While the minivan heyday may be over, the vehicles are expected to hold their ground against a new generation of sport wagons.
"The minivan segment is thought to be a dying segment, and that is not the case," says Jeff Schuster, director of North American forecasting for J.D. Power and Associates. "We no longer see the decline in this segment that we have seen in the last few years. We see a modest amount of growth and stability going forward.''
Chrysler introduced the modern minivan in 1983. U.S. minivan sales topped 1 million for the first time a decade later, in 1993. They peaked at 1.37 million in 2000, slipped to 1.13 million in 2002, and are projected by J.D Power to drop below 1.1 million this year. But volume will rebound to 1.24 million in 2005, J.D. Power projects.
In the process, the minivan share of total U.S. light-vehicle sales will climb above 7 percent in 2004-2006, J.D. Power and says. That compares with an estimated 6.7 percent share this year.
"We invented the minivan, and what we invented turned out to be tomato soup," Chrysler's Bostwick says. "We will always have a can of tomato soup. People always come back to it. One out of 12 new-vehicle buyers winds up in a minivan."
Retirees toting grandkids are putting new life into minivan sales, Schuster says. He even sees evidence that some of the soccer-mom stigma is wearing off minivans among buyers willing to openly embrace the vehicle's practicality.
"It is not all of the buyers. But there are buyers who look at the product and say, 'This is a very practical vehicle. Call it what you want. It fits what I need,' " Schuster says. Typically these buyers owned SUVs and prefer the carlike ride and handling of a minivan and the ease of entry and egress, Schuster says. Nevertheless, General Motors will drop the word minivan when it re-engineers the Chevrolet Venture and the Pontiac Montana for the 2005 model year.
"It is a real emotional thing," says George Peterson, president of AutoPacific Inc., a consulting firm in Tustin, Calif. "People who drive minivans will say there is a real stigma attached to it, but you can't find a more useful vehicle on the planet. There is sustainable volume simply because of the people entering the family-rearing life stage."
Peterson forecasts flat minivan sales through 2008 at volumes below those of J.D. Power's estimates. "We don't see minivan sales growing. But we don't see a collapse either," he says.