Ask The Best And Brightest: Can Minivans Make A Comeback?
If human beings were truly rational animals, trends would be easy to predict. Given that we’re fickle, self-aware and subject to the influence of less predictable forces than pure reason, figuring out what is going to appeal to people is never easy. And few automotive examples prove the inconstancy of market trends like the minivan. On paper they just plain make sense, creating a huge amount of flexible interior room out of high-volume sedan platforms, making them relatively cheap, capable and efficient. But if consumer decisions were made based on such rational considerations, turtlenecks would be long overdue for a huge comeback. In short, the “image thing” killed minivans, with more than a little help from the marketing efforts of the very companies that profited off their (relatively) brief time in the sun. And really, the future of the minivan will be determined by the staying power of its modern replacement, the Crossover. Are CUVs an evolutionary step from the SUV dead-end of the 90s back towards minivans and station wagons, or will the needs of multiple-passenger consumers forever be doomed to be served by the in-between-mobiles? My totally unjustified belief in the basic sanity of consumers makes me believe that minivans make too much sense to not make a comeback, and concepts like VW’s Microbus show the way. What say you?
Some philosophical thoughts. We see cars as an extension of how we live. “Don't have a car? Oh, you're a have-not.” “Have a car? What kind? oh an Acura, must be well-heeled.” “Oh he drives an Acura? Why didn't he buy a Bimmer instead? Must be a Japanese lover.” And so on... We pass judgments on cars the same way we pass judgments on people and stereotype to save time or keep things simple to understand. Minivans got stereotyped a while back and haven't come out of that funk. A car can no longer be classified without using the word "too". A minivan is too domestic, SUVs are too heavy on gas, Japanese cars are too boring, 3-series are too common, American cars are too unreliable, small cars are too dangerous. With these definitive judgments there will never be a suitable car/van/truck. As was echoed in some previous thoughts, "we found it to be the best match for our requirements" (i.e. minivan for some) is often not explored in the car buying process because some vehicles are just too _____ (insert comment). People don't vocalize what they want in a car, it's up to marketing groups to tell people what they like. Even more often, conservative car makers wait for someone else to take a risk and if it sells then they pounce all over it (i.e. SUV craze, Audi snouts, Bangle butts, crossovers, etc). It's always going to be soup de jour unless people speak out on what they really need in a car. Unfortunately you'll never see a consensus on that. Even on this site, the responses are as wild and varied as anywhere. Personally, I'd like to see car manufacturers build light, roomy, gutless cars with manual transmissions that get incredible gas mileage. File that one under "When hell freezes over". We bought a CR-V a few years ago. We looked at minivans but we didn't have any kids at the time and the gas mileage seemed frightening. We like to go camping for weeks at a time and we need to load up a bunch of stuff so we wanted something like a wagon. There wasn't much choice in wagons so we looked at used small SUVs. I wanted a Forester but couldn't find one at the right price, and the CR-V was a good second choice. Now years later, I still appreciate our car for it's versatility but the gas mileage is miserable and find myself pining for a wagon again. I learned along the way what I didn't know then, that the secret to all of life’s ills, is a small utility trailer. Camping trips with our child are a breeze with that extra towed space and it makes me realize that a much smaller vehicle would be an option for us. I doubt I'll bother though now that I'm settled with our car (I don't consider it a truck) and don’t want to spend more money to swap out. If there's going to be a renaissance with minivans, it will have to be on a much smaller scale in a time where gas prices are much higher than they are now. I’m curious to see what happens when the C-Max arrives. I’m sure those other scaredy cat companies are waiting to see how it does too.
I agree with the comments on the maxi sizing of minivans. I've commented on other posts on this site before about my '06 Mazda MPV. Yes, I know they never sold very well in the U.S., and I know they were underpowered for the first couple of years. But, really, I can't imagine a need for more interior room unless you truly carry 7 people every day. And the car is on the same physical footprint as the Chevy Malibu it replaced. It handles well, has decent pick up and holds enough for a road trip across country. Wagons are also terrifichaulers as well -- and my '90 Volvo 240 can swallow almost as much as the MPV and a whole heck of a lot more than most SUVs/CUVs. I think the questions really is what one expects their car to handle. Do you want tons of space? Do you want sedan-like performance? What do you want to compromise on? We also owned a '00 Passat with the turbo 4 and a 5 spd stick. Loved that thing -- almost a no copromise vehicle -- decent space and a hoot to drive. But, in the end, I think folks want everything and something has to give at some point. Minivans compete in a marketplace with many more choices in body styles. They will probably never dominate the market as they once did, but they will always have their niche.
What comeback? I live near an elementary and middle school and see tons of minivans pass by every day. Granted, I see Suburbans and Expeditions, but there are more minivans than full-size SUVs.