Ford hopes to revive the minivan by shrinking it

Ford’s C-Max, a microvan just going on sale in Europe, will be rolling into U.S. showrooms next year.Ford

Few vehicles have transformed the American automotive landscape like the minivan. The 1984 debut of the original Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager models not only offered an alternative to frazzled Baby Boomers starting families, they also helped to save Chrysler during one of its numerous financial crises.

Today, conventional wisdom would have us believe that the minivan is a dying breed. After all, over the last quarter century many once-loyal minivan buyers have moved on, graduating to SUVs or the latest crossovers.

But there may still be life in the segment. Sales are stronger than many might expect and Ford is betting that what the next generation of parents will want in a car is not just another minivan but something even smaller, more flexible and fuel-efficient.

As part of its so-called, globally-focused “One Ford” strategy the automaker is consolidating its global product development operations and, where possible, marketing vehicles around the world, rather than focusing on regional models. One of the newest global offerings is the C-Max, a microvan just going on sale in Europe. A stretched version, known in Europe as the Grand C-Max, will be the next Ford to leap the Atlantic, rolling into U.S. showrooms next year.

Will buyers bite? Jim Farley, Ford’s global marketing director, is optimistic, pointing out that new product segments come about when a new generation of drivers starts raising families.

In a press release announcing the arrival of the C-Max in the U.S., Ford also points out that while small cars in the B and C-class segments accounted for less than 15 percent of the U.S. market in 2004, sales have since rebounded and are expected to grow in future years.

However, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical. In decades past, a number of players tried to downsize the minivan, primarily the Japanese — who, ironically, were late to the segment but who today provide the only serious rivals to Chrysler in the conventional minivan market.

Offerings like the Mitsubishi Expo and Expo LRV — the latter also sold as the Plymouth Colt Vista — did little to fire up the market in the early 1990s and most automakers eventually abandoned the microvan segment. Today, the only consistent product offering in the segment is the Mazda5. It’s one of the bigger sellers for what is, however, little more than a niche brand.

Still, Ford is betting it has the marketing muscle to take the microvan concept to the mainstream. And it has a good technical foundation with the C-Max.

Mazda and Ford have been allied for more than four decades, and although the U.S. carmaker is expected to sell off most or all of its remaining Mazda shares in the coming months, the two companies have worked together closely on a variety of product programs. That includes the initial technical work that eventually became the Mazda5 minivan, and now they are working together on the Ford C-Max.

Farley believes the new model will attract a variety of different buyer groups.

There are those buyers who simply don’t like today’s big minivans. They might like the flexibility of the C-Max, such as the ability to seat up to seven passengers, but also want something more nimble and fuel efficient.

And there are those who have already downsized — to products like the Ford Fiesta, another European import — but now need more space as they start their own families.

“People are definitely seeking more flexibility and functionality,” concurs Dan Gorrell, chief analyst with Los Angeles-based AutoStratagem. “There is clearly an opportunity” in the model, he adds, quickly cautioning, “depending on how it’s executed.”

Ford’s designers have clearly studied the failures of the past — the Asian microvans of the 1990s, in particular, which tended to be tall, awkwardly-shaped wagons. Their proportions seemed to fit crowded Japanese city streets, but always seemed ready to topple over on American roadways.

U.S. motorists have traditionally been more open to European designs, but with a few caveats. Station wagons and hatchbacks have generally not played well here, although Gorrell suggests that this may be changing.

The latest crop of five-door cars, such as the Ford Fiesta, appears to have cracked the code and is beginning to make hatchbacks cool again stateside. And from a styling standpoint the longer version of the C-Max coming to the U.S. next year has more in common with today’s popular crossovers.

Vans, whether mini or micro, “don’t need to look like boxes; they can have a lot of energy,” pointed out C-Max designer Stefan Lamm.

The one concession to tradition is the sliding rear door, a very distinctive minivan design cue. Ironically, one of the most functional attributes of the minivan, it could also be the feature that causes some potential buyers to step back.

Ford certainly needs the C-Max to score a hit. The automaker walked away from the conventional minivan market several years ago after watching sales of models like the Windstar steadily decline. Ford has had a mixed to moderate success with a bigger alternative, the Flex, but is still hoping to find the sweet spot, even if it means creating a virtually new segment.

Other carmakers will be watching developments in the segment closely, analysts like Gorrell suggest, and if Ford finds success with the C-Max it could touch off a rush to compete in the segment, much like Chrysler’s original minivans did back in the mid-1980s.