Call it serendipity, perhaps, but folks looking for the latest family haulers have a lot of new options this year as the market’s three most popular minivan models have all gone through significant updates for the 2021 model year.
While Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is now down to a single product line, the 2021 Chrysler Pacifica offers not only a new premium trim level, but also, for the first time since 2004, gets and all-wheel-drive package. The newly made-over Toyota Sienna not only offers AWD, but also comes exclusively with a new hybrid drivetrain. And the Honda Odyssey’s 2021 update introduces an array of new safety and digital convenience features that should appeal to the family buyers who dominate the minivan market.
Once one of the more popular and fastest-growing segments in the U.S. automotive market, minivan sales headed towards the 2 million mark at their peak, while entering the new millennium with volume of 1.4 million in 2000. Since then, the segment has suffered a rapid exodus, millions of owners trading them in on more stylish and hip SUVs. The question is whether all the updates and upgrades coming this year can win buyers back.
“There are a lot of people out there who need a minivan but aren’t able to bring themselves to buy one. Our goal is to change that,” said Toyota marketing exec Adam Lovelady, during an online meeting of the Automotive Press Association earlier this month.
That optimistic outlook was echoed by Mary Ann Capo, the marketing chief for the Chrysler Pacifica, who said during a socially distanced preview last month that, “We set out to broaden the appeal of the minivan,” adding features aimed not only at family buyers but empty nesters who want a combination of comfort and roominess, especially on long trips.
The Chrysler side of FCA is widely credited with inventing the modern minivan back in 1984 and, at one point, offered versions through the Chrysler, Dodge and long-gone Plymouth brands, two factories running full out, at one point, to meet demand. Today, with the demise of both the Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Town and Country models, there’s just the Pacifica left, and it barely keeps the automaker’s Windsor, Ontario assembly line running at a profitable rate.
The automaker is the only Detroit manufacturer offering any minivan at all, these days, Ford and General Motors both dropping out some years back due to declining demand.
Chrysler has a long history of innovation that kept it in the minivan business and it followed form when it launched the Pacifica nameplate, the 2017 model becoming the first
to offer a fuel-saving plug-in hybrid drivetrain option. The 2021 Pacifica continues to give owners a choice of drivetrain options with the newly added all-wheel-drive capability.
The automaker also has added a new top-line model, the appropriately named Pacifica Pinnacle, with an array of luxury level features, down to lumbar-supporting cushions for those in the second row.
Those automakers who have remained in the market are hoping to gain traction by winning over Baby Boomers and other empty nesters who want plenty of room and features at a reasonably affordable price.
But the primary market remains the family buyer. Sliding doors make it easy for kids to get in and out and for parents to deal with child seats.
To further enhance their appeal, FCA, Toyota and Honda also emphasize the safety aspect. The Pacifica, for example, offers what Chrysler claims are 97 separate safety features, including advance technologies like forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking. Even the base version of the 2021 Honda Odyssey, meanwhile, gets the automaker’s high-tech Honda Sensing safety suite. Similar digital technology – along with 10 airbags – can be found on the Sienna.
“For some people, there is no better solution than a minivan,” said Stephanie Brinley, principal auto analyst for IHS Markit. “SUVs do a lot, but they’re not always the right choice,” especially for families with younger children.
Yet, industry data show that plenty of those buyers still ditch minivans for SUV. A key problem is the “martyrship” factor that “some people” feel when seen in a people-mover, FCA design director Ralph Gilles noted a few years back.
To help push past that, Chrysler and Toyota, in particular, have tried to give their new vans a somewhat more macho appearance, with more aggressive front ends, and less boxy overall shapes – though they can only take things so far in a segment where function must, by necessity, trump form.
“Our real goal is to make the minivan an appealing purchase,” said Monte Kaehr, the Sienna’s chief engineer.
Clearly, the segment needs all the help it can get. Demand is down sharply this year – though, with the pandemic it’s difficult to draw any conclusions. More telling are the numbers from the previous two years, minivan sales – which also include the Kia Sedona – tumbled just over 15%, from around 482,000 in 2018, to just 409,000 last year.
In separate interviews, officials with FCA, Toyota and Honda all said they’re hoping their latest updates will not just slow the two decade-long decline but actually reverse the trend and help build up minivan sales.
Analyst Brinley, however, is skeptical. “We’re hearing the same thing we’ve heard before,” she said. There’s enough of a market for the manufacturers remaining in the minivan segment to stick around, “but there’s just not a lot of opportunity for tremendous growth.”
Market share that reached a record 7.9% at the turn of the millennium slipped to just 2.4% in 2019 and, IHS forecasts, will slide to a mere 1.8% by 2025. With industry analysts forecasting overall U.S. sales will be at under 17 million at mid-decade, that could mean total minivan sales tumbling to just over 300,000.
Whether the remaining players will all stick around by 2025 is far from certain.
But for those buyers who get past the stigma of owning a minivan today, the 2021 model-year’s crop has a lot to offer.