The Honda Odyssey was redesigned for the 2011 model year (pictured).

Photo credit: Honda
RICK KRANZ

Why minivan shoppers are looking beyond roominess, versatility and value

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Rick Kranz is product editor for Automotive News.
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DETROIT -- What do minivan owners want? The answer might surprise you.

Since the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager, the industry's first minivans, hit the streets in 1983, the top priorities have changed little.

That is, until the past year or so.

Minivan shoppers now want good-looking vehicles. For the first time, exterior styling is an important consideration, says Sage Marie, manager of product planning for light trucks for American Honda Motor Co.

Over the years, seating capacity and configuration, roominess, value, price, fuel economy and a few other things have been important to minivan shoppers.

"We know seating flexibility and versatility -- sort of the ability to carry passengers and cargo and switch between both" -- were top reasons for a minivan purchase, Marie said in a telephone interview.

Exterior styling was a low priority and generally wasn't a deal breaker.

But the Top 10 list has changed, Marie said.

"You see styling start to creep in. It is in the Top 10 where it didn't appear at all" years ago when shoppers and owners were questioned about previous generations of Odyssey minivans, Marie said.

"We know that styling is one of the purchase reasons for [today's] Odyssey," he said.

The Odyssey was redesigned for the 2011 model year. To distinguish the Odyssey from other minivans, one of the areas targeted was the beltline.

Starting at the rear of the Odyssey, the beltline dives as it flows toward the front of the vehicle, then rises sharply on the sliding door. Honda refers to this as a lightning-bolt design cue. It draws the eye and is a polarizing design element, but it appears to be a deal maker.

Last year Honda sold 107,068 Odysseys in the United States, 1,114 fewer than the previous year. But sales likely would have topped 2010's total if not for a parts shortage caused by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan and later flooding in Thailand.

Honda isn't the only automaker thinking about minivan styling distinction. Chrysler grabbed attention with a nontraditional-looking minivan -- the 700C concept -- displayed last month at the Detroit auto show.

Speaking of the industry, Marie predicts distinctive minivan styling will have a prominent role in the future

Said Marie: "I think you will see more [automakers] going in that direction -- more dynamic, more engaging, more fashion-forward styling."

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