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The Minivan Market

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

The Minivan Market

Bill Crittenden
October 5, 2014

So Kia's reentry into the minivan market had me commenting on the practicality and maturity of the minivan buyer. I mentioned in the beginning of the article that the minivan segment had been written off for dead, as that seems to be a common theme in a lot of articles about the new Sedona. It's a slow selling segment, sure, but far, far from dead.

Do we really need every car company to load up on a sliding door bandwagon like they did in the 90's? Hell no. What did forced production result in anyway? The dustbuster vans of GM in the early 90's and the Uplander are the shoddy bookmarks of a production run that saw vans rushed to market too early and kept around too long in the end.

Not every company makes a pickup truck, not every company makes a 400 horsepower V8 sports car, and not every company even makes a compact 4-cylinder wagon, and those segments survive, don't they? All it takes is a few car companies with solid products and the guts to stay in a niche segment (rather than focus on yet another bland volume-selling midsize sedan) to keep it going.

Chrysler, the pioneers of the modern minivan, have the sixth generation Caravan on in the early concept stage and set for a 2016 model year release. Despite lacking in engineering under the hood, their Swiss Army knife style interiors are a good reason why no other American car company could compete in recent years. And American minivan buyers aren't usually the type to get into the sort of vehicle handling dynamics that are discussed on Top Gear anyway. They're more interested in fitting the cooler and grill and 3 kids into the back and going to a NASCAR tailgate, and this van is the gold standard for someone who considers that sort of weekend when buying.

The new Sedona has the rock-solid basic reliability of Hyundai's engineering and cost-cutting of Hyundai's logistics empire joining the stylish design and upbeat marketing of its Kia division. Now we really need a grown-up hamster family with polo shirts and hamster kids in a commercial! What a great way to sell minivans to growing families who haven't completely given up hope of being cool. I hope it comes in the Soul's lime green and has the color-changing speakers, too. Pretty sure I'd have to buy one if it did.

Toyota is the blue chip of the automotive world, and while often bland as plain white bread you just can't go wrong buying one, so the Sienna is always going to be a solid choice for the crowd that picks cars by Consumer Reports charts and accounting tables.

The Honda Odyssey is a bit more stylish and interesting than the Sienna, but not by a whole ton. But that's just in the showroom stock versions. There are a couple of Odysseys at my son's school with custom rims, and Top Gear's U.S. version had a 1,000 horsepower Bisimoto Odyssey on recently, so if you've got kids and JDM tuner cars are your style, you could have a bit of fun with an Odyssey and still keep it practical. Intake, wheels, the back end of the exhaust, dress up the engine bay, none of those things should ruin a child's trip to band practice.

Then there's the quirky Quest, Nissan's entry in the market. The past generation (still available on used car lots!) was a big curvy sliding-door sports car, but this newer boxier version is definitely the style standout at the mall. I would imagine that anyone who has the need for a larger vehicle and has a working knowledge of fashion magazines and Lululemon pants would be happiest in the new Quest.

And that's really all we need. One for the ready-for-anything Boy Scout camper families, one for price-conscious and fun young families, one for the accountant, one for someone not quite ready to let their teenage tuner car go, and one for the style conscious suburban shopper. Not a lot of overlap, really, and that keeps each sub-niche well taken care of.

But as automotive segments blend together a bit nowadays, without as clearly defined lines between as there used to be, there are still two vehicles worth mentioning here:

If a Caravan is a minivan, Mazda's 5 is a microvan. Two seats wide and compact car sized, the 5 comes with a high roof, manual sliding doors, a third row of seats, and a recommendation from the Crittenden-Walczak family.

While other traditional sliding-door minivans try to look more like SUVs and crossover SUVs don't quite measure up to minivan size inside, the Ford Flex bridges this gap with a squared front end, swing-out doors, and minivan interior space. 95% of the minivan with 5% of the soccer mom stigma, and the perfect example of how the sliding door defines the minivan segment and the Flex's lack of one shows that a lot of the market still wants all of the minivan's features without actually calling their vehicle a minivan (my wife among them, for example), much the same way station wagons are popular vehicles nowadays as long as you call them anything other than "station wagons."

It seems that while they're not rolling off the dealership lots in bulk, the demise of the minivan has been greatly exaggerated.

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