By on May 12, 2020

Image: 1994 Toyota Previa

Some segments and roles just don’t mix. While unfavorable bodystyles and vehicle sizes can be kitted out for sport or luxury, perhaps even succeeding in their mission, sometimes a vehicle’s basic fiber — its core identity — proves an impossible match for its newfound mission.

Sometimes a car is too ponderously large for serious muscle car competition (Mercury’s bargelike, Marquis-based Marauder X-100) or too small and basic for well-padded luxury transport (the earliest Chevrolet Cavalier-based Cadillac Cimarron). Like a dumb-as-rocks linebacker donning a tux and attempting to make conversation at a literary society soirée, these vehicles didn’t fool anyone.

Now, what about the lowly, plebian van?

The seeming incompatibility of vans and high society living came to mind after seeing this unintentionally hilarious ad from the decade that brought us Eddie Murphy. Credit goes to Corey for setting aside part of his evening to bask in the awkward placement of a GMC Safari in a setting that should feature something with Givenchy, Cartier, or Bill Blass badging, but doesn’t.

No time for extra canapes, cocktails and cocaine — we told the babysitter we’d be back by midnight!

In the seldomly mentioned country of China, automakers compete for supremacy in the high-zoot minivan space (Lexus LM, Buick GL8 Avenir), but it seems consumers on these shores are less inclined to try new things. Faster than you can say “Mercury Villager Nautica,” the mind instantly turns to soccer mom mobiles upon any utterance of the word “minivan.” Plymouth Voyagers and Dodge Caravans and the like. Luxury doesn’t spring to mind as far as the larger commercial and passenger van market is concerned, either.

Show up to a party in any domestically sold minivan these days, and you’ll be playing second fiddle to someone’s MKZ. Maybe even their Camry. Sure, you can easily drop the same amount of cash on a Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid that it would take to buy a Lexus RX, but the result in polite, upper crust circles won’t be the same. With the former setup, you’re an eco-conscious parent who settled. With the latter ride, you’re at least a realtor.

Some automakers tried putting a premium stamp on minivans sold here; it didn’t work. Now, with the minivan segment contracting like a dying star, it  doesn’t look like we’ll ever see a true luxury minivan.

Has there ever been a luxurious minivan sold on these shores with the ability to impress the hard-to-impress? Is “premium” a too-strong word for any and all examples of this bodystyle? Feel free to disagree. And please provide examples.

[Image: Toyota]

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40 Comments on “QOTD: The Impossibility of High Society Vanning?...”

  • avatar

    Yes, well close, I would say the Mercedes R-Class is about as close as you can get to a “luxury” minivan.

    It even has a go-fast 63AMG @ $148K. I would say that’s pretty much up there in a near mini-van

    • 0 avatar

      A friend of mine has one of the only couple R63s in Australia. Beast. Plaster your kids to the rear kind of beast…

      • 0 avatar

        I lust after the R63. ULTIMATE Q-ship.

        • 0 avatar

          Me too, it’s the only Mercedes that really interests me. I think it’s because although I like the practicality of minivans I just can’t see myself in any of the standard fair, but an R63AMG? Now you’re talkin’ :)

          • 0 avatar

            The C63, E63 and S63 are AWESOME. I’d take one in a heartbeat. Now all I need to do is get a winning lottery ticket, and add “Wagner’s Greatest Hits” to my Apple Music playlist.

    • 0 avatar

      “the Mercedes R-Class is about as close as you can get to a ‘luxury’ minivan.”

      The R-Class is not a luxury minivan, at least to the kind of people who buy minivans.

      The problem with the R-Class is that it’s just not a very good minivan. I talked this through with the other car guys at work, and the R-Class slots into the pecking order in about the same place as the Mazda5, at least when viewed the way a minivan guy looks at the car.

