Soft now, but the minivan market is going to boom again

The Chrysler 700C, which was just revealed at the Detroit auto show last week, was a striking example of the unconventional thinking about minivans in Chrysler's studio.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this blog transposed the name of the 700C minivan from Chrysler.

The U.S. minivan market is soft today, but I think in a few years it will take off.

First, here's a short recap of 2011.

Last year 524,158 minivans were sold, a modest 4 percent increase from the previous year in an overall market that improved 10 percent. Sales were a far cry from the minivan record set in 2000: 1,371,234.

The battle for minivan supremacy ended last year with a new winner being crowned. A mere 567 vehicles separated the first place and second place finishers. When the dust settled and the sales were tabulated, the Toyota Sienna captured the crown.

Sienna's total, 111,429, is a 13 percent increase over its 2010 pace when Toyota's minivan finished No. 4. Last year's winner, the Chrysler's Town & Country, tumbled to fourth place with 94,320 sales.

The Dodge Grand Caravan ended 2011 in second place with 110,862 sales, followed by the Honda Odyssey at 107,068.

Enough about the past. As for the future, I expect a significant increase in minivan sales this decade -- maybe not a million-plus market, but certainly a few hundred thousand stronger.

Taking chances

That's because automakers will take chances to break away from the traditional, decades-old styling pattern -- and consumers will bite.

Take a look at Honda. Honda took a big a risk with the lightning-bolt beltline of the redesigned Odyssey, and it panned out in aces. The only reason Odyssey wasn't No. 1 last year was likely due to the shortage of parts caused by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

Over at Chrysler, Sergio Marchionne has made it very clear that the next-generation Town & Country will not be confused with minivans of the past. The 700C, which was just revealed at the Detroit auto show last week, was a striking example of the unconventional thinking in Chrysler's studio.

Designers have options with roof designs, too. For example, one way to distinguish a minivan might be to adopt a version of the roof featured on the Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser, a popular wagon design from the mid-1960s to 1977.

The Olds' roof was raised several inches over the third-seat area and glass windows were added, giving passengers in the third row a panoramic view of the scenery. The roof was inspired by the 1950s buses General Motors created for Greyhound.

For a minivan, raising the roof above the second and third passenger seats would increase headroom, a common complaint in some minivans today, plus improve exit and entry into the second seat. The seat heights could be raised a little, improving comfort.

That elevated roof would distinguish a minivan plus provide some extra comfort.

This decade, expect the dreaded soccer mom image to fade away as minivan design is reinvented.

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