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AUTO INDUSTRY Minivans still hold chunk of market



Published: Mon, February 17, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



Automakers are planning new models to sustain sales.

DETROIT (AP) -- Twenty years after Baby Boomers fell in love with the minivan and made it part of America's suburban landscape, the breadbox on wheels has been largely pushed aside by Generation X and a surge in SUVs.

But with a U.S. market still one million strong, automakers are not yet ready to let the minivan go the way of the station wagon. Automakers plan to roll out at least a half-dozen new minivan offerings in the next year or two.

Ford Motor Co. last week unveiled its two new models -- the Mercury Monterey and Ford Freestar -- at the Chicago Auto Show.

When Chrysler introduced its first family hauler in 1983, many Boomers were in the prime years of carting their progeny from school to activities. The roomy vans soon became favorites among soccer moms and helped save Chrysler from bankruptcy.

These days, people in their 20s and 30s -- and even aging Baby Boomers -- are more often opting for sport utility and so-called crossover vehicles, which tend to be more rugged and stylish, while providing the roomy functionality that attracted the original minivan following.

Market segment

SUVs, despite increasing criticism of their fuel-efficiency and safety records, and crossovers comprised some 25 percent of U.S. light vehicle sales last year. Minivan shares, meanwhile, fell to 6.7 percent, its worst performance since 1989. (The minivan segment peaked at 8.2 percent in 1994 and 1995.)

That's a sizeable chunk of sales that none of the automakers want to cede in an increasingly competitive domestic market.

That's why General Motors Corp., Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. also plan new versions of the minivan to the mix in the next year or two.

"There are some good offerings out there, but I think consumers have gotten bored with them," said Mike Wall, an analyst with the automotive forecasting firm IRN Inc. "I think what you're seeing is a move to freshen up the vehicles. No one's going to gain a ton of market share. It's more a measure to sustain what they have."

Focus on interior

Chris Theodore, Ford's vice president of North American product development, said creating an attractive product was important, but Ford's emphasis on the new upscale Monterey and the more mainstream Freestar was the interior -- more storage space, a quieter ride, a general refinement to the features.

Theodore said it was important to remember the target audience.

"Let's face it," he said, "these are vehicles for secure people. They're family people. A minivan is a place to put all your stuff, your kids' stuff, your grandkids' stuff."

Blake Crane, a lawyer in Lake Worth, Fla., said he and his wife, Cathy, bought a Mazda MPV minivan about a month ago after looking at two Ford SUVs. They have a 20-month-old baby.

Crane, 35, said they opted for the minivan, which Cathy drives, because it was easier to handle, easier to park and easier to get in and out of through the sliding doors.

"It's clearly a van -- there's no getting around that," Blake Crane said. "But it's not boxy and I don't think it looks any less sporty than a normal SUV. Your Explorer or [Chevrolet] Suburban certainly isn't an imaginative style."

Gaining ground

Nearly every other major automaker has jumped into the market since the first Dodge Caravan rolled off Chrysler's Windsor, Ontario, assembly line on Nov. 2, 1983. Chrysler remains the dominant player at some 36 percent of the U.S. market.

The company expects to produce its 10 millionth minivan later this year.

But similar to what's happened in other categories of the U.S. vehicle market, the foreign transplants are gaining ground among minivan buyers.

Honda Motor Co., for example, sold about 153,500 of its Odyssey minivans last year -- 4,600 more than the Ford Windstar. Honda entered the market in 1998.

"The transplants are traditionally late to the game, and I don't think they'd be ashamed to say that," Wall said. "But somehow they're able to really hone in. The Odyssey is a good example."




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