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|Retrospective: The Decline and Fall of the Domestic Minivan|
|Written by Jim Brennan|
|Tuesday, 16 March 2010 09:42|
With crossovers dominating the market, are the minivan's days numbered on the eve of its 30th anniversary?
The annual auto edition of Consumer Reports magazine is now on newsstands. Curious, I decided to thumb through the pages to see how this publication rated some of the domestic models. I was not at all surprised that very few of the domestic nameplates were recommended, with most of the top picks going to the European and Asian brands. With the exception of the redesigned Ram pickups, the Chrysler brands (Chrysler, Dodge, and Jeep) were the perpetual whipping boys.
This bit of news is unfortunate, because the Chrysler brands used to offer some of the most innovative models on the market. The Jeep Cherokee, in four-door mode, actually created the mid-sized, sport-utility segment in 1984. The Dodge Club Cab pickup was the first truck to offer a cab and a half in 1972. And, of course, Chrysler is credited for creating the minivan segment with the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager in the Fall of 1983. Unfortunately for Chrysler, the history and innovation such vehicles represent counts for zero, as the Chrysler minivans rate at or near the bottom of their categories, while the imitators are embraced as the saviors to the family with their van, SUV, and crossover competitors. Let's take a look at the decline of the once-popular domestic minivan and see what went wrong.
The story of how Chrysler was saved with the introduction of the minivan has been told time and time again. Bottom line: The design was a game changer, a product at once different, distinctive, affordable, and useful. The only other game changer in the passenger-car market with a similar effect was the 1964½ Mustang. For all of its warts, the front-wheel-drive Chrysler minivan could carry seven passengers in relative comfort and get great fuel economy with the footprint of a small compact car. No other vehicle at the time could match those traits. Caught off guard, Ford and General Motors quickly cobbled together their answer to the new Chrysler using truck-based platforms. Toyota, Mitsubishi, and even Nissan hastily introduced their Japanese domestic forward-control vans in response to the new competition, with limited success. Chrysler had the market to itself for nearly a decade--and they improved the formula every few years.
Initially, Chrysler had no serious domestic competition, with Chevrolet lobbing the first volley with the introduction of the body-on-frame, rear-wheel-drive Astro. The Chevy van was somewhat successful in the marketplace, only because a cargo version was introduced at the same time as the passenger version. More a truck than a car though, it wasn't a real competitor to the Chrysler products. Ford entered the fray with the rear-wheel-drive Aerostar in 1986, also based on a truck chassis. While the Aerostar had its fans, it sold in far fewer numbers than the trend-setting Chrysler duo. It would be three years before another domestic competitor arrived, one that General Motors hoped would shake up the minivan segment. GM's car-based, front-wheel-drive vans were marketed from three different divisions within the company: the Oldsmobile Silhouette, the Pontiac Trans Sport, and the Chevrolet Lumina APV.
The GM vans were novel--their space-frame construction technique pioneered by the Pontiac Fiero, with flexible, plastic body panels that resisted dents and a huge, three-piece front windscreen that did absolutely nothing for utility. These minivans were definitely different, with features like lightweight removable seating and otherworldly styling that never did catch on (some likened the look to a huge Dustbuster). They were dated soon after their 1989 introduction but somehow managed to hang on until 1997, with one mid-cycle facelift that didn't improve anything.
While its domestic competition tried to reinterpret the segment with little success, Chrysler continued to introduce many improvements to its bestseller: The longer-wheelbase (LWB) Grand versions arrived in 1987; the plush Chrysler Town and Country went on sale in 1989 for the 1990 model year in a LWB-only version for the last year of the minivan's first generation (less than 10,000 were produced). The second-generation Chrysler minivans debuted in 1991. Dodge and Plymouth got their own versions in regular and LWB models, while the Town and Country was available as a LWB model only. Chrysler scored another segment first when it introduced an all-wheel-drive model in 1991.
All of these versions continued right through 1995. So you might think that, after almost a decade, the other manufacturers would simply copy the basic minivan formula from the leader--which is exactly what they did... almost.
The new Mercury Villager was introduced in the fall of 1992 as a 1993 model--a joint venture with Nissan to develop a competitor to the successful Chrysler triplets. While competent in its own right, the Villager (along with Nissan's version, the Quest) had two major flaws. It was built only as a short-wheelbase version (112 inches), which competes well with the standard Caravan or Voyager but comes up short (pun intended) against the LWB Grand Caravan or Grand Voyager. Versatility was also lacking: The third-row seats could not be removed, simply sliding back and forth on a rail within the van instead. Ford designers introduced their own interpretation of the minivan, the Windstar, just two years later, offered only in a longer wheelbase (120-inch) package.
