One major player, Ford Motor Co., is officially out of the minivan business, and sluggish sales so far this year lead industry observers to ponder the future of the family-hauler market.

Ford has ceased production of its Mercury Monterey minivan. And as part of its advanced Way Forward restructuring plan, the company is pulling the plug next year on the Ford Freestar.

The Windstar minivan once was a strong presence, but Ford's fortunes have dipped as competitors were more refined. In August, Ford moved a paltry 2,370 Freestars, according to Ward's data. It was handily outsold by Kia Sedona and Nissan Quest; Honda moved 18,773 Odysseys.

Ford introduced the Freestar and Monterey in 2003 and projected combined sales of 200,000 vehicles annually.

Ford has confirmed production of the Freestar/Monterey's de facto replacement, the Fairlane, part SUV, part minivan with conventional hinged rear doors (see story, p.8)

Overall sales of minivans have slipped this year in North America, down 14.5% through August, Ward's data shows.

If the industry decline continues, the segment will end the year at 947,000 units, compared with 1.106 million in 2005.

“The minivan market is toast,” George Pipas, Ford sales analyst, says, adding he thinks the segment will drop below 1 million units this year.

Pipas says the decline of the minivan segment is directly related to the rise in popularity of cross/utility vehicles.

“The CUV is perfect because it's got utility but (with) more comfortable ride and handling,” Pipas says.

Despite the downturn in the segment, plenty of brands continue to invest in it, such as Chrysler, Toyota, Honda, Hyundai and Kia.

A Volkswagen-badged minivan built by Chrysler and a Subaru-badged minivan are on the horizon as well.

Pipas admits the market remains substantial, but estimates about 30% of minivans sold this year were for fleet use.

“Go to New York where they have a cab line at LaGuardia (airport), and it's all Toyota Siennas painted yellow,” he says. “Next to (the Ford) Crown Vic, the Toyota Sienna is No.2 for cabs.”