FCA’s two-minivan strategy: Will it lead to death by crossover?

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When the late Lee Iacocca spearheaded the introduction of the Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan, Chrysler Corp. essentially created the modern-day minivan segment and established itself as the leader. 

Fast-forward more than 30 years, and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles still has two vehicles in the segment. And there are no signs of changing that strategy anytime soon with the announcement of the Chrysler Voyager. 

But it’s a challenging time for any automaker to be in the segment. Sales are down almost across the board. The Chrysler Pacifica and Dodge Grand Caravan, fell 49 per cent and 23 per cent, respectively, in the first half of 2019. FCA has since stopped reporting monthly numbers.

The Toyota Sienna minivan was down 1.3 per cent during that same time, while the Honda Odyssey dropped 18 per cent. Only the Kia Sedona registered a year-over-year sales gain in the first half. 

Why are sales down? Much like the collapse of the car market, crossovers are at least partly responsible. 

When Iacocca bet on the minivan in the 1980s, he foresaw a demand in the market from families for vehicles that were spacious and would be easy to load. When it came to utility, few alternatives to the minivan existed. 

Today, crossovers dominate the new-vehicle market. North American consumers are drawn to them for that same reason: Utility. Today’s typical crossover gives a family enough room to drive around comfortably without sacrificing much in the way of gas mileage or, in many cases, style. Granted, minivans generally offer a lot more room. FCA claims the Pacifica holds up 56 sheets of 4×8 building material. Unneeded utility could be a curse, but another reason that minivans might be struggling: They just aren’t sexy. 

To be sure, they aren’t really meant to be. They’re meant to make it easier for families to get to where they need to go. But when a family can get most of that utility in a vehicle that looks better than a minivan, often at a price that’s equal to or cheaper than one, why would they not choose the crossover? 

It’s a problem that FCA has tried to tackle with the Pacifica, marketed as a minivan that’s a cut above the rest in terms of style and features. But it has yet to translate into overwhelming sales success, with the bulk of the automaker’s minivan sales in Canada coming from the outdated and soon-to-be-phased-out Dodge Grand Caravan. 

Despite plunging demand, a sizable market for minivans still exists. The Grand Caravan and Sienna rank among their respective automakers’ top-selling vehicles, even as sales decline. And FCA obviously still sees a future in the segment if it sees the need to release the Voyager as an eventual entry-level replacement for the Grand Caravan. 

But it’s clear that the segment’s popularity among Canadian families is waning, and it will be interesting to see how automakers respond, and if those responses are effective at all against the rising tide of crossovers. 

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