Battle of the minivan segment heats up

Rick Kranz is product editor for Automotive News
There's an interesting sales race developing.

It's in the minivan segment -- who will earn bragging rights as the No. 1 seller for 2010?

For the past two years, the top-selling minivan has been the Honda Odyssey, hands down.

But for the first four months of this year, a new leader has emerged, the Chrysler Town & County. The Odyssey has fallen to No. 2. The Dodge Grand Caravan trails at No. 3, and the Toyota Sienna is a solid fourth, which is where it finished last year.

What's interesting about this year's sales race is that the 2011 Sienna has all new sheet metal. This is probably the best-looking Sienna ever. Additionally, what you can't see has been re-engineered. So you would think Sienna sales would be soaring, right? Not so.

The reason? This could be a signal that buyers of family vehicles like minivans are thinking about safety, and Toyota has had some issues of late.

As for the Odyssey, sales may have slipped to No. 2 because savvy Odyssey buyers are waiting for the redesigned 2011 minivan, which hits the streets this year. A concept that is about 95 percent of the new production vehicle, at least in terms of exterior styling, debuted earlier this year.

But there's no guarantee the new Odyssey will be a sales champion. Honda has taken a styling approach that some might call risky -- some might say downright polarizing. Honda used to play it safe. Not this time. We'll find out if the new Odyssey is a success later this year.

As for Chrysler and Dodge, both minivans will receive a mild freshening for the 2011 model year, giving both -- depending on styling -- potentially a bit more momentum.

The bottom line is simple: Chrysler has a shot this year at winning the coveted No. 1 crown, capturing the glory with a warmed-over design.