The phrase is almost an axiom: Soccer moms love minivans.

They love the space, flexibility and value that ensue from being able to haul around half the team and most of its equipment.

The segment is important, and once was dominated by the Detroit Three. These days, however, soccer moms have moved to the other side of the field, with leadership in the past three out of five years going to Honda and Toyota.

This year, Honda’s Odyssey has once again established itself as the minivan of choice, displacing the Dodge Caravan as U.S. market leader (Dodge is still No.1 in Canada). Sales of Honda’s minivan entry were up 5.0% through August; Caravan deliveries declined 14.8%.

The Odyssey didn’t just stumble into this leadership position. It was the volume leader in 2008-2009, and over the current period has established itself as the quality and safety leader in the segment.

The Odyssey is ranked No.1 in its category for reliability and safety by Consumer Reports and earned the highest rating in U.S. insurance-industry crash tests, achievements that would seem to weigh heavily in the purchase and shopping consideration among soccer moms.

It’s also No.1 in’s Best Cars ranking and is a category winner in the J. D. Power APEAL study, as well.

Back in the day, it seemed as if every Detroit product planner wanted to have a minivan like Chrysler, the innovator in the segment. It was the first auto maker out of the gate with a new front-wheel-drive van concept, establishing a leadership position that would last for more than two decades.

Others followed with similar concepts, but none would capture the hearts of soccer moms like Chrysler’s models did. Back in the early 1980s, prior to the launch of the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager, I co-led a team that conducted minivan research for General Motors in Texas and Chicago. The big issue of the day was not whether we should do a minivan, but should it be rear- or front-wheel drive?

Consumer research was done to guide design and size direction, and multiple prototypes were built to measure customer preferences. The results of the research showed that FWD generated more volume, but the source of the business was fundamentally different.

The FWD product was preferred by station wagon and sedan owners; RWD was preferred by traditional van owners. While there were multiple opinions inside GM about which alternative was best, at decision time the RWD concept was chosen, setting the stage for Chrysler to take market leadership by capturing more of the sedan and wagon business.

Over the next 20 years, both GM and Ford would introduce a significant number of FWD minivan models, along with nameplate changes, to try to catch Chrysler. Neither succeeded. That’s quite a bit of money and engineering talent expended to achieve a runner-up position.

Surprisingly, after two decades of trying, GM and Ford threw in the towel and exited the segment. Rather than having a strong position in both the minivan and cross/utility segments, they elected to concentrate on CUV entries.

Arguably, Honda took a different, more focused, approach to capture the hearts of soccer moms while not losing focus on the CUV segment. (Honda currently has the sales lead in both sectors). In addition to its quality and reliability rankings and awards, the U.S.-built Odyssey is the recognized leader in ride, seat comfort and powertrain performance.

That’s a formula for success. Note: Toyota is not far behind. Chrysler has lost the crown, but seems to endure in spite of lacking a Consumer Reports recommendation, though on a more positive note it is a J.D. Power winner in initial quality.

The future outlook seems to favor Honda maintaining its leadership in the segment, with an improved version in ’14, and an all-new product in ’16.

Additionally, Chrysler has stated publicly it plans to get down to one minivan entry by 2016, potentially making Honda’s leadership job easier. If all the leaders improve fuel economy, handling and road noise, it should be a very interesting race. At the moment, Honda appears to have the upper hand.

Innovation and continuous improvement are the keys to success in this important segment. But the total package – value, quality, safety, seating and performance – has to be there to keep a vehicle on top.

Perhaps the current crop of product planners should take direction from Honda.

Warren P. Browne is president of WP Browne Consulting and has extensive experience in the global automobile industry. During the past 20 years, he has held senior executive positions at General Motors, including in Brazil, Poland and Russia. He currently serves as an adjunct professor of economics at Lawrence Technological University and assists WardsAutoforecast partner AutomotiveCompass in developing new business.