Without much fanfare, Ford has been seeing sales gains for its "unminivan" -- a passenger version of its newly redesigned Transit Connect small, commercial van.
Ford is branding it as the "unminivan" -- even though it has that minivan trademark, sliding side doors. It has seating for five or seven passengers in a dressed-up version of what most people think of as a small delivery van. And even the larger version is substantially more compact than a traditional minivan.
"People still want the functionality, but not with the (minivan) name," says Jessica Caldwell, analyst for Edmunds.com.
She compares the experimentation with minivans to the same image makeover that automakers attempted with hatchbacks, which were variously called sportbacks, liftbacks or other names in the 1970s and 1980s.
The Transit Connect, long sold in Europe, debuted in the U.S. as a cargo hauler in the 2010 model year. Though Ford added a rear seat and more windows to create a five-passenger Transit Connect Wagon for 2011, the design and shape of that first U.S. version still was very truck-like.
But a redesign for 2014 brought a much sleeker, more minivan-like Transit Connect. It came in two lengths, allowing not only a five-passenger "civilian" version but also a seven-passenger Transit Connect Wagon that went on sale in January. The longer version is more than a foot longer than the standard Transit Connect but still measures about 16 inches shorter than a Honda Odyssey or other full-size minivan.
The new design and additional model have resulted, Ford spokesman William Mattiace says, in more than one out of three Transit Connects now being sold as passenger versions to individual customers -- more than double the passenger model mix for the previous generation.
"We're seeing more demand than ever for the passenger version," he says. Transit Connect's overall sales rose 42% in July compared with the same month a year ago. Meanwhile, overall minivan sales were up 5.1%, according to Autodata. The Transit Connect also has one of the highest percentages of sales to Latino customers -- about one in five -- for any Ford vehicle.
The Transit Connect Wagon also has a price edge over traditional minivans. The five-seater starts at $25,520 with shipping; the long-wheelbase seven-seater starts at $25,995. That compares with $29,805 to start for a Honda Odyssey minivan. And the Transit Connect Wagon, like a minivan, can be stocked with a full range of optional features -- from a sunroof to leather, heated front seats.
Ford has marketed the Transit Connect Wagon largely through alternative promotions to give the "unminivan" theme more edge. "It's a unique vehicle, so we launched it in a unique way," Mattiace says. Advertising has included heavy reliance on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Ford has rivals coming in similar five-passenger vans that are better known for the cargo versions. Nissan's NV200 has been adopted as a taxicab for New York City. And Chrysler's Ram division has a passenger version of the ProMaster City (a version of a Fiat van sold in Europe) coming next year.
Mattiace says the vehicle's practicality is bringing in more than customers looking for a minivan alternative. He says it also is attracting buyers who owned other smaller, practical boxy vehicles such as the Honda Element, which is no longer made.
The newfangled, small, passenger vans could help renew interest in the minivan segment. Dealers have had a 50-day supply of minivans on their lots, a good sign since new vehicles as a total are averaging about 70 days to sell, says Alec Gutierrez, analyst for Kelley Blue Book. But, he adds, it appears that more automakers are adding sales incentives to move traditional minivans, which spur sales but cut profitability.
Original headline: This is Not Your Father's Minivan
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