When it comes to moving people and cargo, few vehicles are as economical as the trusty minivan. So, in this era of economic uncertainty and soaring gas prices, will consumers who need lots of interior room come to their senses, abandon gas-guzzling SUVs and cross/utility vehicles and start buying more minivans?

Probably not.

After soaring in popularity in the 1980s, this rolling version of sensible shoes has steadily lost sales to newer products that are less pragmatic but more stylish.

SUVs trampled onto minivan turf in the 1990s, and CUVs started stealing buyers from both the SUV and minivan segments at the turn of the century. Intriguing new concepts such as the upcoming Ford Fairlane are expected to further stymie growth of the traditional minivan segment.

Minivans certainly are not going away, but Joe Barker, manager of North American sales analysis for CSM Worldwide, says the segment at best will remain stable and at worst will lose further ground to a growing list of alternatives.

However, fuel prices will not be a factor, he says. “Most people buy vehicles based on lifestyle and what they can afford,” Barker says, debunking the idea that $3-per-gallon gas might spur a migration from full- or midsize SUVs.

“If you have a family of five that likes to go camping, has a cottage or likes to trailer a boat, an ideal vehicle for that family would be a sport/utility vehicle. That family is not going to downsize to a small vehicle or even a smaller SUV,” Barker says.

And then there is the “stigma” of the minivan: its image so tragically un-hip that a large portion of the vehicle-buying population will not be caught dead in one.

Many SUVs, crossovers and station wagon-type vehicles now offer ample interior room, good driving characteristics and flexible seating, without the negative image, Barker points out.

Even so, with 1.1 million in sales in 2004 accounting for 6.6% of the total light vehicle market, the minivan segment remains large enough to be lucrative for an auto maker with the right product.

Stow 'n Go seating system and attractive pricing are helping sales of Chrysler Town & Country soar 40% this year.

Thanks to attractive pricing and lease rates, and the innovative Stow 'n Go seating system that allows middle-row and rear seats to fold flat into the floor, Chrysler Town & Country sales are up 40% year-over-year. Honda Odyssey sales also are up 17%. But most of the other 16 models available in the U.S., including the Toyota Sienna, are stalled or down significantly.

Such uneven success is leading the world's auto makers to adopt divergent strategies for the segment. Subaru has announced it plans to add a minivan to its U.S. lineup based on its Subaru Legacy platform in 2007 or 2008. Volkswagen AG is considering offering a new minivan in the U.S., based on Chrysler Group's next-generation model.

But Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd. has dropped plans to offer its Entourage minivan in the U.S. next year, and General Motors Corp. may do away with two of its four minivan entries, which it now calls “crossover sport vans.”

Ford Motor Co. also is rumored to be considering killing off its Ford Freestar and Mercury Monterey minivans in favor of a variety of CUV alternatives, including the Fairlane.

- with Alisa Priddle

dwinter@primediabusiness.com