Facing a transmission repair bill of nearly $4,000 for his Toyota Sienna minivan, regular reader John Huffman is ready to trade. But for what?
"What has happened to the minivan market?" he wonders in an e-mail. "Do the manufacturers think that those of us who needed minivans five years ago don't need them now?"
John is facing the Incredible Shrinking Minivan Market, and he isn't alone. In 2003, he could have chosen from a Chevrolet Astro, Chevrolet Venture, Chrysler Town & Country, Chrysler Voyager, Dodge Caravan and Grand Caravan, Ford Windstar, GMC Safari, Honda Odyssey, Kia Sedona, Mazda MPV, Oldsmobile Silhouette, Pontiac Montana, Toyota Sienna and Volkswagen EuroVan.
Now, there's just the Chrysler Town & Country, Dodge Grand Caravan, Honda Odyssey, Kia Sedona, Toyota Sienna and Volkswagen Routan.
So what happened? Some of the choices were eliminated because some of the brands were — Saturn, Oldsmobile, Pontiac and Mercury. Korean manufacturers Hyundai and Kia, under the same owner, left the minivan market to Kia while Hyundai concentrates on cars. But the biggest hit came when Ford and GM gave up on the minivan market, instead trying to steer minivan customers into crossover SUVs like the Ford Flex or Chevrolet Traverse.
Yes, you can get eight people into a Traverse, but it isn't as easy or convenient as it is filling up a minivan. Huffman has three children, and between school and church activities, his Sienna is often full.
The rise of the minivan began in 1984 with Chrysler's revolutionary front-wheel-drive products, which made the company a fortune because they were able to use the one basic minivan platform beneath Chrysler, Dodge and Plymouth mainstream products, plus luxury models. The minivan's decline coincides with the rise of the car-based, crossover SUVs, which were marketed as capable kid-movers, absent the minivan's soccer-mom stigma.
Stigmas aside, customers still have the same needs as they did five years ago, but the choices have declined. Add to that the fact that the full-sized, six-passenger sedan market has all but disappeared.
As Huffman went shopping for a new minivan, he had a second realization: "They're expensive," he says. The absence of stiff competition means fewer discounts. With so few choices and trimmed-back production cycles, minivans are again selling for healthy prices. Right now, it's a seller's market.
So what did Huffman do? "We just bought a Kia Sorento," he says, "and we got a great deal on it."
The new Sorento is a crossover SUV, replacing the older truck-based model.