      Remember that minivan buyers care more about interior space utilization than anything. The hard part of our driving is what sports-car guys would “loading” and “unloading”. When viewed through this lens, the R-class is the cut-rate competition, while the Honda Odyssey (with it’s Magic Seats and automatic sliding doors) is the luxury vehicle in this segment. Since a lot of my friends are minivan guys who understand this, the Honda is also the vehicle which makes a better impression.

      Yeah, I know people who like sports cars think the R-class is the minivan they’d want. But sports car people buy sports cars, the minivan people buy minivans, and nobody buys the R-Class.

  • avatar

    I saw the premium vans as the huge full-sized conversion vans that were so popular in the 1980s – the ones with view blocking CRT TVs, non-stain-resistant rear bench/fold down bed, real wood wet bar, and so much extra weight on an already overloaded engine struggling through a 3-speed automatic that passing was a true adventure! But if you could afford the price of the conversion and the price of gas, you had a true mileage eater.

    While most minivans aren’t really “mini” any longer (compared to their earlier versions), they don’t seem to have that conversion ability that the BoF vans had. I remember Chrysler tried to recreate some of that cruiser environment with the “Swivel and Go” seats and table, but all that meant was two carsick people facing rearwards over a plastic table with each other’s knees one inch away from severe crotch region injuries.

    Not the same.

    • 0 avatar

      As far as I can tell, pretty much every retired New Yorker in the Rockies, has a Sportsmobile, or some form of pimped out 4×4 Sprinter.

      “Executive” Sprinter conversions are a growing market in the US as well. They’re more and more popular as livery vehicles in Vegas (dropping off at fights etc.) And there are at least a few driving around Beverly Hills and Newport Beach.

      To me, they make more sense in the 3 hour long 2mph rush hours typical of Bangkok and other Asian cities, than in LA. As no matter how pimp (or “private jet like”) they may be, dynamics still suck compared to a Sedan/Town Car, so they can be a bit carsickness inducing.

      But they sure do look impressive, stuffed full of escorts who pour out for a Rodeo Drive shopping extravaganza.

  • avatar

    I’d be one of the few who might actually buy such a vehicle, but the problem of course is small kids wrecking everything.

  • avatar
    87 Morgan

    I found the Pacifica (latest version) to be pretty darn close to ‘luxury’ vehicle as one can get. FWIW, I think the lines between luxury car and non-luxury car (for lack of a better term) no longer exist.

    Some brands have more panache than others, reality though is you can get the same features and technology found in a BMW or Mercedes in a Chevrolet or Toyota.

    Back to the minivan, Jack beat me to it. The core purpose of the minivan is to cart around children, young ones typically. For the most part, they get trashed on the inside so no reason to get too crazy with the luxury appointments. As and aside, I strangely found the blacked out version of the Town & Country weirdly appealing in a muscle car kind of way. I rented quite a few of them back in the before times when I traveled every week for work…

    • 0 avatar

      My parents have a his and hers Mopar Minivan’s because they like the seating position and ease of access. Most of the time it is one or both of them and no one else in the car.

      • 0 avatar

        Single people who drive minivans always seem like a single person who would want to live in a 10,000 sq. ft. house. Just kind of odd to want all that space for one person

        • 0 avatar

          It’s more a practicality thing. Pretty much easiest entry and exit around. Plus great vehicle for that annual snowbird drive to FL. Or like the owner of my company easy way to take a bunch or people out to dinner.

    • 0 avatar

      My children are grown and on their own, but my minivan still works out great for us. I use it for Home Depot runs, carting around my mountain bike, taking friends to dinner or a ball game, really a whole host of things you do with in a regular life. There are plenty of times the extra space comes in handy, but I’m not dragging around a body on frame 4×4 chassis to do it.

      I know that GM tried to foist their Olds and Buick vans as a “luxury” vans for a while, but it fell flat when they got to the 2nd gen U-bodies. They really were nicer Chevy vans. OTOH, they’re very serviceable but not rust resistant.

