Kia Reinvented the Minivan Into a Stylish Luxury Car, Boosting Sales to Record Highs

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- A winner is emerging in the shifting minivan market, and it's not the company you might expect.

Over the last 20 years, the U.S. minivan has taken a back seat to the SUV. The main attributes that have set the minivan back, compared to the SUV, have been these two:

  1. The minivan looks as square and plain as a rectangular bread-box.
  2. The driver's seating position and instrument panel are more bus-like than car-like.

For these reasons, the American public turned against these attributes and instead embraced the SUV. The number of minivans sold fell, as companies such as Ford  (F), General Motors  (GM) and Volkswagen exited the field. Nissan has all but exited the U.S. minivan market as well, as has Mazda

The remaining players are Dodge/Chrysler, Honda, Toyota (TM) and Kia, serving a smaller market than the one in the early 1990s, but still a sizable and healthy market segment, especially with fewer competitors around. (Chrysler, Honda and Toyota minivan sales, which represent the bulk of the market, are all way down from the 1990s.) When we dig into the U.S. sales statistics for May 2015, however, a major outlier emerges. For the month of May 2015, Kia Sedona's unit sales were up 456% and for the year-to-date, sales were up 423%. 

Kia is now in fourth place, having sold about 15,000 Sedonas year-to-date as of May, up from under 3,000 a year ago. The top three sellers in the market currently are Chrysler (30,680) plus Dodge (29,364)Toyota (58,473), and Honda (51,051).

In a market that's generally seeing 2% to 6% annual growth, it should be obvious that Kia's minivan sales momentum is in a different universe than the rest of the auto market. So what explains Kia's market-leading minivan sales success?

In the fourth quarter of 2014, Kia started selling an all-new Sedona minivan. It deals with the two issues listed above: Exterior design, and the driver's bus-like experience.

Kia's new design director, Peter Schreyer, came from Audi where he penned the iconic Audi TT. At Kia, one of his missions was to transform the ultra-boring soccer mom's rectangular bread box into something that would cause people to take notice.

That was mission impossible, but he succeeded. If you have not seen the all-new 2015 Kia Sedona minivan yet, you should take a look. From any angle, it looks far more elegant, sculpted and athletic than any other minivan that preceded it -- at least since the original Volkswagen minibus from the 1960s and 1970s. It looks as elegant as the best SUV. This is likely a key reason behind the sales numbers being up 423% or more.

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