The Chrysler Group’s oddly ambivalent approach to the minivan market has been much in the spotlight lately, as the automaker introduced a fairly far-out new minivan concept—the Chrysler 700C—at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, then had one of its current entries—the Chrysler Town & Country—named “Best Family Hauler” at the event by a panel of readers from the Detroit News; but all that occurred shortly after it became apparent the company would axe the T&C’s sibling—the Dodge Grand Caravan—even though the latter was the second-best-selling minivan in the country last year.
So how ’bout we do some second-guessing of Chrysler’s plans with a quick recap of the minivan market?
Readers should take note, we’re talking about some serious numbers with that Dodge. It was responsible for 110,862 sales last year, representing a non-negligible 7 percent advance and outselling all Chrysler Group products except for the RAM pickup, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Jeep Wrangler. Add in the 94,320 deliveries from the Town & Country, and the automaker’s minivans topped the 205K mark, accounting for 15 percent of all Chrysler Group sales in 2011.
What’s especially impressive about this performance is that the Dodge/Chrysler duo achieved these results despite the recent-ish launch of a trio of all-new rivals from the Japanese automakers: The Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna and Nissan Quest. Of course, it certainly helped the Chrysler Group that all three of those competitors endured production issues last year, which, in turn, says a lot about the performance of the Odyssey and Sienna.
Honda was by far the major automaker that was hit hardest by last year’s natural disasters, and that’s reflected in a 2011 sales total that fell by nearly 7 percent for the Honda division proper. With only three of Honda’s 11 top models finishing in the black last year, the Odyssey’s ability to minimize losses to a mere 1.4 percent (on a bit more than 107,000 deliveries) was nice work. A similar trend was at play at Toyota, too. That company recovered from its problems more quickly than Honda, yet the Toyota division still saw sales fall off by 6.7 percent and also end up with just three models showing sales gains in 2011. Leading the way? The Sienna, the fastest-growing Toyota and No. 1 minivan in America, which outperformed the industry in boosting deliveries by 13.3 percent, on sales of 111,429 units.
Now, you might notice that one of those fresh faces was missing from our discussion of high-volume entries: The Quest. Nissan’s new minivan went on sale in February, yet the company only sold 12,199 of them during all of 2011. For an automaker that set a number of sales records last year and grew deliveries by 17.3 percent, the failure of this product is a head-scratcher. The Quest is a relatively stylish package, offers a competitive level of amenities and avoids the polarizing design elements of some past models, yet it was outsold by both the aging Kia Sedona and the VW Routan, which is merely a disguised Town & Country. Of the latter two, the Sedona was able to ride Kia’s marketplace inertia to a 10.2 percent jump in sales, representing 24,047 deliveries, but the Routan was only able to fool 12,473 customers into a purchase, despite VW’s own rather robust momentum, and watched as sales faded by 21.9 percent.
But now let’s add some context. Even with the production problems at Honda and Toyota, and the weak numbers for the Quest, and the fact the Chrysler duo is in a state of flux, the minivan segment still managed to produce three players with more than 100,000 sales. And if we’re comparing minivans to other potential family haulers—as did the Detroit News readers mentioned above—we find just four full-time three-row crossovers above that mark: The Ford Explorer (135,704), Honda Pilot (116,297 sales), Chevy Traverse (107,131) and Toyota Highlander (101,252). Vehicles like the Dodge Durango, Ford Flex and GMC Acadia trailed the top minivans by thousands and thousands and thousands of sales.
It’s true that some folks, including those at the top of the Chrysler Group hierarchy, are concerned about selling two minivans that are so similar under the skin, but this is far different from the days when GM was selling four nearly identical entries in this segment. With just two minivans, it’s quite simple to set one up as a premium model and one as a more rugged and practical option—in fact, that’s how the Chrysler Group is achieving its current level of success.
The Grand Caravan already gets some “man van” touches and offers a significantly lower MSRP than any other minivan in the U.S., and the sales figures show that these relatively modest differences are enough to appeal to a different kind of customer than those who prefer the more up-level Town & Country. And plenty of them, too.
In other words, at least for the top three minivan makers, there’s no reason to worry about demand; and for the Chrysler Group—which dominates the segment—there’s every reason to maintain both the Town & Country and the Grand Caravan in its lineup.