    • 0 avatar

      I am legitimately curious about how parents of young kids can be okay, or allow their kids to completely trash a vehicle they’ve just spent $35-50k to purchase. I can recall getting barked at if I made a mess in the car, and my parents mostly bought used. There was none of this tacit acceptance of ground in animal crackers and spills and any of the other gross detritus of kids. Then again we were not handed snacks and drinks that would go all over the place during a 20 minute car trip.

      I straight up don’t get it.

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    I was just about to enter high school and we were looking at minivans in ’92 and looked at MOPAR vans, Aerostars, a Lumina, and the Chevy/GMC twins, and a couple Ford and GMC full size vans.
    I’m not sure what stopped us from seriously looking at the Caravan, I’m guessing it was the price. I recall them being more expensive than the competition. I don’t know that we even test drove one. The T&C was way out of the price consideration.

    We only briefly looked at the Lumina APV. It was small and overall not very nice. The only thing it had going was the price.

    The two we settled on were the Areostar and Safari. There were no Astros that interested us. In all cases we were looking at the long wheel base models.

    The full size vans were nice, but the value proposition wasn’t there.

    We spent a lot of time looking at 2 Aerostars with the Sport trim package – one in green and one in fuchsia. I think we drove them a couple times and tried to get the numbers to work, but for whatever reason we never could.

    We were also looking at Safaris and the ones we were seeing were only lower trims. They seemed overpriced.
    Then one day my stepdad and I drove through the dealer lot just to see what they had and there it was. It must have just rolled off the trailer as it was off by itself and had not been prepped. It was dark teal over grey cloth. We could tell it had a lot of options from a distance and it did. We were both really impressed but figured it was too expensive. Somehow a deal was made before it ever made it to the lot and we leased it for 3 years. To this day, I still think fondly about that van. It was great for the long trips we took and did everything asked well – including driving in the snow (RWD).

    It looked a lot like this (without the damage):

  • avatar

    A friend knows a wealthy family with lots of kids. Mercedes Sprinter is the choice. It even has a rear door, like a school bus. It was very expensive and has tons of cachet.

  • avatar

    It’s not a minivan per se, but the Buick Enclave Avenir comes to mind.

  • avatar

    “Like a dumb-as-rocks linebacker donning a tux and attempting to make conversation at a literary society soirée”

    I just have just five words to say about this remark:


  • avatar

    I rather liked the Mercury Villager.

  • avatar

    Are we pretending realtors are less-contemptible than, like— Hyundai dealership finance managers?

  • avatar

    For the past three years I’ve been kicking myself for buying a Subaru Outback instead of a Kia Sedona. For me the lure of a minivan is the ease of entry/exit and the high seating position with good visibility. My knees don’t bend enough anymore to stick my leg under the steering wheel of my Outback and then follow it in. I need to back in, duck my head under the roofline, and then pivot into position. It’s awkward and irritating, but not so much that I can justify taking on a new car payment yet.

  • avatar
    Car Ramrod

    Around here there are several Nissan NV passenger vans used by wealthy families with lots of kids. Nissan NA HQ is down the road, maybe that’s why.

    If you’re redneck rich, a raised Excursion seems to be a popular choice.

  • avatar

    I think the highest trim Kia Sedona with reclining seats that feature footrests is credible from a luxury standpoint. (If you can get over your badge snobbery.

    It would be wasted on my two kids at 5 years old and almost 2 years old and still in car seats but those seats would be great for a little VIP vanning.

  • avatar

    Am I the only one who immediately thought of the movie Get Shorty here?!?!

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    In the early 90’s I acquired a Dodge Grand Caravan ES. These were available only in 2 colours and i believe may have been the most expensive vehicles available at our local Chrysler dealers. They came ‘fully equipped’ and were certainly perceived as a ‘luxury’ vehicle. At the time there was little to no competition for them in that particular market segment.

    During that era, these were seen in the driveways of the richest neighbourhoods in Canada. Replacing the previous 2nd car favourite, the Eagle AWD Wagon.

