GM Goes “Sport” With Minivans

General Motors will launch a new line of “crossover sport vans” to replace its aged and slow-selling minivans. That includes first-ever vans for both the Saturn and Buick brands.

Designed to look more like SUVs than traditional people movers, GM designers hope to avoid the oft-derided “soccer mom” image saddling the minivan segment. That derogatory persona is a major reason why so many minivan buyers have abandoned the segment in favor of the more macho sport-utility vehicle.

GM officials have described their new models as a “breakthrough,” but some observers question whether the automaker is simply taking a band-aid approach to the minivan image problem, rather than engaging in outright surgery.

RELAY and Terrazza

While all the existing GM minivans will be replaced, the automaker begins the transition by introducing its two newest models, the Buick Terrazza and Saturn RELAY. Until now, neither division has had a minivan, and they’ve been latecomers, in general, to the booming light truck market.

“We want to go into a different direction,” said Jack Folden, one of the leaders of the sports van team. “Vans have the functionality, but the image isn’t what customers want.”

The challenge, cautions analyst Dan Gorrell, of Strategic Visions, Inc., is changing the image while not losing the functionality that minivan customers crave.

2005 Saturn RELAYWith Terrazza and RELAY, the changes are most dramatic nose-on, especially when compared to the last generation of GM minivans. The new models have long, tall and dramatically styled front ends that are clearly intended to evoke the image of an SUV, rather than the short and steeply raked snouts characteristic to prior minivans. The vehicles have also been raised a couple inches. They get larger wheels and tires and SUV-like integrated luggage racks.

From the side view, though, there’s no mistaking the minivan roots. Most obvious are the sliding doors, a minivan trademark. Several observers have commented with surprise that GM did not at least try to hide the sliding door tracks, as Toyota has done with its new Sienna.

That may result from a scaling back of the sports van project. Insiders tell TheCarConnection that GM decided to forestall a complete remake of its minivans until later in the decade.

The Terrazza is the third truck added to the Buick lineup since 2002, but its first minivan. It will be powered by a 200-hp 3.5-liter V-6, standard 17-inch wheels, and both Stabilitrak stability control and Versatrak all-wheel drive systems will be offered as options. GM expects a notable increase in AWD penetration on these ute-like minivans.

Saturn’s RELAY follows the successful addition of the VUE crossover. The technical and visual differences between RELAY and Terrazza are modest. The Saturn’s grille is more rectangular, while Buick adds chrome surrounds to its instrument panel. RELAY buyers will get standard 17-inch wheels, a three-spoke steering wheel, power heated mirrors, windows and door locks, and an AM/FM/CD player with MP3 capability. Anti-lock brakes are standard, but as with the Terrazza, Stabilitrak, and Versatrak are options.

Following Honda

So are side-impact airbags, a controversial decision considering trends in the market. Just a day after the first off-the-record background briefing on GM’s new sport vans, Honda announced it would make side airbags, rollover curtains, and stability control standard on all its light trucks — a category including minivans — by 2006.

GM officials defend their decision not to make the technology standard, though several have noted in off-the-record asides that they will have to “study” the market’s reaction to the Honda announcement. There is no question, GM officials acknowledge, that minivan buyers are among the market’s most safety-conscious.

They’re also the most demanding when it comes to functionality, stressed Gorrell, noting that there’s a fundamental difference between minivan and SUV owners. Ute owners “are focused on external things, like look and image, while minivan buyers are focused on internal functionality,” things like seating flexibility, storage, and cupholders.

Whether GM has bridged the gap remains to be seen, but it clearly sees a need to try. The midsize van share of the light truck market has declined from sixteen percent to thirteen percent since just 1999, noted GM’s chief number cruncher, Paul Ballew.

Minivans aren’t dying, however, with sales holding around one million annually. And J.D. Power & Associates actually is forecasting a slight increase in volume over the next few years, largely reflecting the arrival of new product. Whether vehicles like the RELAY and Terrazza can overcome the lack of a “cool factor” is uncertain, but analysts say GM had to try.

“When even true soccer moms don’t want to drive a minivan anymore, you know you’ve got a problem,” cautioned Power analyst Jeff Schuster.

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