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WHAT HAPPENED TO THE MINIVAN?
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As demand shifts to the SUV, even high-end features are unlikely to save this one-time family staple
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By DOUG FIRBY
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Special to The Globe and Mail
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Friday, July 12, 2019 – Print Edition, Page D1


Minivans are so not in. Sales steadily slide, even as quality and versatility reach a high watermark. The minivan is the great family vehicle that no one seems to want any more - left at the car-lot altar, as buyers storm en masse to SUVs and SUV-like crossovers.

Consider, for example, Fiat Chrysler's frustrating attempts to sell the Pacifica, even going so far as to revive the Voyager nameplate for the cheaper versions of the 2020 minivan. (That name was last seen in their minivans in 2003.) Polished and accomplished, the Pacifica is what the minivan drivers should want when they outgrow the more basic Grand Caravan. In its full-dressed Limited configuration, the Pacifica oozes comfort, refinement and capability. Yet, as with the other major brands, few Canadians are buying the Pacifica.

FCA Canada reports that sales were down 18 per cent in June, 2019, with year-to-year sales sliding from 731 in June of last year to 599 for the same month this year. Just 2,216 of the vans were sold in the first half of 2019. That's 49 per cent fewer than the 4,340 sold in the same time period in 2018.

Sales are so slow that the company announced it would end the third shift at the Windsor minivan assembly plant on Sept. 30, eliminating 1,500 jobs.

Similar problems are plaguing other minivan brands. Honda's Odyssey saw a 33-per-cent drop in sales in the first quarter of 2019. The only silver lining is that minivan sales are not dropping as fast as sedan sales.

Michigan-based auto analyst firm IHS Automotive, a subsidiary of IHS Markit in London, predicts that the market share of minivans will drop to just 2.2 per cent by 2024 from the 2.8 per cent this year, as automakers invest heavily in adding features and model choices to SUVs and crossovers. Combined, SUVs and crossovers comprise 48 per cent of the market, according to IHS Automotive.

"The move to crossovers is permanent," IHS analyst Tom Libby says.

IHS Automotive defines SUVs as heavier vehicles built on frames, such as the Ford Explorer, Chevrolet Suburban and Nissan Titan. Crossovers look similar, but are lighter vehicles with the carlike unibody construction, such as the Toyota RAV4, Chevy Blazer and Honda CRV.

Ford, General Motors, Hyundai, Nissan and Mazda have all dropped minivans because of poor sales. Only Fiat Chrysler, Honda, Kia and Toyota still sell minivans in North America.

Minivans are not necessarily cheap these days.

The top-of-the-line 2019 Pacifica I drove listed at nearly $64,000. It comes well equipped with a premium Harman/Kardon sound system, 20-inch black aluminum wheels, trailer towing package, integrated vacuum, Uconnect entertainment group with a 25-centimetre screen and all kinds of safety tech features, such as lane-departure warning and active braking. Blind-spot warning system with rear cross-traffic assist is standard, but forward automatic emergency braking is optional.

The second-row entertainment system features two independent screens mounted to the backs of the front seats, and it has a power liftgate, side doors and the so-called stow-and-go seat system that makes the second- and third-row seats disappear into the floor. In the Limited, the back row can be stashed with the push of a button.

Fiat Chrysler has announced a 35th anniversary edition (for the minivan, not Pacifica) for 2020. It features an embroidered logo on the front floor mats. The Red S appearance package has also been added, offering red Nappa leather seats with gray contrast stitching, unique silver door and gauge accents, gloss-black exterior accents and 20-inch wheels.

Yet, for all its refinement, even the high-end Pacifica can't make market inroads. Libby says consumers favour SUVs and crossovers for several reasons. The vehicles have a higher seating position, which many drivers prefer for improved visibility.

They have versatility and flexibility, and they almost universally offer all-wheel drive. (In minivans, only the Toyota Sienna has an AWD option.) Reading the shift away from sedans and minivans, automakers are "fuelling the fire" by investing heavily in adding models and features to crossovers and SUVs, according to Libby.

The range of models now available on the market are, he says, "what cars used to be."

At GM, Chevrolet alone has six sport-utility vehicles and crossovers, but hasn't made a minivan in 10 years.

To deal with the fuel-economy challenge - long a knock against SUVs - automakers offer crossovers in every size, with engines as small as three cylinders, or four cylinders with cylinder deactivation and stop/start technology. "That fuel-economy argument doesn't hold much water any more," Libby points out.

Nor can the once-derogatory "soccer mom" image be blamed for minivans' failing fortunes.

Such notoriety would almost be considered a blessing. "There really isn't an image any more," Libby says. "To be frank, it's almost non-existent."

Minivans have long been seen as the most family-friendly vehicles and the newest models are even more so. Several models come with built-in vacuums. They have superior second-row entertainment systems and lots of USB plugs to keep the kids occupied. Their lower floor height also makes getting in and out and loading cargo easier than with SUVs.

Minivans also tend to be more spacious than SUVs unless you opt for the largest and most expensive SUVs.

The Pacifica has a volume of 2,478 litres behind the second-row seats for example, while the Dodge Durango SUV needs to have its second-row seats folded flat to accommodate 2,392 litres. You can still fit a 4x8 sheet of plywood or drywall inside a Pacifica or Grand Caravan.

The Kia Sedona minivan has 2,220 litres of cargo space behind its second row and is 23 centimetres shorter than Ford's less fuel-efficient Expedition, which has just 1,628 litres of cargo space.

Minivans also have the edge on price in an apples-to-apples comparison of passenger capacity. The relatively budget-friendly Pacifica L model, which will soon be rebranded Voyager, can carry eight and starts at $32,245. Pricing details for the Voyager haven't been released yet. The eight-passenger Odyssey starts at $35,490. The Kia Sedona, which can be configured for eight, starts at $28,495. In SUVs, you need a full-size SUV to match that passenger capacity - a Toyota Sequoia SUV starts at $61,365 and the Chevy Suburban starts at $59,200.

That is why my daughter's family, who recently moved from Toronto to Kitchener, opted for a Grand Caravan - after vowing they would buy an SUV.

With three young boys, they need as much space as they can get and at an affordable price.

Yet, the space advantage doesn't seem to matter to consumers, Libby says, and that's why automakers are not investing in minivan development.

It doesn't make sense for them to spend the money to develop AWD for minivans because there's not enough return on the investment.

"They're obviously putting the money in the 48-per-cent [market share] rather than the 2 per cent," he says.

He also says most drivers in southern Canada don't really need AWD, but they want it anyway. "It's the peace of mind knowing you have it. It gives them a feeling of comfort."

Libby predicts the automakers that are producing minivans will continue to do so because there are fewer competitors than when minivans were hot, so they get a bigger share of a smaller pie. But barring a "miracle," he sees no chance for a consumer shift back to these handy vehicles - even with new features.

Says Libby, "I don't believe there would be more of an uptick."

Associated Graphic

Chrysler has joined the likes of other automakers in its struggle to sell its minivan models, such as the Pacifica, which few Canadians are buying. FCA

Newer minivan models have become even more family friendly over the years, with several containing built-in vacuums and superior entertainment systems. They are also more spacious- the Pacifica, above, has a volume of 2,478 litres behind its second-row seats. FCA


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