NO NONSENSE AT 1991 AUTO SHOW Automakers add variety to minivans


NEW YORK -- Minivans -- the kid-schlepping automotive innovation that won the hearts and cash of millions of American parents -- are going through a midlife crisis.

Just a no-nonsense mode of transportation for families when the Chrysler Corp. introduced the Voyager in late 1984, minivans are changing as competition stiffens and the market tightens.

Gathered here at the nation's largest auto show are air-bag equipped minivans, luxury minivans costing $28,000 and rugged four-wheel-drive minivans.

And, industry executives say the changes are going to accelerate.

"You are going to see more and more variety in this sector," predicted Lloyd Reuss, president of General Motors Corp.

The reason: Lured by annual double-digit increases in sales and an estimated $5,000-per-vehicle profit, dozens of carmakers are jumping into the minivan market. Mercedes Benz, for example, is considering offering a top-line family vehicle within a year.

At GM, where executives are discussing a redesign of the Baltimore-built Chevrolet Astro sometime in the middle of the decade, there are already moves to add touches of luxury to the passenger van.

Terry Youngerman, spokesman for the Broening Highway plant, said that GM plans to offer a compact disc player as an option in the next model year.

And though company officials wouldn't discuss any timetable or plans for the redesign of the Astro or GMC Safari vans, GM is this weekend showing off a one-of-a-kind "concept car" called the Nomad.

Looking like a cross between a Jeep and a van, the huge heavy-duty seven-seater is designed to let families who want to get away take everybody and everything with them.

All the innovations are coming at

See MINIVANS, 14C, Col. 1 MINIVANS, from 13C

at time when some industry observers warn the heady years of double-digit sales increases and big profit margins may be coming to an end.

The increased competition alone is likely to drive down profit levels, warns David Andrea, a senior researcher for the University of Michigan's Center for Transportation Studies.

But even if profit levels hold, sales may not.

Minivan sales, which soared from nothing in 1983 to more than 900,000 last year, have fallen faster than the rest of the automotive market in recent months.

Though GM's Mr. Reuss describes the downturn as "just a blip,"

some industry observers warn that the dip is a sign that as the "baby boomers" become "empty nesters," they won't need as many minivans.

While nearly everyone in the industry believes there will always be a market for family vehicles like the minivan, some, such as Mr. Andrea, believe demand will likely top out in the next few years.

After that, Mr. Andrea said, the automakers will be challenged to sell the vans to baby boomers when they want to take their grandchildren on trips.

In order to keep the minivan market growing, the auto industry executives and experts gathered here yesterday said that the minivan of the future would be safer, more sleek and more high-tech.

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