As recently as 1998, the Big Three auto makers dominated the minivan segment.

Led by the enormously popular triumvirate of family haulers from the Chrysler Group, Big Three minivans comprised 62% of all U.S. van sales in 1998, while non-domestic brands registered a nominal 7.3%, according to Ward’s data.

Yet, by the beginning of this year, Big Three minivans made up only 40% of U.S. van sales, while Japanese auto makers – and now the Koreans – have stormed the segment with quality, attractive product. Non-Big Three minivans in 2003 comprised a substantial 26% of all van sales in the U.S.

The ’05 model year promises more of the same as Honda Motor Co. Ltd. introduces its all-new Odyssey, building on the previous-generation model that vaulted to the No.2 sales position among all minivans in the U.S.

Toyota Motor Corp.’s Sienna, revised last year, is on pace to more than double its sales from 2003. And Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd. is waiting in the wings, ready to introduce a minivan in late 2005.

Honda Odyssey targets Chrysler Town & Country buyers in luxury minivan segment.

How did the Big Three lose its footing so quickly?

Chrysler’s Dodge Caravan, the segment leader, suffered quality problems when the fourth-generation model launched in 2000, fueling sales for non-domestic models featuring a fold-in-the-floor third-row seat Chrysler failed to offer.

In 1998, Chrysler sold 522,771 minivans, including the Plymouth Voyager. With that model gone – and Caravan sales down as well – Chrysler minivan sales fell to 374,494 units in 2003, according to Ward’s data.

The Ford Windstar, redesigned and renamed the Freestar for ’04, has been a virtual bust. Through August, Ford sold only 88,413 Freestars, compared with 190,173 Windstars in 1998.

About the only good news in minivans for the Big Three is Chrysler’s Town & Country, whose sales were up from 71,981 units in 1998 to 120,767 in 2003 and are pacing ahead of year-ago through the first nine months of 2004. And demand for its new Stow ’n Go seating system is prompting retooling of a second plant offering the innovative feature.

But Town & Country is under siege in the luxury minivan segment by the Odyssey, which for the first time offers an impressively equipped Touring model, as well as the Sienna, which tends to compete in the upper end of the segment as well. (See related story: Honda Ready for Premium Minivan Battle)

As for General Motors Corp., its minivans always have trailed Ford and Chrysler. Having fallen well behind Honda, Toyota and Chrysler in the segment, GM performed symantic gymnastics by dumping the baggage-laden “minivan” moniker altogether.

GM’s next-generation “crossover sport vans” arrive this fall as ’05 models. There has been no opportunity yet to test drive them, but the Chevrolet Uplander indeed looks more sporty than the non-descript Venture.

Uplander’s platform mates are the Pontiac Montana SV6, Buick Terraza and Saturn Relay. The models represent the first minivans – if we can call them that – sold by Saturn and Buick.

The base engine for all four 7-passenger vehicles is a 3.5L V-6 that produces 200 hp and 220 lb.-ft. (298 Nm) of torque. GM’s Versatrak all-wheel-drive system is offered as an option on all four models.

tmurphy@primediabusiness.com