Shrinking sales raise concerns about minivans
Published: Sunday, October 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, October 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
DETROIT - Friends say her choice of vehicles makes her a typical suburban mom, but Jennifer Dionisio doesn't care what they think.
She drives a light-blue 2004 Ford Freestar minivan because it's easy to load her three kids through the sliding doors.
"I am who I am no matter what I drive," the 31-year-old from the Detroit suburb of Madison Heights said this week as she was about to raise the rear door and off-load her cart in a grocery store parking lot.
But according to auto sales figures, fewer people are thinking like Dionisio, with minivan sales down 12.4 percent during the first eight months of the year. Some automakers argue the downturn will pass as drivers seek alternatives to sport utility vehicles. But the minivan of the future will look different, and among some consumers it will be replaced by crossover vehicles, the new-wave station wagons that are already eating away minivans' market.
Of the 14 minivans on the market, sales have dropped on all but the Honda Odyssey. Sales of half the vans are down by more than 20 percent compared to the first eight months of 2005.
Ford Motor Co., which is getting out of the minivan business, predicts that 2006 sales will drop below a million for the first time since 1992 as the baby boomers who bought minivans age out of the child-rearing years.
"I acknowledge that as a vehicle design, the minivan has a lot of very positive attributes," said George Pipas, Ford's U.S. sales analysis manager. "There's a problem, though. A lot of vehicles have a lot of very popular attributes."
He's referring mainly to car-based "crossover" vehicles, glorified station wagons such as the Ford Freestyle, GMC Acadia and Hyundai Santa Fe that carry as many people as minivans but have sleeker styling without the soccer mom label. Pipas said about 40 crossovers, many with three rows of seats, are now on the market, and that will rise to more than 70 by 2009.
"There's a hundred different model choices that consumers have that they didn't have when the minivan was in its peak population," Pipas said.
Plus, there's that soccer mom stigma created by Generation X, the people who followed baby boomers.
"Gen X no more considered a minivan than most people would consider eating soap," said Art Spinella, president of CNW Marketing Research, an automotive research firm in Oregon.
But Spinella still believes the downturn in minivan sales is temporary, saying that the product should benefit from people seeking more fuel-efficient alternatives to big SUVs.
Children of baby boomers, or Generation Y, are now starting to have kids of their own who will look at minivans for fuel economy, carrying capacity and other options, Spinella said.
Minivan sales rose quickly when Chrysler introduced them in 1983 as a 1984 model. In 1984, the first full year they were sold, 257,238 were purchased. Sales crossed 900,000 in 1990 and peaked at 1.37 million in 2000.
DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group, which still leads all manufacturers in minivan sales, is banking on the echo boom of Generation Y to keep sales of the Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Caravan minivans strong.
Ann Fandozzi, Chrysler's director of front-wheel-drive product marketing, said minivan sales are down so far this year mainly because people have delayed larger purchases due to economic uncertainty. She expects sales to recover later in the year and still hit 1.1 million.
Chrysler officials also point out that minivan sales have remained stable, around or above 1.1 million, for the past 13 years.
Pipas, however, said minivan sales have been boosted in recent years by increased sales to rental car companies and other fleet buyers.
Fandozzi said demographics should help the venerable vans, pointing out that Generation Y is just moving into the family years and birth rates are not expected to decline.
"That automatically translates into minivan sales," she said.
Fandozzi said that much like baby boomers, the echo boomers are family oriented and less image-conscious than Generation X.
General Motors Corp. Chairman and Chief Executive Rick Wagoner falls between Ford and Chrysler on the outlook for minivans. In a recent interview with the Associated Press, he said sales aren't growing, but they should remain stable at about 1 million per year.
Sales of GM's vans, the Pontiac Montana, Saturn Relay, Chevrolet Uplander and Buick Terazza, all are down more than 20 percent from the first eight months of last year.
"Obviously the segment isn't booming," Wagoner said. "We don't expect robust growth. (But) we don't expect it to go away."
Chrysler is coming out with new minivan models sometime in 2007 and that may also be causing people to delay purchases, said Mike Jackson, chairman and chief executive of AutoNation Inc., which owns multiple dealerships and is the largest U.S. auto retailer.
In past years, Chrysler has introduced innovations with new models such as second-row seats that fold into the floor. The company won't say specifically what its next-generation minivans will look like, but spokeswoman Kathy Graham said the focus will be on a more functional interior.
"People kind of use it as a family room on wheels," she said. "Features that would either enhance or kind of make that family room experience better, I think, is what you're going to see in the minivans of the future."
Toyota showed a glimpse of its future minivans at a Detroit auto show earlier this year with the big, boxy F3R concept that has three rows of stadium seats that convert into a lounge-like interior when the vehicle is at rest. The van, powered by a gas-electric hybrid engine, also has two flat-panel screens for movies or games.
Carmakers likely will continue making longer minivan models with more cargo space, like the Dodge Grand Caravan, replacing shorter versions with crossovers, predicted Michael Robinet, vice president for global forecasting at the Northville, Mich.-based auto industry consulting company CSM Worldwide.
No matter what comes out, Dionisio won't consider anything other than a van when her Freestar lease expires later this year. She may even go to a larger conversion van to haul around her children, ages 10, 6 and 2, at least until they get older.
"You can't beat 'em with car seats," she said.
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