Death of a Minivan: Sign of the Impending Doom of All Minivans?

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Chrysler, which more or less invented the minivan and regularly accounts for half of all minivans sold in the U.S. annually, is killing off one of its best-selling family automobiles, the Town & Country. Why?

First and foremost, Chrysler’s move is about eliminating redundancy. It makes both the Town & Country and Dodge Caravan, and while the two aren’t identical—the former’s pricier and more upscale, the latter’s the cheapest true minivan on the market—there’s a fair amount of overlap. Together, the duo combined to capture 50% of minivan sales in the U.S. in 2011, and in 2010 no minivan sold better than the Town & Country.

But the “I-need-something-bigger-than-a-sedan” market has been evolving rapidly. SUV sales have gotten hot lately, largely because they’ve gotten smaller and more car-like. Crossover vehicles such as the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape, which provide more room than sedans, but aren’t as bulky—and frankly, dorky—as minivans, have been selling well, and surely many of these sales come at the expense of minivans. While Town & Country seemed to have a terrific 2010 in terms of sales, it had a lousy 2011, with sales plummeting 16%.

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Earlier this week, Chrysler announced that it was discontinuing the Town & Country as of 2014. At that point, the Dodge Caravan, which saw sales increase over 7% in 2011 and is on pace to lead the segment in sales this year, will be the automaker’s lone minivan.

It’s been reported that Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne is planning to release a new crossover as a replacement to the Town & Country. That may or may not wind up being something along the lines of the Chrysler 700 C concept vehicle shown at the Detroit Auto Show in January. The Detroit Free Press described it as “minivan of the future – or at least Chrysler’s future,” but the vehicle bears more of a resemblance to the Honda’s mini SUV, the CR-V, or Mazda’s mini minivan, the Mazda 5, than it does to any true minivan on the market today.

When unveiling the 700 C at the auto show, Dodge brand CEO Reid Bigland said, “We invented the minivan and we have continued to demonstrate leadership in the segment continuing to innovate and adapt the minivan to meet the consumer’s changing needs.”

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Adapt it must. However stodgy the reputation of minivans, the market is particularly dynamic and in flux at the moment, perhaps out of desperation. Minivan sales have tanked over the past decade or so. In 2000, 1.37 minivans were sold, accounting for 8% of all new car purchases. By 2009, U.S. drivers bought just 415,000 minivans. Sales have increased since then, but only to 472,000 in 2011.

What will Chrysler be without a Chrysler brand minivan? Not the Chrysler of old, that’s for sure. An expert quoted by Bloomberg News (in a story before it was announced the Town & Country would be killed) describes how consumers have come to associate Chrysler with minivans:

“When people think Chrysler, is minivan a product that comes to mind? The answer is ‘absolutely,’” Alexander Edwards, president of the automotive practice at San Diego-based Strategic Vision, a marketing and branding company, said in a phone interview. “Most everybody that is in the minivan segment recognizes Chrysler as the creator.”

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Even so, a change from the past is probably a good thing for Chrysler. The automaker, assumed to be a dead man walking just a few short years ago during the auto bailout discussions, has had a terrific 2012 thus far, with sales increases of over 25% in February and March, and another 30% rise in May. It’s expecting especially big things from the Dodge Dart, a compact sedan that’s gotten mostly glowing reviews, and that also happens to basically be the opposite of a bulky, old-fashioned minivan.

As for the 700 C, it may not be Chrysler’s “minivan of the future.” It may not have any future, for that matter. Automotive News bashed the concept car with a description that sounds pulled from a review of the Chrysler of old:

This train wreck got worse as it rotated on the stand. From the snoutlike hood to the bizarre window cuts to the goofy proportions, this minivan has no good angle.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.
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