DETROIT Ford Motor Co will showcase this month a seven-passenger vehicle aimed at young families that features sliding doors and enough interior space to hold roughly 270 soccer balls.
But do not call it a minivan.
A people-mover version of Ford's Transit Connect commercial van will be smaller, more fuel efficient and less expensive than the minivans sold by rivals Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T) and Honda Motor Co (7267.T), Ford executives said on Tuesday.
Additionally, its design -- with a high roof and squared-off rear -- will not trigger the "soccer mom stigma" that dogs traditional minivans, particularly among the under-30 set who are beginning to start families, Ford said.
"Many of them grew up in the back of a minivan," Ford's head of global engineering Hau Thai-Tang said at a media event.
"Historically, different cohort groups tend to reject what they're familiar with," Thai-Tang added. "We think that's another reason a product like this would be appealing to them."
Ford has been selling the Transit Connect since 2009 as a commercial vehicle with about 35,000 in sales a year. A people-mover version will debut later this month at the Los Angeles Auto Show and will go on sale by the end of next year. The van will be built in Valencia, Spain.
U.S. minivan sales peaked in 2000 at just over 1.3 million and today's sales are about half that. Ford stopped production of its Freestar minivan in 2007, turning its focus to crossovers such as the Flex and the Edge and sport-utility vehicles such as the Escape and the Explorer.
Minivan sales have slowed due to a social view that it signals the driver has lost his or her individuality after becoming a parent, analysts and executives say. This distaste is acute among the younger generation known as the Millenials.
"It's not the growth opportunity it once was," said Ford marketing manager Tim Stoehr. "The current minivan formula has not evolved to match customers' changing needs."
Companies have tried to upend this image through styling and marketing. The dominant player in the minivan market, Chrysler Group LLC, launched a sportier version of its Dodge Caravan last year dubbed the "man van" that featured an all-black interior, wider tires and a stiffer suspension. Caravan sales were up 28 percent through October.
In 2010, Toyota launched a popular ad campaign for its Sienna centered around a rapping couple running errands in the suburbs in their "swagger wagon." Sienna sales are up 3 percent this year.
But the minivans on the market do not offer what customers want in terms of price of fuel economy, Thai-Tang said.
"Toyota, Honda and other minivan manufacturers have left today's customers behind with inefficient people movers that are too large and too expensive," he said.
The 2013 Sienna starts around $26,400 while the Odyssey starts around $28,500. Ford did not provide the Transit Connect's price, but said it will cost "thousands less" than the Toyota and Honda minivans.
Ford expects the Transit Connect will get 30 mpg on the highway. It has more than 100 cubic feet of cargo space and will be offered in five- and seven-person configurations with the option of a rear lift-gate or side-hinged cargo doors. (Reporting By Deepa Seetharaman; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)