May 27, 2014 at 10:14 am

Minivan (or is it family hauler?) poised for rebound in U.S.

Ford's Transit Connect Wagon is based on the Focus platform. The #unminivan has room for up to seven and starts at around $25,000. (Ford)

You can call it a comeback. But some automakers would prefer that you just don’t call it a minivan.

Sales of minivans, which entered the American lexicon and marketplace in the mid-1980s, have dropped steeply in the U.S. over the last decade, yet the segment is looking like it’s poised to rebound.

The new offerings, however, aren’t like the more homogeneous minivans of old, say the automakers building them. Some are spacious and loaded with creature features; others are smaller and scaled back.

If the new entrants to the market have one thing in common, it’s this: Their makers would prefer you call them “people movers,” “multi-purpose vehicles,” “family haulers” — anything but minivans, a term that became a stigma associated with soccer moms and baby seats.

“Nobody wants to be categorized as a minivan, but at the same time, they have to let people know about how they can utilize these vehicles,” said Jessica Caldwell, an auto analyst at Edmunds.com. “The harder you try to convince people it’s not a minivan, the more they are going to think it’s a minivan. Just call a spade a spade.”

U.S. sales of minivans, or whatever you choose to call them, reached nearly 1.3 million in 2000 but fell to just under 434,000 in 2009 as the number of models offered by carmakers fell from 17 to 12. With just eight models, sales rebounded to about 532,000 last year.

The number of so-called minivans will grow in coming years. Ford Motor Co. just added a Transit Connect Wagon to its lineup. Kia Motors America will reintroduce its Sedona, which has been on hiatus since 2012. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles said this month it will ditch the Dodge Caravan but keep the Chrysler Town & Country and introduce a new “people mover.”

The biggest visual similarity between the minivans of old and the not-minivans of today remains the sliding doors, pioneered by Volkswagen in 1968. That, automakers say, is where the similarities end.

Some minivans today aim to be sporty and luxurious, like Honda Motor Co.’s Odyssey, which even comes with an optional built-in vacuum cleaner. Others, like Ford’s Transit Connect Wagon, aim to be a smaller, simpler and more-efficient people hauler. Kia’s new Sedona can fit eight and looks like a cross between a traditional minivan and a large SUV.

“It’s not a minivan,” Michael Sprague, executive vice president of sales and marketing at Kia Motors America, said of the new Sedona, which Kia touts as having a more masculine appearance and a stiffer suspension. “There’s really nothing ‘mini’ about it.”

Ford's #unminivan

However, “mini” is an apt term for Ford’s Transit Connect Wagon. Available in five- and seven-seat variations, it rides like a Focus compact car — it’s based on the same platform — but has substantially more cargo space. It’s available in showrooms now.

Ford has been quick to shoot down the notion the Transit Connect Wagon is a minivan, and has even started a social media campaign #unminivan. It prefers to call its van a “people mover.” The vehicle has a starting price of about $25,000 — less than traditional minivans — is smaller, and has manually operated sliding doors and lift gate.

“We know who we are and we know who we aren’t,” said Minyang Jiang, Ford’s brand manager for Transit Connect. “This vehicle does not have the full functionality that a traditional minivan customer would expect.

“If you’re a mom with three kids, you’re probably not going to want this.”

Ford’s van is aimed at a segment of the younger population that lives unconventional lifestyles and want a unique-looking vehicle to lug around their musical instruments, home improvement supplies or friends.

Some embrace term

Chrysler Group LLC, Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda dominate the U.S. minivan segment, and they issue no apologies for the “minivan” label.

“We embrace the moniker ‘minivan,’ ” said Curt McAllister, a Toyota spokesman. “It’s got history and it’s got heritage, and truthfully, ‘minivan’ encompasses everything people are looking for when considering a family vehicle.”

The three automakers own about 93 percent of the market, an even bigger chunk than claimed by Ford, Chrysler and General Motors Co. in the lucrative full-size truck segment. The limited offerings have led to increasingly high prices.

The average price paid for a minivan is now about $30,000, about $2,000 less than the price paid for the average vehicle in the U.S., according to data from Kelley Blue Book.

While minivans remain highly profitable for automakers, there is some thought that costs have risen too quickly and are not affordable for young families in their 20s and early 30s, who are often saddled with student loan debt and have salaries lower than those in their late 30s and 40s.

Smaller vans like Transit Connect Wagon could be an entry point for new customers. As families age and don’t necessarily need the sliding doors that make it easy to move young children in and out, there are comparable and larger-sized SUVs to keep consumers within the brand.

khenkel@detroitnews.com
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