There's something in the new Honda Odyssey that sucks: a vacuum.
Honda Motor Co. Ltd. has, for the moment, topped Chrysler when it comes to minivan innovations, offering the first on-board vacuum to suck up the crushed potato chips, mushed pretzels and stray straws that turn a vehicle into a snack bar on wheels.
For three decades, most of the breakthroughs in minivans came from Chrysler, which first introduced the people hauler for the 1984 model year, but somehow managed to miss what may the best idea yet for anyone who has dragged a vacuum cleaner out to the driveway to suck out the stray bits of Lego that tumble to the floor during a road trip.
Honda introduced the device at the New York Auto Show on its top-of-the-line Odyssey. And while a vacuum alone will not reverse the long slide in minivan sales, it might help slow it. That means the ball is in Chrysler's court to develop a new feature that will grab customers the way the first driver's side sliding door, first power liftgate and first swivelling second-row captain's chairs did when the car company pioneered those features.
The on-board vacuum is "one of those things that's like a blinding flash of the obvious" that eluded auto makers until now, said veteran industry analyst Joseph Phillippi, who heads AutoTrends Consulting Inc. in Short Hills, N.J.
The jury is out on whether such innovations will inject some life back into a stumbling segment.
The vehicle is not going to disappear, Mr. Phillippi said, but minivans have fallen a long way from their peak in 2000, when Americans drove 1.37 million of them off dealers' lots, representing a healthy 8 per cent of the market. By last year, sales had fallen to 575,486 or less than 2 per cent of the market.
In Canada, minivans were an economic engine for much of the 1990s and 2000s when Odysseys were rolling off the line in Alliston, Ont., Ford Motor Co. was cranking out Windstar models in Oakville, Ont., and Chrysler was pumping out three shifts of minivans every day in Windsor, Ont. The Chrysler plant is still running on three shifts, but minivan production was just 14 per cent of Canadian vehicle output last year, compared with 26 per cent when the U.S. market peaked in 2000.
To underline how far the people hauler has fallen, Chrysler will eliminate either the Chrysler Town and Country or Dodge Caravan minivan when its fleet is redesigned in 2015.
The demographics, the stigma of being tarred as a "soccer mom" and the rise of the more stylish crossover utility vehicle are what sent minivan sales into reverse, Mr. Phillippi said.
Nonetheless, Honda believes that teaming up with Shop-Vac to offer a hose that reaches the front seat plus a special crevice tool will delight customers.
"That is an outstanding idea," said Stephen Tasko, whose three sons and dog send a cascade of crumbs, Cheerios and dog hair on to the floors of the family's blue, 1995 Odyssey on various trips into and out their home in Portage, Mich.
"To be honest, our frequency of vacuuming has gone down in proportion to the increased age of the van," Mr. Tasko said. "Having the ability to flip a switch and clean up messes would be great."
The idea came from a Honda engineer, whose daughter told him he needed a vacuum in the car, Tami Giammarco, lead interior engineer for the Odyssey, said on Wednesday in an interview from the floor of the New York Auto Show.
The vacuum will run for eight minutes after the car is shut off, Ms. Giammarco said.
The downside? It works only when the vehicle is in park, so clean freaks can't vacuum as they drive.