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'Mom mobiles' a shrinking category for automakers

Fiat Chrysler's decision to stop making the Dodge Grand Caravan is a big shift for the manufacturer credited with inventing the modern minivan in 1984, and which once offered the family-friendly vehicles under a variety of different badges.

But the move—which leaves the automaker with just one minivan, the Chrysler Town & Country—not only reflects changes at Fiat Chrysler as it rejiggers its brand strategy. It also signals the long and steady decline of a once-popular market segment that is now largely disdained by American motorists.

2014 Dodge Grand Caravan
Source: Chrysler
2014 Dodge Grand Caravan

According to industry data, minivan sales shrank by 4 percent in 2013 compared to the prior year, to about 532,000. That's still enough volume that it can't completely write off what critics have dubbed "mom-mobiles," but it's a far cry from the nearly 1.4 million minivans sold at the segment's peak in 2000.

Read MoreIconic cars that are no longer around

Before the decision to withdraw the Caravan, the segment already boasted fewer names than in the mid-1990s, when it captured a peak 8.5 percent of the total U.S. automotive market. Chrysler also killed off the old Plymouth Voyager, and both General Motors and Ford have pulled out of the segment.

Other than the Town & Country, the only models now available are the Honda Odyssey, the Toyota Sienna, the Nissan Quest, the Kia Sedona and the Mazda5.

Odds are that when it cuts its current lineup in half, Chrysler will see a further decline in total sales, said David Sullivan, an analyst with consulting firm AutoPacific.

But the surviving Town & Country model just might reinvigorate the segment if the Detroit automaker delivers the sort of surprise-and-delight redesign it came up with for its original 1984 models.

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"They could come up with a new model that will awaken or redefine the segment," said Sullivan, who attended a daylong briefing on Fiat Chrysler's product plans earlier this week. "They are doing more research on this new minivan than I've seen in a long time. "

Good, new product has traditionally been a way to reinvigorate a weak product segment. But with just a few exceptions, the minivan market hasn't seen much innovation in recent years. Chrysler's No. 1 competitor, the Odyssey, added a built-in vacuum cleaner for its 2014 model, but that's a far cry from such once-revolutionary breakthroughs as sliding doors, foldaway seats and a dozen cup and juice box holders.

Chrysler has been toying with ideas designed to reshape the concept of the minivan for years. It's a challenge considering the basic functionality demanded by those who love the vehicles forces them to stick with a basic "one-box" design. Chrysler tried to go for a more radical look with the 700C concept a few years ago, and it remains to be seen if that will influence the styling of the next Town & Country, due out in 2016.

One thing the automaker has confirmed is that the new model will be offered with the minivan segment's first plug-in hybrid powertrain, which is expected to yield "an estimated 75 mpg," according to Chrysler brand CEO Al Gardner. And by using the electric motor to drive one axle and the gas engine to power the other, the minivan might offer an unusual all-wheel-drive capability that could further enhance its appeal, AutoPacific's Sullivan said.

More from The Detroit Bureau:
Sports car or plug-in hybrid? New BMW i8 is both
Mercedes-Benz launches B-Class Electric Drive
Stable fuel prices send American buyers back to pickups, SUVs

Meanwhile, with millennials just reaching the age where they're starting their own families, some analysts believe the 2016 Chrysler Town & Country could come along at precisely the right time for a modest minivan revival.

The decision to drop the Dodge version reflects, as much as anything, that brand's shift to concentrate on its high-performance heritage with models like the Charger and Challenger muscle cars. But in a question and answer session wrapping up Tuesday's strategy session, Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne cryptically hinted that the Grand Caravan nameplate itself might not go away.

That leaves open the possibility that either it could become a second minivan badge for the Chrysler brand or, alternatively, be used for one of the crossover models the Detroit automaker is working on as an alternative for those who want minivan amenities without the segment's stigma.

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