    Unfortunately it ‘ate’ transmissions and the plastic in the rear experienced major cracking. Otherwise a very comfortable and quiet cruiser. With lovely burgundy velour upholstery and matching burgundy interior trim/plastic.

  • avatar
    Car Ramrod

    My wife totally would have bought that Acura minivan they were testing about a decade ago instead of an Odyssey touring, especially if it had a little more 3rd gen TL and a little less 4th gen TL styling.

  • avatar

    Am I the only one that misses the Chevy Astro AWD? I wish I could find one relatively unmolested, Id pick it up in a minute. Astro vans, despite all of their quirks and reliability issues, were cool. They could tow, carry a ton of stuff, get through just about anything in AWD guise, and are somewhat retro Rad nowadays. Heck Id even consider a new one.

    Other than that, the problem with most minivans is that they are just bloated sedans at heart. Yeah, they have a lot of space and can haul kiddies in comfort, but they aren’t trucks. They have a lot of road noise intrusion, tend to be tinny, and ride on frames and chassis more suited for a car than a truck or SUV. Towing is a weaker point with many new minivans as well.

    • 0 avatar

      The Astro was an actual midsize van. Alas, it’s out for me because my wife vetoes 1990s-era safety-engineering.

      The closest thing on the market is the Mercedes Metris. It’s also a midsize van. But, has the creature-comforts a truck at a luxury-minivan price. But it can tow and has many seats and lots of passenger space — so it’s likely to be the right vehicle for somebody.

      I would have bought one a couple of years ago, if I could have found an affordable used one. The used passenger vans still cost around $35k, which is more than I personally am willing to pay for a non-EV/non-PHEV.

  • avatar

    Gotta say that “GMC: the truck you can live with” wins the Slogan That’s Not Even Trying award.

  • avatar

    We have a Nissan Quest LE, 7 years old now but at the time of purchase it was the luxury minivan. It is a JDM vehicle that reminded me of the luxury vans sold in Asia…because it is one. It was never popular here which added to it’s intrigue for me. Now it has 120k miles and has been a really good vehicle for our 3 kids + Labrador family. I’m not sure America would buy luxury branded minivans since we do trash them…but a nice Buick could work. Some brand needs to make minivans interesting again…I would love to see Mitsubishi bring back the Delica. Not luxury, but people would buy

  • avatar

    Porsche B32

  • avatar
    cimarron typeR

    I joke that our ’18 Limited Premium AWD Sienna is the “Lexus of mini-vans”. But it is/was the nicest in the segment that offered AWD when we bought it new.Our local dealer had to make a trade for it out of state, because we wanted a rare combo of dark metallic blue over brown leather.
    He jokingly said we’re unusual buyers because “no one spends that much on minivans anymore”, although we bought it 5k miles on it so we got a pretty good deal. The only luxury item it doesn’t have that I would like is heated rear seats. I’m not really into infotainment so Carplay/AA doesn’t really factor.
    I hope the DI V6/8 speed doesn’t go away. My 2.0t daily driver is just not that luxurious.

  • avatar

    This side of the Atlantic, Mercedes have this sown up.

    I’ve seen American technology execs turn up at the office for a meeting, their chauffeur in a blacked out Mercedes Vito waiting patiently outside to whisk them back to the exec lounge of the airport.

    I remember St Andrews, luxurious Sprinter vans would ferry golfers from Edinburgh airport.

    Though those are more modified panel vans, albeit Vito could class as a Minivan.

    The UK version of The Apprentice used to use Chrysler Voyagers as luxury transport, though when Chrysler left the European market they changed to VW Transporter vans.

    Otherwise, a ground-up luxury minivan? The Mercedes R class was an attempt, looking a bit like a raised S class wagon. BMW tried the 2 series MPV, but it was a bit of an ugly duckling.

    Lancia sold the Theta/Phedra as their version of the Fiat-Peugeot-Citroen eurovans, if they could be classed as luxury? (the successor was a rebadged Chrysler Voyager)

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