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Market trends: Compact MPVs shrivel

When Renault launched the Scenic (then called Megane Scenic) in 1996, it launched a mini-revolution.

By 2004, compact MPVs accounted for 28.6% of all C-segment sales and that share appeared pretty secure in the medium term. Compact MPVs looked like they were going to be an established part of the automotive landscape.

Since then, something distinctly odd has happened. By the end of 2011, segment share had dwindled to below 17%, but why? It is not as if there are fewer families around, or kids suddenly don’t need as many toys/prams/clothes. It appears that a whole series of changes have been conspiring to nibble away at the segment that appeared to be the future of family motoring only a decade ago.

Firstly, compact SUVs have become much more popular. Models like the Ford Kuga and VW Tiguan have been very successful.

Admittedly they have no seven-seat option, but the ample boot space seems to satisfy many buyers.

The only relief for compact MPVs is that the off-road outline would make it very difficult to squeeze in three rows of seats, although one wonders if any designer has tried doodling a Grand Tiguan or Grand Kuga.

Secondly, the lower-medium segment has turned much more towards premium models such as the Audi A3 and BMW 1 Series. Now that might seem irrelevant, as almost no-one is going to trade a C4 Grand Picasso for a BMW 118, but the more that premium models grow, the smaller the share taken by MPVs.

Thirdly, hatchbacks are getting slowly more commodious as new, slightly larger models are launched. Could it be that some buyers are deciding that they can squeeze into a hatchback, after all?

It does seem that history is repeating itself. In the late 1980s, large MPVs appeared to be the future. Everyone wanted an Espace competitor, but then market share hit a glass ceiling of 2.1% before drifting down to the 1.7% of today. Most manufacturers have since decided to leave the segment to Ford and VW Group.

Now, compact MPVs have hit a glass ceiling and fallen back. Of course, 17% of the lower-medium segment is still around 100,000 units a year, even in today’s depressed market. Hence, no major players are likely to leave the sector, but there must be some head scratching going on. Many manufacturers have moved to separate five and seven-seat models but, as the segment shrinks, will it continue to make sense to make two separate bodies for each new compact MPV?

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