No one is uttering this prediction too loudly, but the poor old minivan may be priming for a comeback.
Four eager competitors--Chrysler Group, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., American Honda Motor Co. and Nissan North America--are bringing new-generation vans to market this year and early in 2011.
Some indicators suggest consumers are warming to the idea of buying a minivan.
Edmunds.com notes a spike in Web traffic for consumers researching minivans on its site. Typical recent months have seen 2 to 3 percent of consumers on the site checking out minivans. That jumped to almost 5 percent in April.
"There is definitely a peak in interest," says Ivan Drury, an Edmunds.com analyst. "Our assumption is that there has been some talk in public about new minivans coming, and consumers want to read about them."
At the same time, used-vehicle barometer LeaseTrader.com reports that its demand for minivans on its Web site rose 23 percent in April. LeaseTrader arranges lease-swaps for consumers who want to get out of one vehicle and into another before their leases are up.
John Sternal, the company's vice president of marketing, says consumers using the service in search of a minivan have been complaining that "crossovers are just too expensive and not practical enough."
Fall from favor
Few vehicle segments have suffered so sweeping a fall from favor as the minivan over the past decade. They were the preferred vehicle of millions of families since the 1980s, but word suddenly got out early this decade that minivans were square--or in the words of stand-up comedian Bill Engvall, "the total goober-mobile."
U.S. minivan sales passed the million-a-year mark in 1993 and peaked in 2000 at 1,371,234 units. Then customers started abandoning the concept. By 2008, automakers sold just over 600,000. Last year's tally fell below 450,000.
SUVs in various styles, sizes and price points, followed by crossovers that blended utility with car-ride comfort, replaced minivans as suburbanites' ride of choice.
But John Curl thinks there is still life in minivans. Curl, regional product manager at Nissan with responsibility for the upcoming Quest launch, says: "There is still nothing like a minivan. Crossovers and SUVs are great. But for consumers who want utility and the ability to carry seven or eight passengers at an affordable price, it's a minivan."
Nissan is going far out of its way to give dealers a new-generation Quest early next year. But it faces perhaps the greatest challenge among minivan makers because it has the smallest fan base of loyal owners.
In the 1990s, Nissan marketed a modest-selling Quest that was built by Ford Motor Co. and shared many components with the Mercury Villager. In 2003, Nissan scrapped that model in favor of a completely redesigned Quest that was built at a new plant in Canton, Miss. That model was larger, with sleeker styling, and featured a novel instrument panel situated in the center of the console between the driver and the front-seat passenger.
But the redesigned Quest was a flop. It was plagued by quality problems, and in 2004, its best year, just 46,430 units were sold. Nissan scrambled to make midcycle design changes and improvements. The company pulled the plug on the model in 2009, but not for good.
Nissan will now take another stab at the segment, making the vehicle at a new assembly line in Japan and importing it to the United States.
Curl realizes he has a big job ahead of him. Not only must the Quest prove itself, but it must overcome the market perception that minivans are unsexy vehicles.
Toyota is tackling the issue in a funny and somewhat self-effacing TV ad campaign for the 2011 Sienna, which went on sale in February. In scenes reminiscent of the TV show "The Office," the ad features a young couple who claim the van has "swagger."
Honda revealed a concept version of its 2011 Odyssey at the Chicago Auto Show in February. Honda has not provided details about the next Odyssey, which is scheduled to reach dealers this fall, but the automaker has said that the vehicle will deliver better fuel efficiency than the current version and will offer improved seating and storage.
Chrysler's re-engineered Town & Country is due late this year. Chrysler also plans a next-generation Dodge Grand Caravan for 2014.
Curl has no illusion that minivan sales will return to the 1 million mark. But he says the market has changed, and there are fewer brands competing for the smaller customer pool. "Since the 2005 time frame, there has really been nothing but exit from the segment," Curl notes. Ford and General Motors Co. both have left minivans.
"There has been a lack of new product to interest people," he says. "Now you're going to see some, and we do see a resurgence."