Minivan introductions in the past few years have not created much buzz in the US. They have become so passé, all but written off as the “soccer-mom” car that nobody wants to be seen driving. Things may be changing, judging by the many news stories about the 2005 Honda Odyssey, appearing ahead of its Sept 22 launch, writes John Rettie.

Just to add to the pizzazz, Honda will commandeer much of the flashy real (ad) estate in New York’s Times Square as well as taking over all advertising on Reuters web site on that day. Honda, in conjunction with IBM, has already garnered publicity for the latest voice activated systems in the vehicle. But more of that and the new Odyssey later.

Is all this a sign that a minivan revival is about to take place? Will they come back into fashion? Historically, when a particular style of product catches on in the States, as much or more than anywhere, it becomes the in-thing to own. A fad, if you will, that eventually fades.

Station wagons (estate cars) were the thing in the 1950s and ’60s – it seemed as if every family owned one and they commanded a considerable chunk of the new car market in the US.

In 1984 Chrysler “invented” the minivan. Okay, it coined the name by developing a neatly packaged front drive van based off a car platform. Coincidentally Renault introduced the Espace at much the same time in Europe. Strictly speaking the real credit as the true inventor of the concept should go to Volkswagen when it started making the Microbus, which was derived from the Beetle platform, way back in 1950.

Chrysler saved from bankruptcy
Chrysler’s minivan was a hit and, sold under the Chrysler, Dodge and Plymouth nameplates, helped save Chrysler from bankruptcy. While Ford and GM had rear drive minivans on the market it was Chrysler that took the lion’s share of the segment, which grew to 8% of the total US market. Minivans became the new “station wagon” for families who enjoyed the utility and car-like ride. But, as we all know the positive image of the minivan collapsed in the late 90s when the SUV, particularly the midsize SUV, became the rage.

Although they weren’t called SUVs, vehicles such as the Chevy Suburban, Ford Bronco and Jeep Wagoneer, had been around for many years. As a niche product they sold well to people who needed cargo carrying capacity, off-road and towing capabilities. In 1984 SUVs garnered about a 4% share of the US market. Sales doubled in parallel with that of minivans during the next decade before SUVs really caught on to garner a 25% share of the market nowadays.

The negative image bestowed upon the minivan became so pervasive that one could easily be forgiven if they considered the segment had died. Such was not the case though as the segment has remained surprisingly resilient remaining above 1 million units a year — obviously one well worth competing in for many manufacturers.

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Big Three eventually lose out to Asians
The Big Three domestic manufacturers pretty much had the minivan segment to themselves through the mid 1990s, with a 90% share. The products from Toyota, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Mazda and Volkswagen were not high-volume players.

In 1999 Honda got serious about the segment and introduced its second-generation Odyssey minivan, which was an instant hit, quickly becoming the benchmark minivan. However, production of the America-only model was constrained to 150,000 units per year so it was never going to topple the Chrysler models in volume. Similarly in 2003, Toyota finally introduced a Sienna minivan that met Americans expectations and it too quickly garnered rave reviews.

Nissan had enjoyed a longer history of successful minivans with its Quest, which had sold better than Toyota or Honda’s offerings in the early 1990s. However it was a smaller van so was competing in a different part of the segment. In 2003 Nissan introduced an all-new Quest with an unusual design both outside and inside. Nissan hoped it would appeal to those looking for a more adventurous iteration of the ubiquitous two-box shape. Sadly, it has not sold as well as expected, partly due to its controversial style but also because of some niggling quality problems.

Nonetheless, along with the long-in-the-tooth Mazda MPV (a smaller vehicle) and the me-too, but competitively priced, Kia Sedona the Asian manufacturers currently enjoy a 40% share of the minivan segment.

