Meet Ford's 'family' car but don't call it a minivan

After killing its line of minivans a few years ago, Ford will announce Tuesday that it will attempt to capitalize on demand for small cars that can handle families by bringing a pint-sized "family" car to the U.S. in 2012.

Ford will bring the Grand C-Max to American shores in two years, although the name will likely change before it arrives here. Built on Ford's new C-Max global small car platform, it will have three rows of seating and sliding minivan-style doors — but please don't call it a "minivan."

"Minivans have a stigma," says Derrick Kuzak, group vice president of Ford's global product development team. He prefers to call the Grand C-Max a "people mover" with style. "We tried to provide that functionality but with an aspirational design."

The Grand C-Max will be the biggest of the C-Max cars. Ford will unveil some of the lineup this week at the Frankfurt Motor Show in Germany.

The platform for C-Max cars will eventually be used to develop up to 10 different vehicles worldwide, Ford says, and they will account for 2 million in global sales volume each year.

American automakers have long struggled to find a way to sell the upscale small cars European consumers prefer to U.S. buyers who have, in the past, often paid more only for luxurious SUVs and trucks. The small car market here was mostly relegated to bare-bones transportation that the automakers couldn't make much money on.

Kuzak says Ford sees demand for small cars growing in the U.S. Currently, "B-segment" cars — subcompacts such as a Honda Fit — make up just 4.5% of the U.S. market, Ford says. While that's still a tiny sliver, it's up from 1.3% in 2004.

A smaller, but minivan-like, car, could fill a niche that no one is satisfying, Kuzak says. The Grand C-Max is based on the Iosis Max concept car introduced at the Geneva auto show last spring. The Grand C-Max is slightly larger, stretched a tad to make room for three rows of seats and trunk space for something the size of a stroller. The car is meant to have character, avoiding the "refrigerator on wheels" look that Kuzak says many minivans today have.

Ford pulled its minivan lineup from the market in 2007, after overall U.S. annual minivan sales slumped below the 1 million mark. The Ford Flex now is the closest thing Ford has to a minivan, and it is on the large and luxurious side for many minivan buyers. Plus, it doesn't have sliding doors.

Jim Hall, an analyst at 2953 Analytics, says Ford's plan to bring a smallish minivan isn't a bad idea, but there isn't a proven market for that kind of car. The only similar vehicle in showrooms now is the Mazda 5, and that is selling in pretty small volume.

"In that respect, they're going to be trying the waters out," Hall says.

"In Europe, this is a very popular size for a minivan, because the North American minivans are just a tad too big for their garages," he says. "But in the U.S., there is no penalty for big."

The C-Max goes for about $23,000 in Europe, which might be a bit too expensive for its size in the U.S. market, Hall says.

"If you shop around, you can get a full-size minivan for under $20,000," he says. "So they're going to have to duke it out if they want to do high volume."