Counting Cars

Withering Minivans: Iconic Segment Continues Slide

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U.S. sales of minivans have been declining slowly for 18 years. With relatively little new product coming to the segment in the next couple years, the slide shows few signs of stopping.

The market for sliding passenger doors seems to be fading in the U.S.

As a parent of three active, healthy boys – now teenagers – I can’t imagine not having a minivan to tote them around. (Yes, even to soccer).

When they were toddlers and I had to use a car, I cringed in horror when the doors flew open in parking lots, bashing the vehicles next to us. I coveted the sliding door of the minivan, which took much stress out of my life.

Besides, it’s much easier to pack and unpack groceries, sports paraphernalia and suit cases. Sometimes we even used our minivans to haul loads that probably would be better off in the bed of a pickup.

From my experience, it seemed to me the utility would trump any negative image, and there always would be a niche for minivans.

Yet, it’s hard to ignore the segment’s slow, steady decline that began 18 years ago, shows no signs of stopping and even might be accelerating.

There have been a few stops along the slippery slope. Since segment share peaked at 8.5% in 1995, there have been four years when market penetration was either flat or up just a hair from the prior year. But for all intents and purposes, share has been dropping steadily.

One of the respites came in 2012, when share was flat with the prior year at 3.7%. But the downslide quickly returned and penetration through the first 10 months of 2013 is down nearly a half point from like-2012 to 3.4%. With only two months of the year remaining, minivan share likely will end at its lowest point since 3.1% in 1985.

As sales have declined for the segment over the years, so has the competition. Two big players, Ford and General Motors, left the market long ago. Sales of midsize and large CUVs are filling the gap for them.

In fact, CUVs have benefited the most from the decline in minivans, including recent upward spikes in share for luxury versions.

Furthermore, the automakers that remain minivan-strong, Chrysler, Honda and Toyota, are not among the big players in large CUVs or SUVs.

In 1995, there were 16 minivan models on sale in the U.S. Now there are six. Of those, only three – Chrysler Town & Country, Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna – have sales above year-ago through October. Perhaps more telling is none have a bigger share of the light-vehicle market from year-ago, though Sienna and Town & Country are flat with 2012.

Worse still, except for industry chatter that Sienna might receive a midcycle enhancement next year, no new model or a re-engineering of an existing vehicle is due for at least a couple years, when Chrysler is planning an overhaul to its minivan program.

Odyssey’s next major re-do is in 2016, and Sienna’s next redesign is scheduled for 2018.

Of the segment’s smaller-volume models, the next Nissan Quest is planned for 2016, and the Kia Sedona, which underwent a minor freshening this year, is not slated for a redesign.

With no significant new product coming in the near term, it is likely share will continue to fall next year and the year after – barring some major price discounting.

It appears minivans are dying a slow death. However, once millennials can find jobs and start embarking on family life, maybe sliding passenger doors will make a comeback.

Discuss this Blog Entry 12

on Nov 4, 2013

Good article. Are the minivans being replaced primarily by larger CUVs (Chevy Traverse, New Ford Explorer...), or are midsized (Ford Escape, Chevy Equinox...) taking the bulk of the share?

on Nov 4, 2013

I'd say both, and also some return to cars and a few select SUVs built on unitized bodies (as opposed to the traditional truck frames). Mostly it's more CUVs. There's been some downsizing into two-row, mid-CUVs like Equinox. But also to three-row mid-size like Pilot and Highlander, and Santa Fe now offers a third row. I think the biggest move has has been the large CUVs like GM's trio - Acadia, Enclave, Traverse - and, most recently, the new Nissan Pathfinder, which in its previous iteration was a truckframe SUV. Recent sales success of the the unibody SUVs Explorer, Grand Cherokee and Durango also are likely tugging at minivan share.

on Nov 5, 2013

As much as those crossovers may be tugging at minivan share, they still can't offer what a true minivan can: sliding rear doors, unsurpassed cargo space with option to fold 2nd and 3rd row flat into the floor and in my opinion, FTW....legitimate 3rd row leg room.

on Nov 5, 2013

Minivans will never shake the stigma of being "mommy-mobiles". It should be mentioned that Ford is set to begin selling a new minivan in the U.S. - a new version of the transit connect.

