The U.S. minivan segment suffers a blow after Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne makes known the auto maker’s plans to kill its venerable Town & Country model and focus efforts on the less-pricy Dodge Caravan.

The death of the Town & Country will leave the Caravan as the last of the three original minivans first brought to market by Chrysler in 1984. The auto maker more recently said only one of its minivan offerings would survive. Marchionne tells Automobile magazine the Town & Country’s last model year will be 2014. Knowledgeable sources confirm that decision to WardsAuto.

The Chrysler Town & Country, Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager, which sparked a wave of copycats from competitors, quickly became fixtures in supermarket parking lots, suburban driveways and kids’ soccer games.

Ironically, the “soccer mom” tag that eventually became synonymous with the segment led to the minivan’s slide in the market, abetted by the rise of the CUV that analysts say helped drive consumers to trendier-looking vehicles.

“Your parents had a (station) wagon if you're a Generation X-er,” Alexander Edwards, president of Strategic Vision, tells WardsAuto. “There are a number of women that are looking for something more stylish.”

CUV competition came not only from the industry but also from within Chrysler itself. While the Caravan added 176,150 sales to Chrysler’s books in 2007, the newly introduced Dodge Journey CUV delivered 47,097 units the following year, reducing the Caravan’s sales to 123,749, according to WardsAuto data.

Journey deliveries topped off at 53,826 units in 2009 and dropped to 48,577 in 2010. Although Caravan sales rebounded in that 2-year period, buyer interest in CUVs could not be ignored.

But replacing the Town & Country with an upscale CUV is a risky move for the auto maker considering its history in the segment. Chrysler’s Pacifica CUV, once a trendsetter when it hit showrooms in 2003, quickly flopped as sales slid from 92,363 units in 2004 to 7,345 in 2008, until the model was canceled in 2007.

Dealers don’t appear to be worried about the Town & Country’s fate. Buyers lately have had trouble distinguishing between the sportier Caravan and the better-appointed Town & Country, some say, noting both essentially serve the same function: hauling large amounts of cargo.

“You had mixed messages in the showroom,” Chuck Eddy, a senior member of Chrysler’s dealer council and owner of Bob and Chuck Eddy Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram in Austintown, OH, tells WardsAuto.

Split buyers are likely to choose a CUV, he says. “The husbands see the value in the minivan, but the mom wants to drive a sharp crossover.”

Consumer surveys reflect that sentiment. Edwards, of Strategic Vision, says 63% of minivan buyers are likely to be married males. But 54% of all CUV buyers are men, indicative of a strong female buyer interest.

Another explanation behind the minivan’s slump is tepid exterior styling. Over the years, the boxy design has allowed little room for innovation.

“A traditional utility buyer wants to stand out and look good while driving, more than minivan drivers (do),” Edwards says, while CUV buyers look for the balance between minivan function and SUV handling.

Ironically, the Chrysler Town & Country was the best-selling small van in 2010, with 112,275 units, and one of the top sellers in 2011 with 94,320, according to WardsAuto data, but the competition was slim.

GM, Ford and Hyundai haven’t sold minivans in the U.S. in recent years, although Toyota, Nissan and Honda remain in the market and Volkswagen has entered the segment with its Town & Country-based Routan.

The Toyota Sienna was 2011’s best-selling small van with 111,429 units, slightly edging out the Dodge Caravan with 110,862. The segment includes the midsize Ford Transit van.

Still, CUVs far outnumbered minivans in overall sales last year. Total 2011 CUV deliveries stood at 3,130,585 units, compared with 505,003 small vans, WardsAuto data shows.

Edwards says the minivan can stage a comeback if it uses its size and storage capabilities to its advantage. The segment also can offer rugged features more likely to be seen on SUVs if it wishes to attract a new kind of consumer or reinvigorate interest in past buyers.

Minivans aren’t just family haulers; they also are used for sports and camping. “With size, space and flexibility, it has always been a more capable vehicle for those activities,” he says.

afoley@wardsauto.com