A dip in SUV sales suggests a slowing to the decade-plus run in which SUVs have enjoyed tremendous sales success. But it's not yet clear that Americans are prepared to begin ditching their SUVs en masse, gas guzzlers though they may be.
updated 7/5/2005 1:49:39 PM ET 2005-07-05T17:49:39

One of the better jokes in the 1995 movie “Get Shorty” is the idea that the Oldsmobile Silhouette is the "Cadillac of minivans."

John Travolta's streetwise protagonist Chili Palmer reluctantly agrees to drive the vehicle after his rental car service mistakenly delivers it to him instead of the Cadillac he ordered. With characteristic braggadocio, Palmer upends the domestic stereotype surrounding the van and, before long, begins converting Hollywood's elite to give up their SUVs and luxury sedans and embrace the suddenly cool minivan.

Minivans don't need Chili Palmer to make them look cool anymore. These days, the fanciest options packages on minivans, such as Toyota Motor'sSienna and Honda Motor's Odyssey, have elevated them beyond the merely utilitarian into the downright luxurious.

But beneath their glossy new veneers, minivans are still about transporting large groups of children and groceries — and with typically better fuel economy than comparably sized SUVs and pickups. This might explain why, as gas prices go up, SUVs and pickups are on the slide, while minivan sales are holding steady. According to J.D. Power and Associates, the market share of SUVs declined to 25 percent in the first five months of this year from 26 percent in the same period last year. Pickups' market share declined to 18 percent from 19 percent, while minivans held even at 17 percent.

This dip in SUV sales suggests a slowing to the decade-plus run in which SUVs have enjoyed tremendous sales success. But it's not yet clear that Americans are prepared to begin ditching their SUVs en masse, gas guzzlers though they may be. After all, for many people the ruggedness, utility, size and style of SUVs often more than compensate for drawbacks such as having poor fuel economy and an unrefined ride, not to mention being a real pain to park.

This year, the highest-volume minivan has been keeping pace with the highest-volume SUV. In the first five months of 2005, the best-selling minivan, DaimlerChrysler's Dodge Caravan, matched 98 percent of the sales of the best-selling SUV, Ford Motor's Explorer (the best-selling premium SUV is the Lexus RX 330)*. The Caravan has been so comparatively successful this year because SUV sales have taken a nosedive: Explorer sales are down 25 percent this year, while Caravan sales are down only 2 percent.

What follows is a quiz to help you determine which vehicle type, SUV or minivan, may be better for you. We have also attached a slide show that relates to the quiz; it raises ten issues you should consider before buying an SUV or minivan.

Asked how he would advise customers choosing between SUVs or minivans, a dealer at Hudson Toyota in Jersey City, N.J., said, "It all depends upon their driving route every day, their driving style [and] what their routine is ... SUVs as a rule have a little bit stiffer ride than minivans."

"The other thing," he said, "is fuel mileage." Do minivans get better gas mileage as a rule? "Absolutely," he said.

If you're considering a SUV or a minivan, we designed the quiz and slide show that follow to help determine what you need. One main reason we decided to write this piece was to address cultural biases for SUVs and against minivans. We know Americans love SUVs, but think they might choose them too readily over minivans.

Your choice should depend on your situation in life — things such as where you live and what kind of vacations you take.

You may think that cargo utility is a mitigating factor in choosing between a minivan and a SUV, but that's not necessarily true. Sure, the biggest SUVs — such as the Chevrolet Suburban — have unrivalled interior room, but some typical SUVs don't compare well to minivans. Acura's MDX SUV has 14.8 cubic feet of cargo volume behind its third row of seats; Honda's Odyssey minivan has 38.4 cubic feet behind the third row.

So in terms of which offers more cargo utility, a minivan or an SUV, the answer could go either way. In terms of hauling things, yes, SUVs have towing capacities that are clearly superior — but in terms of interior cargo volume, SUVs and minivans are, on balance, pretty comparable.

We have therefore focused the questions in our quiz and the corresponding issues in the slide show on other matters. To help you come to a purchasing decision, please follow the links below.

Click here for the SUV vs. Minivan checklist.

Click here for the quiz.

Click here for the slide show.

* We determined the best-selling SUVs and minivans based on data from manufacturers' media Web sites. We then verified the data with spokespeople from the manufacturers. Nissan Motor and Land Rover have sales information on their media Web sites, but at press time had not returned repeated e-mail messages.

© 2012 Forbes.com


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