If it's not easy being a pioneer, this is especially true in the auto industry, where inventing a vehicle segment, process or technology usually means having the honor of sitting back and watching the competition copy your winning formula, improve on it, and carve out its own space in your market share.

So goes the story of the minivan, invented by the former Chrysler Corp. in 1983. Since then, the Chrysler Group has managed to withstand a raft of imitators and wannabes, from the Dustbuster-nosed General Motors Corp. products and off-the-mark Japanese versions that soon followed, to vehicles much harder to show up, such as the highly regarded Honda Odyssey.

And for '02, those masters of imitation at Kia Motors Corp. have come out with the more-than-viable Sedona, a seven-passenger, V-6-powered minivan designed to please soccer moms across the nation.

Not only does Chrysler Group, still by far the leader in the minivan segment, have to triumph over more and more product offerings, it must do so in an ever-narrowing market. The minivan market is shrinking, thanks in part to the wobbly economy but mostly due to a raft of new car-based and minivan-like cross/utility vehicles. And imports are taking a larger piece of what's left. Last year there had been just over a million minivans sold in the U.S. through August; the 2001 year-to-date total is 811,248 units, down 18.9% on-year. That drop is precisely mirrored by the new-for-'01 Dodge Caravan and Grand Caravan, which combined also are down exactly 18.9% from 2000. Chrysler Town & Country sales are up 50.1% year-to-date over 2000, but that's largely due to the phase out of the last model year. The three combined make up 20% of the segment.

Besides the ultra-low volume Volkswagen Eurovan and the lame-duck Oldsmobile Silhouette, the entire segment is down: the Ford Windstar has fallen 29.3%, the Mercury Villager 42.4%, the Toyota Sienna 19.3%, and the Chevy Venture 8%.

The Odyssey, echoing Honda Motor Co. Ltd.'s overall strong performance in the waning U.S. market, has fared the best, which with sales of 85,782 units through August is down only 1.5% from the prior year.

No single minivan is threatening to eclipse the Caravan/Grand Caravan anytime soon. Still, low-priced offerings such as the Sedona and heightening incentive programs have prompted the Chrysler Group to take action, introducing for '02 a new set of rock-bottom trim levels, dubbed the “e-Strategy.”

The idea, officials say, is to capture those consumers who gather information and compare prices on the Internet before visiting a dealer. The Town and Country eL and Grand Caravan eL packages take a direct hit at the Odyssey LX, by offering similar amenities but undercutting its price by a few hundred dollars.