This optional, sliding, driver-side door made the just-introduced Windstar, the Villager/Quest, and the GM Dustbuster vans essentially obsolete overnight. The option was so popular it became standard within the year for the higher-trim versions of the Caravan, Voyager, and Town and Country. Their style rounded, tailored, and more substantial looking than the previous generation's, the Chrysler minivans still retained all the features and benefits one would expect from a minivan. Yet the end of Chrysler's free ride was just over the horizon.
The year was 1997, and General Motors had enough of the upstart from Auburn Hills. GM wanted a piece of the lucrative minivan market, still in growth mode at this time. GM ditched its plastic-bodied, space-age-looking vans and replaced them with Xerox copies of the successful Chrysler format. The Pontiac Transport, the Oldsmobile Silhouette, and the Chevrolet Venture hit the market in very conservative clothes and two different lengths, just like their Chrysler counterparts. They managed to keep the one good feature from the previous Dustbuster vans: the lightweight, removable seating. Here was the answer to Chrysler's cash cows, or so GM thought. While somewhat competitive, the GM models never caught up to the sales success of the Chrysler triplets, even though they offered features that the Ford or Mercury vans could not. Meanwhile, Ford tried to counter Chrysler's four-door models with an extended door on the driver's side, a vain attempt to give access to the rear through the long door since retooling a driver-side door wasn't economically feasible.
By 1998, North American consumers had their choice of 14 different minivans, with Chrysler holding a commanding 50-percent market share. Almost 15 years after the original Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager were introduced, competent competitors would finally come to market. By 1998, Toyota answered the call with the made-in-America Sienna, while upstart Kia produced the Sedona, a virtual clone of the class-leading Chryslers.
Then, in 1999, Honda answered with its own American-produced Odyssey, the first minivan seen as a true rival to the Chryslers. Mazda imported the diminutive MPV, and the Ford Windstar was redesigned, along with the Mercury Villager and Nissan Quest. They all tried to clone the successful Chrysler formula, and with the GM triplets, there was little to distinguish one from the other. And yet, due to buying habit or brand loyalty, Chrysler retained its market share.
A marked shift in the perception of the minivan as unexciting and boring--similar to what happened to the station wagon in the Seventies--then occurred. Looking for an alternative to the minivan during the 1990s, the buying public took to the streets in "urban assault vehicles," otherwise known as the body-on-frame, truck-based SUV. In truth, they were nothing but stage props: offering the lure of adventure, the freedom of the open road, and the traction of four-wheel drive, while delivering dismal fuel economy and less utility than your average minivan. But the marketing worked, and the domestic automakers were pouring out greater numbers of SUVs at the expense of refining the minivan message. This produced an opening that Toyota, Honda, and Kia exploited to take a significant share of the market from the more versatile and economical minivans.
One by one, the domestic makers abandoned the market. The first model to go was the Mercury Villager in 2001, only to see its Nissan stable mate hang on for another year. In 2003, the Windstar became the Freestar, which disappeared just three years later. The GM triplets (Venture, Montana, and Silhouette) became quadruplets in 2005 as the (mildly) redesigned Chevy Uplander, Pontiac Montana SV6, Saturn Relay, and the Oldsmobile Terrazza--all which were killed off in late 2008.
This left the Chrysler Town and Country and the Dodge Grand Caravan as the only American-designed minivan models available in the United States. With their redesign in 2008, they offer class-leading interior flexibility but are severely handicapped by their cheap interiors and box-like exterior styling. Meanwhile, the Toyota Sienna, the Honda Odyssey, and the Kia Sedona have been refined enough to supplant the originator of the breed. Materials and styling is one thing, but the Chrysler twins (along with the Chrysler-manufactured Volkswagen Routan) are also trailing the Asian brands when it comes to reliability ratings, which never should have happened in the first place. If Chrysler is to survive, it will need help from Fiat to bring its once-proud minivan models back to world-class prominence.
A funny thing is happening in the marketplace today, as the crossover supplants the truck-based SUV as the family vehicle of choice. In reality, these vehicles are nothing more than a reinterpretation of the minivan, without the sliding doors. They offer similar fuel mileage, seat the same number of passengers, and are often derived from their corporate minivan platforms. Just don't call it a minivan, and it will sell well.