Sienna, Titan to Give Everyone a Run for Their Money
Call it that “lump in the throat” feeling. It’s a feeling that something truly significant has just occurred; it’s the realization that despite all the industry intelligence, a new vehicle can and did still surprise many — but shouldn’t have. That feeling occurred twice at the latest North American International Auto Show (A.K.A. Detroit show) when the new Toyota Sienna minivan and Nissan Titan pickup were introduced to the huddled masses.
On their own, the Sienna and Titan don’t necessarily signal the demise of the Big 3 — far from it. What it does signify is that both Nissan and Toyota went through the proverbial best-in-class checklist and not only matched but surpassed the leaders in the key categories. Combine the vehicle package and value equation with inherent NA-based production flexibility and one understands why antacid is in high demand. For the time being, the Big 3 will continue to revert to taping money to the hoods to lure customers.
You could ask the question: What is so darn earthshaking about a minivan? While it doesn’t register highly on the sexy meter, minivans are possibly the most practical and cost-effective family vehicle — bar none. Production in North America still registers 1.3 million units (down from 1.8 million as recently as 1999). These offerings serve as a stepping-stone to other segments up the chain as these buyers shift to other lifestages and incomes rise.
The Big 3 continue to invest in the minivan arena despite the forays of Honda, Toyota, Nissan and Hyundai. The competitive dynamics in the minivan segment have changed measurably since the first T-115 rolled off Chrysler’s Windsor, Ontario assembly line in 1983. The segment has grown in both size and number of competitors. Now it is splintering as tall wagons and CUVs (cross over utility) enter the fray, offering many of the minivan’s features. Every five years, each OEM has its chance to the ante. Honda did it in 1999 with Odyssey, DaimlerChrysler tried but stumbled in 2001 with its redesign and Ford will reach the plate this with the new Freestar and Mercury Monterey. From the face of it our friends in Dearborn won’t measure up to the Sienna.
Most of us knew that the 2004 Toyota Sienna was going to take the minivan to the next level. What was surprising was that Toyota matched or raised the ante in virtually every area. Interior packaging, drivetrain and passenger conveniences took a back seat none. Like the Camry in the mid-size sedan segment, the vehicle borders on perfect. The issue is trying to stay competitive with a company that churns 70 hp per liter from a buttersmooth 3.3L, sets a new standard in interior packaging and combines AWD with a 60/40 folding third seat. A feat that DaimlerChrysler said could not be achieved. Matching Toyota in virtually every area is an expensive effort — one that will take several years and will certainly not be a “running change.” By the way, Toyota lowered the price and increased production capacity as well.
The impact of the Nissan Titan is possibly more apparent to the casual observer. While many touted the fact that Nissan, like Toyota, invading new territory currently mastered GM, Ford and DCX, Nissan raised the bar standard horsepower, package and ingress and egress.
What worries the current market players is not the increased volumes per se but the quality of customers that gravitate to these offerings. These consumers don’t fight the monthly payment and are very likely to be optioned up with stronger margins. This is possibly the most concerning dilemma for the proverbial Big 3 — these offerings take their share of the cream of the crop buyers. While the press did catch on to these new offerings what they missed was the true impact — both downstream on the retail and marketing cost side and upstream in the development and manufacturing area. Both the Sienna and Titan raise the bar in several respects — much of the pain will continue to emanate from the Big 3.
As the new F-Series pickup and concepts such as the Cadillac Sixteen and Ford Mustang grabbed their share of column inches during the Detroit show — kudos to Nissan for the Titan but the real show stealer was the new Sienna — hands down.