Every day, more Americans take their cars to their local automotive zoos and trade them in on a menagerie of light trucks that includes pickups, minivans and sport utility vehicles.
And every day, King Light Truck's sales empire grows larger.Twenty years ago, light trucks accounted for 22 percent of the new vehicles sold in this country, said Kurt Ritter, Chevrolet's national truck manager. By 1990, they had 35 percent of the market. Today, just four years later, they have added five more percentage points, which, for the auto business, is a huge jump.
And if you take the large number of passenger cars in the daily rental fleets out of the equation and just consider retail vehicle sales, the light truck's market share gets even larger.
"It's edging up toward 42 percent if you look at it that way," Ritter noted.
Light-truck sales heated up in the late '80s and then really boiled over in the first half of this decade. In the process, they have fueled the auto industry's recovery from the recession and have accounted for almost all of the market share that the domestics have taken back from the imports in the last several years.
But can this spectacular growth continue? That is the big debate in the auto industry these days.
Most industry executives and observers believe it will continue in the short term. The division of opinion concerns the light truck's sales prospects by the end of the century.
Clearly, there are some potential assassins lurking in the shadowy corridors near King Light Truck's throne room. And they could hurt him down the line.
Perhaps the most vulnerable of the light trucks is the minivan. One big reason minivans have been selling so well (more than 22 percent of light truck sales so far this year) is that a huge number of baby boomers have been using them to haul their kids around. But what happens when those kids get older and their parents don't need all that room?
Many industry observers think a lot of them will get back into cars, leaving the minivan market to peak or even decline by the end of the decade.
"It looks like the majority of (those abandoning minivans) will go back to traditional sedans," said Bill Pochiluk, chief analyst at Autofacts, an industry research firm in West Chester, Pa. "The data I've seen has two-thirds of them getting back in sedans and the other third going into SUVs," sport utility vehicles.
Dave Grandinett, program manager for Ford's superb new Windstar minivan, begs to differ.
"We are continuing to project continued growth, although that growth will be a little less dramatic than it has been," Grandinett said.
The Ford executive suggests that forecasts of stagnation and decline based on boomer abandonment don't take into consideration the minivan's growing popularity with middle-aged "empty nesters."
"What's encouraging is the empty nesters, many of whom are getting into minivans for the first time," said Grandinett. "As we make the vehicle more carlike, and lower, we are providing the ergonomics that the empty nesters are looking for. They don't have to climb up or down to get in. It's like getting into a car from the '50s or '60s.
"So, they are finding them easier to get in and out of and are keeping them to haul their grandchildren around in."
Ultimately, the minivan's fate may not be so much a matter of peaks and declines as one of evolution. A number of foreign automakers, notably the Japanese, are readying car-derived hybrids that combine elements of the minivan, station wagon and SUV. The first of these "third generation" mini-vans to hit the market will be the Accord-derived vehicle that Honda will bring out in the spring.