TOYOTA LAUNCHING SIENNA AS MARKET FOR MINIVANS STALLS: VEHICLE BUILT IN U.S. REPLACES PREVIA; SHARE BATTLE LOOMS

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Toyota Motor Sales USA launches its new Sienna minivan Oct. 16 with a $40 million ad push. But while the vehicle is getting good initial reviews, it's being introduced at a time when auto experts say the segment has hit a sales plateau.

Minivans won't experience any big sales jumps in the near future because "there's no demographic pull for it," said auto consultant James Hall, VP-analysis at AutoPacific. "As new players come into the market, they'll fight each other for share."

That may already be happening. Although General Motors Corp., with three refurbished models, has more than doubled its minivan sales this year, Chrysler Corp. and Ford Motor Co. minivan sales have slipped by as much as 9%.

FIRST-YEAR GOAL: 70,000

Sienna, Toyota's first U.S.-built minivan, replaces the imported Previa. The carmaker expects first-year Sienna sales to reach about 70,000, fueled by an ad campaign from Saatchi & Saatchi Pacific, Torrance, Calif. (see story at right).

But Toyota sold only 3,634 Previa minivans through September; sales peaked in 1991 at just over 50,000. The Previa was too narrow for the U.S. market and had four cylinders; Sienna will be wider and have six cylinders.

The new minivan will sell well, said Wes Brown, an analyst at Nextrend, because it's the best-executed Japanese minivan so far and because the four-door vehicle is a Toyota. He said a huge pool of loyal Toyota owners left the fold for Chrysler because they didn't like Previa, and Sienna could lure business from Chrysler.

GM MINIVAN SALES DOUBLE

GM introduced three fresh 1997 minivan models earlier this year. For the first nine months of 1997, GM more than doubled sales to 106,910 minivans from 50,630 a year ago, according to Automotive News. GM spent about $90 million on advertising to launch the three.

Chrysler, which sells the most minivans and created the segment with its 1984 models, watched nine-month sales of its three models slip 4% to 401,793. It has been fighting allegations that the rear-door latches on its minivans are defective.

Last week, a federal jury awarded $262.5 million to the family of a boy killed in 1994 when he was thrown from a 1985 Dodge Caravan minivan after an accident. The jury found Chrysler negligent in its latch design. The company said it will appeal the verdict.

Ford minivan sales-also for three models-tallied a nine-month total of 248,867, down 9%.

AutoPacific predicts U.S. minivan sales will hit 1.2 million this year, tying the segment's previous sales peak in 1994. Mr. Hall projected the segment's sales will be flat next year at 1.14 million, rising slightly in '99 to 1.15

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