Chrysler’s share is also way down, from a high of 41.1 per cent in 1996 to 35.1 per cent today, notes DesRosiers.
Really serious damage to the whole minivan market happened last year, when minivan sales tumbled a whopping 15 per cent to 198,977, the first time Canadians purchased fewer than 200,000 minivans since 1997. It appears 2003 was a landmark year in the decline of the minivan.
2005 Nissan Quest. Photo: Nissan
Our cooling interest in minivans seems very odd, however. The automakers as a group have put significant resources into their vans over the last two years, adding fancy features such as DVD players and hideaway seats.
This year new and revamped minivans include the 2005 Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country with its Stow ‘N Go seats, Honda with its thoroughly renovated Odyssey, and General Motors, with updated minivans intended to look more like crossovers or even SUVs.
Ah, crossovers. Many, such as the Nissan Murano and Buick Rendezvous, are true car-based minivans disguised to look like SUVs. Crossovers don’t come with the same “hockey mom” image baggage as minivans, yet offer the same level of utility and practicality.
So there is no question the emerging crossover segment – a segment filled with less bland vehicles as practical as the minivan – is hurting minivan sales, says DesRosiers.
Image aside, few vehicles can compete with minivans for pure utility and overall value. That is why respected North American forecaster J.D. Power and Associates is predicting Canadian and U.S. combined sales will stay level at about 1.3-1.4 million combined units annually.
The good news for consumers is this: the number of product offerings will continue to grow, guaranteeing buyers many choices from a wide and growing array of models, all well equipped, well priced and designed to downplay the den mother image. Korea’s Hyundai, for instance, is expected to launch its first minivan next year, fuelling more competition.
Down the road, look for the automakers to continue refining the minivan formula. They will maintain their efforts to spruce up the minivan image while also further enhancing flexibility, comfort and safety.
Chrysler’s Stow n’ Go seats. Photo: DaimlerChrysler
What sorts of features? Consider the Stow ‘N Go seats in the Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan. This feature allows two rows of seats to fold flush into the floor, making room for cargo without the hassle of lifting out the seats and storing them in a garage.
Hideaway seats, of course, were pioneered by Honda with its first Odyssey back in the early 1990s, then beautifully refined when the Japanese automaker introduced a completely fold-flat third-row seat in its 1999 Odyssey minivan. Chrysler has now done Honda and others one better by mastering a second row that disappears into the floor.
Not to be outdone in the cool features department, the updated 2005 Odyssey has an in-floor Lazy Susan storage system. The rotating tray located between the front and second-row seats does a wonderful job of hiding toys and snacks.
The ’05 Odyssey also has a powerful yet fuel-efficient V-6 engine. The trick there is an engine system designed to shut down three cylinders when their power is not needed. Very slick.
Over at Nissan, the designers have worked to sex-up the Quest with edgy styling and a pair of skylight panels stretching over the back seats. GM has updated its minivans with more truck-like front ends and higher-sitting cabins for the ’05 Saturn Relay, Pontiac Montana SV6, Chevrolet Uplander and Buick Terraza.
And Toyota’s Sienna, which like the Quest was made all-new for 2004, is a fantastically refined van with a plush ride, excellent safety features such as side-curtain airbags and an all-wheel-drive option.
Of the major automakers, only Ford has stumbled with its 2004 makeover of the former Windstar, now called the Freestar. Ford went conservative with the update. The styling is bland, the powertrain uninspiring and there is no breakthrough innovation like Stow N’ Go or a Lazy Susan to excite potential buyers.
Ho-hum as it is, the Freestar is a fantastic bargain. To move the hardware, Ford is offering a $5,000 factory-to-dealer credit and zero per cent financing for up to four years.
Ford isn’t the only automaker sweetening its minivan deals. Chrysler, for instance, is offering a $4,700 factory-to-dealer rebate on the Dodge Grand Caravan. Other discounts include $4,000 on the outgoing Chevrolet Venture and Pontiac Montana, and zero per cent financing on the Kia Sedona, according to www.carcostcanada.com, an online pricing and dealer referral Web site.
Heavy discounting is tough on profits. GM is hoping that its crossover-like new minivans will spark greater demand, thus reducing or even eliminating the need for generous deals.
Chrysler is working on an all-new minivan line-up. Lead designer and Canadian, Ralph Gilles, whose styling skills did their magic on the popular Chrysler 300 and Dodge Magnum, is said to be working on an arresting new shape intended to revitalize the van’s image and make it compelling as… Well, a Chrysler 300 and Dodge Magnum. Future buyers will be very tough to please, though. They will largely come from Generation Y, the so-called “Echo” generation, or born to Baby Boomers, between the early 1980s through the mid-1990s.
University of Toronto economics professor David Foot, author of the best-selling Boom, Bust & Echo, says the Echo generation is technologically savvy and relatively well-educated. That combination will make them demanding customers as they move into their child-rearing years when minivans become a popular family transportation choice.
Car manufacturers, who all feast on market data to guide their product decisions, know this. So for the rest of this decade, expect the major players to keep pushing ahead with innovative minivans aimed at the toughest of customers.