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The Minivan is Alive and Well -- (Just Don’t Call it That)

If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, is it still a duck? Or in automotive terms, if it looks like a minivan, has features like a minivan, and sells like a minivan, is it a minivan? In today’s market, it just may not be so.

While minivans have been relegated by many to soccer mom-dom, the OEMs are continuously looking to jazz-up the idea to appeal to a greater breadth of customers. The truth, however, is that while the minivan moniker is dead (lately worn as a scarlet letter, of sorts) the value the vehicle brought to the market is alive and well, just under a myriad of new classifications such as: crossover, multi-activity vehicle, tall wagon, etc.

What many don’t recognize is that the minivan — or the ideas the minivan represents — is more than a vehicle or nameplate. It is a placeholder for a vehicle concept that represents value, function, affordability and flexibility. Pound for pound it is tough to argue against the minivan’s cost benefit equation of comfortably moving seven passengers. It is unrivalled.

The minivan concept was not born when Chrysler debut its much hailed Caravan/Voyager/Town and Country in 1983. The “minivan” concept has been around for a long time, it just wasn’t always called a minivan. In the 1970s it was called the station wagon; in the 1980s it was called the minivan; in the 1990s it was called the sport utility vehicle; and in the 2000s it will probably be called the crossover vehicle. The name changes but the concept remains the same: practicality. For this decade, that practicality also adds more style, electronics, all-wheel drive and comfort.

This new segment of crossover vehicles (comprised of Crossover Utility Vehicles — CUVs and Multi-activity Vehicles — MAVs) and will grow substantially during the next five years. For 2002, the crossover segment accounted for 8.2 percent of the North American light vehicle production. By 2007 that figure will grow to 19.4 percent. Total production volume for the segment will reach 3.4 million units by 2007, up from 1.3 million units in 2002. But while minivans will be one of the losers in this market shift, it will not be the only one. Minivans’ sales share in the U.S. market will drop from 7.9 percent in 1999 to 5.5 percent in 2008. But small and midsize cars will also lose share. What won’t change, however, is the market’s desire for features and functions; comfort and drivability.

The crossover segment will become one of the most competitive segments in the market. Offerings from nearly every OEM will crowd the landscape and the successful vehicles will be those that meet consumer’s needs at a competitive price. Sound obvious? Well, easier said than done. Remember the dominant position the Big 3 (specifically Chrysler) had in the minivan market in the 1980s? It all but evaporated in the 1990s with the onslaught of good-looking, feature-rich, quality-built competitors. Recent minivan efforts by Honda, Nissan, Toyota and Hyundai just up the ante.

The new century’s minivan may have found a new form and a new name. But the content and innovation required to make this new segment successful is still alive and kicking. We have seen the beginnings of this with the introduction of rear entertainment systems, foldaway/fold flat seats and innovative sunroof systems. Not to mention that entry into the segment demands a wellgroomed powerplant churning out more than 220 hp. One can argue that feature creep is forcing many consumers to buy more than they really want. General Motors’ Mr. Lutz has been outspoken about his desire to rid vehicles of superfluous content. He may be right that consumers could do without some content. But adding function doesn’t always require adding content. It’s really about delivering a complete package that provides value. And that’s just what this segment is set to deliver: Value — just under a different name.

Michael Robinet is Vice President, Global Forecast Services, CSM WorldWide Inc.

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Fri. February 3rd, 2023

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