The greatest loss has been suffered by Ford, which enjoyed a 25% share of the segment in the mid ’90s with two models. It dropped the rear-drive Aerostar a few years ago and the Windstar’s share of the segment has fallen continuously. More disturbing the all-new Freestar, has been selling at a lower rate than the Windstar it replaced. It’s almost unheard off for a new model to fare worse than its predecessor. Even Ford insiders from top-level executives to engineers agree that Ford missed the boat by being so conservative in its redesign.

Chrysler has only fared a little better with its highly touted makeover introduced earlier this year. It spent over $400 million to redesign the floorpan so the center-mounted seats could be folded down into the floor. Despite this well-received feature, sales of the Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Caravan are running slightly behind last year.

With fuel prices continuing at a high level many buyers in the US are taking a second look at their SUVs. Many are coming to the realization that a minivan, station wagon or one of the new so-called crossovers, which are a blend of a station wagon and SUV, are probably a more sensible buy. When one analyzes what a family needs in a vehicle, a minivan comes mighty close to being the ideal vehicle for the vast majority, as long as they don’t need to go off road or tow a boat.

So far this year sales of minivans have nudged up by 5% compared to last year, twice the pace of the truck market, and far better than the 3% decline in car sales. Consequently the minivan share of the market has gown slightly. Incidentally, during the same period overall sales of SUVs have climbed 4% thanks mainly to growth in the high-end luxury sub-segment.

Third generation Odyssey
And so to the Honda Odyssey, the newest minivan on the market. Now in its third generation, the US version of the Odyssey was unveiled to the media a couple of weeks ago and the public gets to buy them starting on the 22nd of September. A few months ago Car and Driver, the influential US car magazine tested the old Odyssey against the newest offerings from Toyota, Chrysler and Ford and it still came out tops.

Honda could have been forgiven if they had only given the new Odyssey a light makeover.

Instead the company has made a myriad of changes Versatility is the key attribute of a minivan and Honda invented the “magic seat” – a rear seat that folds down into a well in the floor to create a large flat storage space. Now it’s introducing the Lazy Susan – not for serving food but for adding additional storage in an unusual space. Honda moved the spare tire from under the front seats to a rear storage area and retained the well under the floor. In that space there is now an optional rotating plastic storage container with two trap doors for access.

Overall, the new Odyssey is the same length as before but one inch wider. The interior space has increased by two inches, all given to the third row for increased legroom. More and more buyers are looking for luxury touches in minivans and Honda does not disappoint.

Honda is offering a new high-end model in 2005 called the Touring. It includes leather seats and many features that are optional on other models. In addition it has slightly stiffer suspension settings and for the first time on a minivan, Michelin PAX run-flat tires on special alloy wheels. It also includes the i-VTEC with VCM version of the 3.5-liter 255 hp engine that features Honda’s first implementation of an engine cylinder cutoff mechanism that cuts off three of the six cylinders when driving at cruising speeds. It returns a 12% improvement in highway fuel economy and is completely transparent in operation, without even a warning light.

In keeping with the luxury trend the Touring has an optional navigation system with an 8-inch screen, the biggest in a minivan It is controlled via a voice activation system that is also used for climate controls, the DVD entertainment system and the radio. Encouragingly, the voice activation system seemed to work really well during a brief test drive in Alabama. The system can understand 637 commands and is programmed for regional accents. However, when asked for directions to Birmingham, with a British “burr-ming-am” accent the “lady” in the computer got confused! Fortunately “she” did understand “bir-ming-ham” with an Alabama drawl.

Honda is now making the Odyssey only at its newly expanded factory in Lincoln, Alabama, which also produces the Pilot (SUV). It has a maximum annual capacity of 300,000 unit and Honda anticipates selling about 160,000 Odysseys in a full year, up slightly from last year. If demand is high it can expand this to 180,000 units a year.

All told the changes in the interior and the slightly more aggressive exterior design should help the Odyssey maintain its position at the top of the class, so Honda may end up using the extra capacity, especially if SUV sales drop off and demand for the Pilot diminishes.