The success of the minivan was likely the reason for the subsequent irrational success of sport utility vehicles. Minivans screamed “mom-mobiles,” sending the kids raised in them – as well as more fashion conscious suburbanites – into hard riding, gas guzzling trucks to avoid the perceived stigma. Then when “crossovers” appeared, the easier riding, more fuel-efficient van segment took a further hit. Sales dwindled, and mainstream makers such as General Motors and Ford Motor (given their badly outclassed products) abandoned minivans entirely. No surprise then that during the last six years, sales of minivans have plummeted from more than 1.1 million units annually to about 500,000 today.
Minivans are now largely a three, maybe four company contest, depending on your bias. Honda with its Odyssey has led in sales for most of the past decade, averaging 145,000 annually over the last five years, but tracking at 100,000 today in a depressed market. Still, this allows it to retain leadership, but it is down significantly from more than 170,000 Odysseys sold in 2006 and 2007. Chrysler, even though it invented the modern minivan back in the 1980s, lags Honda by roughly 10,000 units a year on its Town&Country and Dodge Caravan models taken separately, although if you add the two together, it leads. Then there are, arguably, the real competitors in many shopper’s minds, the Toyota Sienna, refreshed last year, but still lagging aging Odysseys sales, and the also old Nissan Quest, due to be replaced next year.
Honda is placing a couple of large bets with the 2011 Odyssey, a heavily revised version of its third generation people hauler that appeared in 2005. I do mean large.
The new Odyssey is wider and longer than its predecessor, in a calculated effort to take minivan utility even further. To be fair, it is also lower and more efficient in a powerful demonstration of incremental engineering changes compounding into a salubrious effect. Moreover unlike Detroit automaker engineering habits, Honda took weight out in the process.