Minivans on the move. A market that hardly existed 18 months ago heats up

Sometime in June, Ford Motor Company's first Aerostar minivan will roll down the line at its St. Louis assembly plant. With that, the last of the American Big Three automakers will have officially entered a market that hardly existed 18 months ago, but is forecast to reach 1 million units by 1990. Chrysler Corporation with its Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager minivans was first among American automakers to enter the fray. That was in January 1984, and during the year the company sold more than 190,000 minivans. This year Chrysler's target is 240,000.

General Motors arrived on the scene late in '84 with its Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari models, selling the few thousand units it produced. GM has capacity to build 250,000 minivans a year, so it will soon become a major force in the market.

Ford is also planning on about 250,000 Aerostars at full production. Combined with its major US competitors, that comes to 750,000 in a good year. Add to that numerous other existing or planned entries, and minivans become the hot ``cars'' of the 1980s.

Describing the new breed is actually not easy, as each carmaker puts out a different product. Chrysler opts for front-wheel-drive and carlike features to appeal to the personal-use market. GM and Ford, on the other hand, chose rear drive, and they retain such trucklike qualities as superior pulling and load-carrying capabilities.

Other competitors have still different configurations.

Toyota, which simply calls its entry ``Van,'' places the engine amidships and, like Chrysler, clearly shoots primarily at the family trade. Volkswagen's Vanagon, today's descendant of the original ``box on wheels'' which VW designed in the 1950s to launch the minivan market, has its engine and transmission at the rear. It's also marketed basically as a people-mover.

Coming during the next few years are a variety of new entries and spinoffs of others. Chrysler, for example, plans to stretch the Caravan and Voyager to get more cargo and passenger capacity by 1987, even as it develops a smaller van for the late 1980s.

Honda and Nissan are planning US-type minivans for 1987-88. Nissan recently introduced its Stanza wagon, far smaller than the current US breed, in order to test the waters.

While Chrysler and most others see minivans as replacing larger station wagons and full-size cars, GM and Ford look to their entries to attract commercial users in large numbers. Both are scrambling, however, to provide a larger mix of personal-use models in line with the surging demand in that segment.

And, while both GM and Ford chose rear drive, which forced them to use a drive shaft that makes their versions somewhat more difficult to get in and out of as well as about 6 inches higher than the Chrysler minivans, at least one GM division, Pontiac, is developing a front-drive minivan, with a likely introduction in 1987.

As a group, the new minivans range in price from about $10,000 to $16,000. They seat seven or eight people and generally handle like passenger cars, are garageable, and have a variety of engine options ranging from 4 cylinder to V-6.

Last year just under 260,000 minivans of all types were bought in the United States. Forecasts for 1985 indicate that number may well double. The march of the minivans has begun.

David M. Smith is editor of Ward's Auto World magazine.

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