Minivan sales quietly tumble

Asked recently how the U.S. minivan market has been faring, Nissan's Dominique Thormann had a concise answer.

“It collapsed,” said Thormann, a senior vice president of Nissan North America.

While the rapid decline in pickup and sport utility sales has been grabbing headlines, minivan sales have also taken a tumble, falling 20 percent the first five months of this year.

And unlike trucks, which could rebound once the construction industry picks up, it's unclear if minivans have a future in the U.S. or if they're being killed off by crossovers and the soccer mom image.

“The future of the segment is up in the air,” said Tom Libby, senior director of industry analysis for the Power Information Network, a division of J.D. Power and Associates.

He said the advantages of minivans have been eroded by their image and consumer preference for SUV styling.

The slump reflects what's going on in the wider U.S. market. Overall auto sales were down 8 percent through May, and big vehicles took the brunt of it because of high gas prices. Large pickup truck sales fell 21 percent, while large SUVs were down 32 percent.

It doesn't help that families – minivans' target audience – have been impacted by rising gas and food prices, falling home values and more difficulty borrowing money, said Rebecca Lindland, an auto analyst for the Waltham, Mass.-based consulting company Global Insight.

U.S. minivan sales peaked at 1.37 million in 2000, 17 years after Chrysler introduced them. They've been falling at a steady rate since. This year, sales are expected to fall below 650,000 for the first time since 1986.

Still, demographics are working in the vehicles' favor, as Generation Y starts having children and Baby Boomers start driving their grandchildren, Lindland said.

“I don't think the segment is going away entirely,” she said. “It's reorganizing itself.”