on Nov 5, 2013

I recall Ralph Giles mentioning that in his younger years, he would frequently "enhance" minivans by installing turbochargers on them. Just youtube search for turbo minivans. Good way to kill some time. Ford's Transit in the U.S. is going to be more reminiscent of the Econoline "conversion van", more so than a minivan, isn't it?

on Nov 5, 2013

The only reason the minivan is slipping is they want to make them look and like Crossovers. I will hold on to mine as long as I can. A true smooth ride in a 1999 Dodge Caravan with plenty of carry anything in the back with the back seat removed. If it had not rusted it would be worth stealing. By the way dodge minivans are in the 10 ten most often stolen vehicles year 1998 – 2003 - Wonder why? Great Engine and power.

on Nov 5, 2013

No question that a negative image has driven buyers away from minivans for nearly a decade now. However, underlying that are demographic trends:

Fertility rates (children born per woman) has been declining for 6 decades, while life expectancy has grown. Fewer than one in three US households have minor children, and among households wealthy enough to buy new vehicles, only one in four have minor children. Among US households with children, those wealthy enough to purchase new vehicles have fewer children than the average for all such households.

While the number of new car buyers who NEED occasional 3rd row seating has declined, the demographics of those who CHOOSE to have 3rd row seating has broadened: Those choosing to buy a vehicle segment that offers 3rd row seating are now as likely to be "empty nesters" (grandparents, or soon to be) as they are to be parents with minor children. With so many customers seeking occasional third row seating, and fewer transporting toddlers, A LOT of that 3-row market is drawn to other SUV and CUV attributes, while fewer seek sliding doors.

One final observation: Check out the demand for decent used minivans among lower income households that have more kids... it is booming. Some used 8 year-old minivans with 100,000 + miles are selling for 40% of their original MSRP.

on Nov 5, 2013

Another plus for the minivan (at least in Michigan). Plenty of room for hockey equipment and sticks. Game, set, and match. I appreciated sliding the sticks under the bench/seats growing up.

on Nov 6, 2013

You are correct the demographics say that maybe the third seat is not necessary; actually I hardly even used my third seat and most of the time it was removed. So to the designer give us two nice bucket seats in the front and a nice 2nd row seat that will allow for three comfortably. Then leave out the third seat; that room in the back is precious. Make sure I can still slip in a 4x8 sheet of plywood when necessary by removing the middle seat.

Don’t go overboard on luxury, we want a functional smooth riding vehicle – do make sure it is insulated for sound and has the sliding doors and wide trunk lift. We want to be able to purchase in the very low 20's – make us smile.

on Nov 6, 2013

We have a 2012 Town & Country and it is fabulous! I am a car guy, and in addition to being utilitarian and comfortable, it handles well and gets great fuel economy (27-28mpg highway at 75mph). It is also good looking, in my opinion. It has a good stance and some very nice styling. My kids are 6 and 9 - I will be surprised if my wife wants anything but another one when the time comes. And yes, I will always accept more "sport" in a vehicle!

on Nov 6, 2013

I'd be surprise if at some point Giles doesn't allow a limited run SRT version of the T&C or Caravan. There's enough enthusiasts and Gen-Y'ers out there with families that would go for a 'sporty' verison. Perhaps leverage that Mopar brand for bolt-ons and advance the timing a bit to make it more responsive.

Then you'll have the fanatic fringe of us decide to throw in colder plugs, premium gas and see what a 50-100shot of juice will do to the ET's down at Milan. Until we see parts falling off that is....

on Dec 3, 2013

Looking at November year-to-date sales figures, if you combine the nearly identical Chrysler and Dodge minivans, their sales volume (225,344) puts them #6 on the Top 10 Light Trucks list. Combined, they outsell the Chevy Equinox, Toyota RAV4, Ford Explorer, GMC Sierra (which probably should be combined with the Chevy Silverado sales) and the Jeep Grand Cherokee.

The combined sales numbers put them at #14 out of the top 20 vehicles sold year-to-date, ahead of the Ford Focus and Hyundai Sonata as well as the light trucks noted above.

So while minivan sales may be declining, they are still pretty good. Despite all the articles over the last few years condemning minivans to death row, they're still alive and kicking.

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John Sousanis oversees WardsAuto data operations as Director of Information Content, and is Ward’sAuto sales analyst. Follow John on Twitter @CountingCars.  

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Haig Stoddard is a veteran automotive industry analyst. His current focus is North America production and longterm sales forecasting.
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