DETROIT — General Motors Corp. touts its new Opel Sintra minivan in Europe this week, marking the start of an effort by the No. 1 auto maker to carve a bigger piece of a U.S. market segment that has been dominated by Chrysler Corp.
The Sintra, built at GM's plant in Doraville, Ga., is a preview of its U.S. cousins--the Chevrolet Venture, Pontiac Trans Sport and Oldsmobile Silhouette. They will show up late this year as replacements for GM's long-nosed, plastic-bodied all-purpose vehicle compact vans, which were derisively dubbed "dustbusters" or "anteaters" when they were introduced for the 1990 model year.
GM sold fewer than 100,000 of them last year in the small-and-medium-size van market that totaled 1.2 million vehicles. Even with its production slowed by the changeover to redesigned 1996 models, Chrysler's minivan sales topped 496,000 in 1995, about 40% of the market.
GM also sold about 160,000 rear-drive vans in the small-to-medium segment, for a total share of about 20%, while Ford Motor Co.'s Windstar, Aerostar and Mercury Villager had a 31% share.
The new GM vans have more conventional styling than the APV models and they add many of the car-like qualities that have kept Chrysler on top of the market since it introduced its Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager more than a decade ago. The GM vans will offer sliding rear doors on both sides, a feature that has fueled high demand for the new Chryslers.
But GM does not expect to "come bouncing into the market and topple Chrysler," Chevrolet product communications director Thomas D. Hoxie said. "On the other hand, we're going to take a bite out of them, and we're not going to have any trouble selling the volume we'll be producing."
GM won't reveal production plans for the Doraville plant, but industry analysts estimate its capacity at about 250,000 vehicles a year. It will build about 40,000 Opel Sintras for export.
The Sintra goes on display this morning at a news media preview of the Geneva Motor Show in Switzerland.
The analysts say the new GM vans are likely to outsell the old, but in a minivan market that may have peaked, the gains will probably be at the expense of Ford and the Japanese.
Art Spinella of CNW Marketing/Research in Bandon, Ore., said his company's surveys show that people who intend to buy minivans put Chrysler's Dodge, Plymouth and Chrysler brands at the top of their shopping lists, with all the other brands considerably lower.
Asked last week about the new competition, Chrysler Executive Vice President James P. Holden said he was not "overly concerned."
"We invented the segment," Holden said. "Everyone else is a follower or an imitator, of sorts."
Christopher Cedergren, a product analyst at AutoPacific Group Inc. in Thousand Oaks, said he expects GM to target the new vans, particularly the Chevrolet version, at shoppers in the lower end of the price spectrum.
The average compact van is sold for about $22,000, according to Cedergren.