Sunday, March 16, 2003

Minivans gaining on SUVs

Automakers banking on renewed interest in van

By Randy Tucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Some of the world's biggest automakers rolled out a gleaming array of sexy new sport-utility vehicles last week at the Cincinnati auto show, eager to satisfy the red-hot demand for the behemoth road beasts.

They also unveiled a slew of new vehicles that have the sex appeal of an elephant on roller skates, but are the envy of soccer moms across the Tristate.

Minivans - once the most popular family movers in suburbia - are beginning to re-emerge from the shadow of the SUV as a less expensive and more environmentally friendly alternative for baby boomer couples with children.

Chrysler, which led the minivan explosion when it introduced the Dodge Caravan in 1983, is even running national TV spots suggesting that people buy a minivan instead of an SUV because minivans are more fuel-efficient.

Despite the continued popularity of sport-utility vehicles, sales of minivans are projected to grow as much as 18 percent in the United States in the next two years, according to Autodata Corp., an industry research firm.

"Minivans are just as popular now as ever,'' said Mel Lehrner, general manager at Terry Lee Chevrolet in Deerfield Township. "Sales of our Venture minivan have definitely spiked this month, which is a good time of year for minivan sales because it's close to soccer season.''

Minivan sales have remained static over most of the past decade, averaging sales of about one million units a year.

But at least a half-dozen new minivan models will be introduced in the next year or two, including the Mercury Monterey and Ford Freestar from Ford, plus new models from General Motors, Toyota and Nissan.

Some experts think the increase in production of minivans is tied, in part, to the growing criticism of gas-guzzling SUVs, which have drawn the ire of environmental groups and even evangelical Christian groups.

"What would Jesus drive?'' is the tagline for an ad campaign launched last November by the National Council of Churches, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.

The campaign was designed to encourage consumers to park their SUVs and switch to more fuel-efficient cars.

Minivans typically get better gas mileage than SUVs but offer the same utility of transporting the family on vacation or hauling plywood from a lumberyard.

Some commercials have even linked SUVs to terrorism by implying that every time SUV drivers fill up their tanks, they make money for oil-rich countries that support terrorists.

"By and large, the ads have backlashed with people who own sport-utility vehicles because they feel they have perfectly good reasons for owning them,'' said Art Spinella, an auto industry analyst with CNW Marketing Research in Oregon.

But "the automakers in Detroit have definitely taken notice of the consumer concern about SUVs, and they realize people want better fuel economy.''

That has led not only to the promotion of minivans as an alternative to SUVs but also the introduction of a number of smaller, more fuel-efficient SUVs, such as the Ford Escape.

Although minivans may enjoy future growth as a result of changing consumer consciousness, SUVs will remain the cash cow for automakers in the near future, experts say.

One in four vehicles sold last year was an SUV, and SUV sales overall rose 6 percent last year, even as the overall auto market fell 2 percent, according to Autodata Corp.

"You either like minivans or you don't,'' said Todd Suedel, sales manager at Beechmont Chevrolet in Anderson Township.

"It's hard to get someone out of an SUV into a minivan.''


Minivan sales

Domestic and imported, in thousands
1998 1999200020012002
Total Mini Vans 1204.31340.41342.71185.61182.4
Domestic 1174.71319.71304.41148.91145.6
Import 29.620.738.336.736.8

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