Dodge Grand Caravan
With all-new models of the Toyota Sienna, Honda Odyssey and Nissan Quest all launching within just a few months of each other, and Chrysler dropping a significant refresh on both the Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country at the same time, I was expecting that 2011 would see some kind of minivan renaissance. Instead, the segment has significantly underperformed the industry through the first four months of the year, with April being something of a nadir.
Minivans, Mini Numbers
Last month, in what has to be considered an upset, the Sienna led the way amongst that crew in terms of both volume and growth, ringing up 11,462 sales for a 27 percent improvement over April 2010. That's especially impressive when you keep in mind that Toyota as a whole endured a 2.4 percent sales decrease last month. Some small part of that performance had to do with production problems in Japan, but mostly it reflects the fact that Toyota still hasn't gotten its mojo back after the Recallathon. The Sienna's ability to transcend that is no mean feat.
Consider, too, that only was it the fastest-growing minivan in the U.S. in April, but it was actually the only one that grew sales at all: The Odyssey was off last year's pace by 9.8 percent, the T&C experienced a 34 percent drop-off and the Caravan slipped by 16 percent.
If we dig down to the second-tier players, it's true that the Kia Sedona posted a healthy 39.8 advance, but that represented just 2,201 customers. And Das Minivan'”the VW Routan'”scored all of 935 buyers last month, for 33.6 percent decline.
Which gives you some idea of how badly the Quest is doing. Despite its dramatic redesign and a decent amount of pre-launch buzz'”for a minivan'”the once-mainstream Quest found a Ghosn-crushing 999 customers in April. Although on the positive side, that did represent a 8,225 percent increase as compared to April 2010.
Now, the production situation in Japan might have had some minimal effect on April minivan sales, but probably not too much, as both the Odyssey and Sienna are built in the U.S., and I'm willing to bet there's plenty of Quest inventory lurking around.
The Fuel-Efficiency Factor
I'm going to have to admit to an error here: Part of the reason I thought the minivan segment was primed for growth this year has to do with fuel efficiency. For some odd reason, I thought that minivans would capture a big chunk of sales from customers who'”if it weren't for high gas prices'”would normally look to large crossovers and SUVs for family haulers. Frankly, I'm not sure what I could have been thinking, because the idea that the opportunity to save a few bucks on gasoline would be enough to convince U.S. customers to buy minivans now strikes me as flat-out ludicrous.
Of course, it doesn't help much that minivans aren't exactly fuel-sippers themselves. The Odyssey can reach 19 mpg city/28 mpg highway/22 mpg combined, but the only four-cylinder minivan, the Sienna, goes 19/24/21, and the others vary between 17/25/20 (Town & Country) and 18/25/21 (Sedona).
Compare these numbers to those of GM's large crossovers'”the Chevy Traverse, Buick Enclave and GMC Acadia'”which post EPA lines of 17/24/19, and you can see there's not a lot of room for an efficiency-based argument to go with a meek minivan over one of the General's "SUVs." Now, on an individual basis, none of the trio is exactly burning up the sales charts, but when you tally up the totals, the three earned 21,808 sales in April, for a 17.9 percent increase that exactly matched the industry's performance.
I also think you have to look at the new Ford Explorer in the same light; its ability to reach EPA ratings of 17/25/20 surely is one of the reasons its garnered 12,593 sales in April, up a robust 137.8 percent.
The Minivan Alternatives
There is good news on the mpg front, however. Because people dislike the segment so much, some amount of those who can't afford to keep refueling bigger vehicles must be skipping over the slightly more efficient minivans for much more efficient other vehicles. Among these, big winners in April included the Kia Sorento (12,001 sales), GMC Terrain (7,205 sales) and Chevrolet Equinox (17,067 sales).
All of which, unlike the minivans, set all-time sales records last month.