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Auto companies taking aim at shrunken minivan market


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Auto companies taking aim at shrunken minivan market

Chrysler overhauls its models; Nissan improves Quest

Alisa Priddle / The Detroit News

Los Angeles— There is still some fight left in the minivan market.

At the Los Angeles auto show, Chrysler Group LLC is showing off changes to the 2011 Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan, while Nissan Motor Co. has the world premiere of the all-new Nissan Quest.

Sales in the minivan segment fell precipitously in recent years, and the number of competitors has dwindled with major players such as General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co. pulling out completely.

But the remaining competitors have strong entries in what has become a smaller but fiercely competitive segment.

The best-sellers are the Chrysler minivans, heavily revamped for the 2011 model year, and the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna, which were redone this year.

Nissan stopped making the Quest a year ago but returns with an all-new entry that will go on sale in March, said Larry Dominique, who does product planning for Nissan North America.

Secondary players include the refreshed Kia Sedona and the Volkswagen Routan.

"It is really down to three contenders and all are ratcheting up their horsepower," said analyst Joe Phillippi of AutoTrends Consulting in Short Hills, N.J. "It's a safety issue when you have a big vehicle with kids in it, you need to know you can pass safely without sweat on your brow."

Chrysler, with a new V-6 engine, now offers the most horsepower, in addition to greatly improved interiors.

U.S. minivan sales peaked at 1.37 million units in 2000 with about 15 to choose from.

There are half as many choices today, and sales have fallen to about half a million.

Minivans are forecast to maintain a 3-4 percent share of the market through 2016, half what it was in its heyday in 1994 and 1995, said John Sousanis of WardsAuto.com in Southfield.

"As long as there are families, there will be minivans, so you might as well make a good one," said analyst Rebecca Lindland of IHS Automotive in Lexington, Mass.

Analyst Aaron Bragman of IHS test drove the new vans and thinks the Chrysler products are nicer than the new Honda to drive and spend time in.

"Chrysler is back in the game," Bragman said.

Olivier Francois, head of the Chrysler brand, said he is determined to retain leadership in the segment Chrysler created and has largely dominated since its introduction in fall 1983.

The Stow 'n Go seating has been improved, clever new storage added, and there are much nicer materials inside. The Dodge and Chrysler models have been styled to look different in the showroom, and the performance Dodge will compete against products starting less than $30,000 while the more elegant Chrysler will compete above that price line, said Francois.

"We need to regain what once belonged to us," he said.

This time around, Nissan is trying to address criticism of its past Quest for poor quality materials and polarizing styling.

"Nissan has failed miserably with the Quest and has revamped it," said analyst James Bell of Kelley Blue Book in Irvine, Calif.

The new Quest is assembled in Japan, and the curves are gone. It has a boxy silhouette similar to a Ford Flex and a vastly improved interior.

Dominique said Nissan hopes to increase the 1-2 percent share of the U.S. market that the old Quest had. Nissan products average 8 percent of the market.

The Quest will perform better against the Sienna and the Odyssey than past versions of the vehicle, Brian Carolin, Nissan's U.S. sales chief, said. The Quest will start at $27,750.

"The design is much more competitive. It's loaded with a high degree of utility in terms of a flexible interior space," he said.

From The Detroit News: http://detnews.com/article/20101118/AUTO04/11180346/Auto-companies-taking-aim-at-shrunken-minivan-market#ixzz15e7BEWoN

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