Minivan Segment Swaggers Back To Life

Everyone is familiar with the minivan stigma: The cliché that minivans are for the unhip, banal and suburban unwashed masses. Nothing really says “soccer mom” any more than the words “Sienna,” “Town & Country,” “Grand Caravan” or “Odyssey.” 

The social stigma of being branded uncool a bit too early in one’s adult life has driven potential minivan shoppers toward crossovers in the past, and it’s a reason why General Motors and Ford abandoned the segment altogether. 

Hypercharged crossover sales — and before that, SUVs — hollowed out what was once a vibrant minivan market. We’ve lost 14 minivan nameplates since 2002. 

But there are some signs of life. Total minivan sales are up 3.4% for the year, but that’s compared against total industrywide sales gains of 17% year-to-date. 

When you look at market share, minivans have lost nearly half a percentage point of total share, down to just 4.0% of the total U.S. fleet for 2010. While that may seem bad, it’s especially worrisome when you compare it with the strength of the minivan market in 2002, when the segment comprised about 6.3% of the American market. 

A lot of this decline has to do with big automakers like GM, Ford, Nissan and Hyundai leaving the market, reducing the market to six nameplates. Ninety-one percent of the minivan market is now represented by the Toyota Sienna, Honda Odyssey, Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan. As we reported Wednesday, Nissan will bring back the Quest in early 2011. 

The recently redesigned Sienna saw its sales grow 72% in June, backed by a spirited marketing campaign of a rapping middle-class family. Total sales are up 12% for the year, giving the Sienna a 19% share of the minivan market. As the only new minivan on the market, you’d think the Sienna would perform better, but Toyota’s ongoing safety record may be affecting the vehicle’s performance. 

The Odyssey’s sales fell 37% in June and 7% so far this year, but its overall sales are still within spitting distance of the new Sienna. The Odyssey is one of the oldest minivans on the market and will also be replaced by an all-new model in August. The Odyssey is typically the best-selling minivan in the country, but so far this year it has fallen a distant second to the Town & Country. 

Chrysler is seeing a resurgence in the segment it created. The automaker’s Grand Caravan and Town & Country twins represent the lion’s share of the industry. Chrysler collectively accounts for about half the minivan market, 49.1%, which is more than 10% higher compared with 2009. However, the company would not reveal how much of these sales were to fleets, such as rental car companies. 

With the Sienna’s sales climbing quickly in the recent months, we believe Toyota’s recall stigma isn’t sticking to all models. Honda’s redesigned Odyssey comes at a perfect time as sales begin to wane. Chrysler won’t be left behind, either; the automaker has announced extensive updates, which include new engines, for both vans later this year. 

The rapid updates among the three major automakers remind us of the full-size pickup truck category: ultracompetitive but capable of supporting only a few nameplates. 

The real question remains if the minivan segment can support also-rans like the Kia Sedona and Volkswagen Routan, or returning entries like the upcoming Quest.

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