Minivan buyers are not just harried moms, rushing from schools to soccer fields, cleaning up ketchup spills as they go.
A growing number of luxury-minded consumers are buying minivans loaded with leather, TV and captain's chairs. The automakers are eager to oblige as they search for fresh ways to pump up the flat minivan market.
Chrysler Corp., already enjoying brisk sales of the Chrysler Town & Country, has just introduced the 1999 Chrysler Town & Country Limited, its most opulent model. It features spoked chrome 16-inch wheels, chrome door handles and body-color cladding.
Ford Motor Co. added a Windstar Limited model to its 1998 lineup, with leather seating, captain's chairs, 16-inch polished aluminum wheels and a chrome grille.
And now General Motors is offering the Oldsmobile Silhouette Premiere.
Priced at $31,175, including destination charge, the Silhouette Premiere is like a family room on wheels. It has a videocassette recorder, an overhead color monitor, a compact disc player and headphones for up to six people with individual volume control. Passengers also can hook up a video game or camcorder.
While most minivans have a suggested retail price between $20,000 and $30,000, the premium models carry a sticker over $30,000.
Leather quad seating is a key feature of premium minivans. That means two captain's chairs in the front and two more in the middle, replacing the middle bench seat.
Chrysler sold 23,843 Town & Countrys through April this year, up 4 percent from a year ago. Oldsmobile sold 11,429 Silhouettes, more than doubling its year-ago sales, but still well behind the Town & Country.
While Ford does not break out Windstar sales by model, its Windstar Limited 'is working very well for us,' said Denise Orcher, the Windstar brand manager.
Annual minivan sales held steady at just over 1.2 million from 1994 through 1997. Sales in the first four months of this year were again flat compared with last year.
Minivan customers divide into two groups: One wants value, the other wants style and luxury, Orcher said.
'We think luxury is growing, and will continue to grow,' she said. Empty-nesters still want a minivan. But rather than hauling their kids around, they need one to take their friends golfing or out to dinner, Orcher said.
The tussle in the premium end of minivans indicates that the minivan market will evolve further into niches, or subsegments, said James Holden, Chrysler's new general manager of minivan operations. The all-wheel-drive minivan is another niche just starting to bloom.
'If we're smart with how we look at the segmentation within minivan, there's no risk to its stability as a segment, and there's still opportunity for growth,' Holden said.
AWD GROWING, TOO
Sales of Chrysler minivans equipped with all-wheel drive shot up from 2 percent to 10 percent this year, Holden said.
'There's a growing niche of outdoor weekend sports people who don't necessarily want the Town & Country with the loaded-up interior, but want the all-wheel-drive feature,' Holden said.
'They pull the seats up, put their sporting stuff in and away they go. It's a great vehicle for a guy who wants to take it mildly off-road to get to places where he's doing his fishing and hunting.'
Premium competition gets even more intense later this year. Ford will up the ante with its redesigned 1999 Ford Windstar. A top-of-the-line Windstar SEL model, which will replace the Limited, will include standard dual power sliding doors. Chrysler has manual sliders; Oldsmobile offers power on the passenger side only.
The Silhouette Premiere is being built now and should be in Oldsmobile dealerships by July.