SOUTHFIELD, MI – Sitting in ashowroom just 20 minutes from the plant where the modern minivan was born, sales consultant Joe Golema has a message for the pentastar company. “Thank you,” he says with a smile.
The reason for Golema’s gratitude?now leads the segment created in 1983 when the first Dodge Caravan rolled off the line at its plant in Windsor, ON, Canada.
But the margin is slim. Through November, the Toyota Sienna accounted for 99,865 U.S.-market deliveries, compared with 98,983 for the Dodge Grand Caravan, a perennial top-seller.
If the Sienna holds its lead, Chrysler would be relegated to also-ran status for the second time in three years. The Chrysler Town & Country last year ended theOdyssey’s 2-year run as the best-selling minivan in the U.S. The Odyssey placed second.
Winning the 2011 segment sales race is not a priority for the Japan-based auto maker, says Bob Carter, Toyota group vice president and general manager. “What’s most important to us is fulfilling consumer demand,” he tells WardsAuto during a conference call with journalists to discuss November sales.
To this end, the auto maker is increasing Sienna production at its plant in Princeton, IN. Randy Pflughaupt, vice president-sales administration, says the flow of parts and components no longer is constrained by fallout from the March earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan’s supplier network.
Last month, Toyota announced plans to supply the South Korean market with Princeton-built Siennas.
The minivan was redesigned last year. But Golema, who works for Page Toyota-Scion, says the Sienna’s consumer appeal goes beyond feature content. “It’s the (Toyota) badge,” he says. “That’s what brings them in, initially.”
Most Sienna buyers already own Toyotas, the auto maker says. “The No.1 in-flow brand for those trading in a vehicle that they purchased new is Toyota, followed byand then Chrysler,” Toyota spokesman Sam Butto tells WardsAuto.
Current incentives haven’t hurt sales either, says Page Toyota-Scion General Manager Mike Gardner. In typical Toyota fashion, the auto maker held back on Sienna spiffs when the redesigned model was launched, but the purse strings now are being loosened, Gardner says.
Segment-exclusive features also set the Sienna apart. It is the only U.S.-market minivan to offer a 4-cyl. engine and all-wheel drive.
Model-year ’11 take rates were 4% and 13%, respectively, according to WardsAuto data.
Chrysler is unfazed by the Sienna’s climb in the rankings. “As a company, we’re outselling Sienna nearly 2 to 1,” spokesman Ralph Kisiel says.
Through November, the Town & Country accounted for 84,701 sales – fourth-highest behind the third-place Honda Odyssey’s 95,579.
Also noteworthy: The Grand Caravan and its Town & Country platform-mate were last redesigned in’08. The Sienna, Odyssey andQuest all were redesigned for ’11.
Chrysler topped U.S. minivan sales every year from 1987 through 2007, according to WardsAuto data, and CEO Sergio Marchionne appears determined to maintain that dominance.
Marchionne has said the auto maker’s next-generation minivan platform, due in the 2014 timeframe, will accommodate all-wheel drive.
He also has set Chrysler’s sights on the development of a downsized minivan, despite recent moves by, and Kia to bypass that market – owned now by ’s Mazda5 – in the U.S.
Against this backdrop, Toyota today confirms it is recalling some 210,000 ’11 and ’12 Siennas for citing incorrect load limits. The auto maker will advise affected customers accordingly and distribute revised owner’s manual information, the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. says in a statement.