It's time for more news from the LA Auto Show, and today we've got one of my favorite topics in the spotlight: Minivans! But not only are the companies that still sell in this segment busy reinventing their players, those that bailed out are now trying to jump back in with some interesting alternatives. For example, the Blue Oval will offer a new, passenger-friendly model of its Ford Transit Connect in the very near future.
Start Making Sense
Ford got out of the minivan game back in 2006 when it ceased production on the Freestar and its Mercury sibling, the Monterey, trying to follow GM's lead in leveraging big crossovers as the company's big people movers. The result: Ford Flex sales will be lucky to crack the 35,000-unit mark for 2010, while GM's trio of the GMC Acadia/Buick Enclave/Chevrolet Traverse should combine for more than 200,000 sales.
So that didn't work out too well for the Blue Oval.
In response, and in a further extension of its efforts to integrate its global product portfolio, Ford will soon bring the seven-passenger Grand C-MAX, built on the same platform as the new Ford Focus, to the U.S. But before then, Ford used L.A. to debut the Ford Transit Connect XLT Premium Wagon, a more utilitarian take on the matter that should attract customers with strong EPA ratings (21 mpg city/26 mpg highway), a low price ($23,200) and nimble packaging, albeit with room for just five at this stage.
Better yet for the company is that this will address one of the odder situations in the industry right now. Because of some wacky legislation introduced years ago, Ford is importing the current Transit Connect as a passenger vehicle, then pulling out the second row of seats and other passenger-oriented content to create the commercial version. Now, at least some of the vehicles will be able to skip that treatment.
New MAZDA5, Nissan Quest Rejoin the Fray
For those who want more bells and whistles (and seats), the Los Angeles event saw the introduction of all-new versions of the Mazda MAZDA5 and Nissan Quest. The Mazda is a bit of a lame duck: It's both the fullest expression of the automaker's "Nagare" design language and the last we'll see of that theme, as Mazda also introduced its next-gen styling approach in L.A. with the Shinari concept vehicle. More to the point, the six-seat, three-row MAZDA5 also gets an injection of zoom-zoom, with a bigger, more powerful engine and some nifty suspension tweaks. Yet it also is expected to retain its EPA line of 22 mpg city/28 mpg highway and continue to offer an MSRP that starts under $20,000.
As for the Quest, which returns to the market following a one-year hiatus, Nissan is splitting the difference between rivals like the new Dodge Grand Caravan and Toyota Sienna, which try to pretend they're not "really" minivans, and the Honda Odyssey/Chrysler Town & Country, which emphasize upscale amenities. Thus, the Quest boasts a relatively dynamic exterior design, along with plenty of style and performance, yet it's squarely and explicitly aimed at families.
Three to Get Ready
The Krome on Cars lowdown here? The Transit Connect, despite its advantages against full-size minivans, will be more expensive, less fuel efficient and less fun to drive than the MAZDA5. Yet it also will come with fewer expectations and eat up much less in the way of resources. With a strong MAZDA5 competitor on its way in the form of the Grand C-Max, Ford will likely be happy (and make some profit) by selling just a few thousand Transit Connect passenger vehicles a year.
The flip side of this is that the MAZDA5'”which has never been able to gain any kind of traction in the marketplace'”will be at a serious momentum deficit as compared to that similar Grand C-Max, regardless of the former's wholesale improvements. With a Toyota Prius MPV now on the horizon as well, and no sense that demand in the mini-minivan niche will expand anytime soon, the Mazda will continue to struggle despite offering a very nice overall package.
Which leaves the Quest, set to hit ye olde sweet spot in terms of nearly all key measures, as the most likely to succeed from this trio.
Nissan Quest Photo by Andy Giraud of Andy Giraud Photography.