Image: Lincoln Navigator
Lincoln
The Lincoln Navigator is an attractive minivan alternative.
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updated 11/27/2007 3:31:59 PM ET 2007-11-27T20:31:59

Minivans can’t shake their frumpy image. Sales have declined nearly 32 percent over the past five years, with an especially precipitous drop (22 percent) through Sept. compared to the same period last year, according to CNW Marketing Research.

Ford and General Motors have abandoned the minivan altogether. Like most manufacturers — even the ones that still sell minivans — they’re focusing instead on a fast-growing new segment called crossover utility vehicles, which blend elements from cars, SUVs, and minivans.

Although there’s still nothing as practical for hauling people and cargo as a minivan, with some compromises, crossovers and traditional SUVs can be attractive alternatives.

Now more than ever, the SUV is replacing the minivan. “A third of new SUV owners are coming from minivans,” says Art Spinella, president of CNW Market Research in Bandon, Ore. “They’re looking for versatility, not so much in number of passengers, but towing and load capacity. Minivans don’t tow well.”

Because they evolved from pickup trucks, traditional SUVs usually have heavy-duty capabilities with the size and styling to match. But this ruggedness comes at the expense of on-road comfort and handling.

Minivans are built on car-based, front-wheel drive platforms, which not only create a much smoother ride, but also allow for pushing the axles to the ends of the vehicle to create a low, flat floor and maximize interior space.

By contrast, the beefy frames on truck-based SUVs limit interior space and layout. That’s why the gargantuan GMC Yukon Denali XL on our list of Ten Minivan Alternatives is 20 inches longer on the outside than the Chrysler Town & Country minivan, yet has 7 cubic feet less cargo capacity behind the front seats.

Full-size SUVs like the GMC Yukon Denali XL and Lincoln Navigator, also on our list of minivan alternatives, are often the only vehicles capable of even approaching minivans in terms of raw cargo room.

For those who don’t need heavy-duty towing/hauling capabilities and won’t miss the ultimate cargo capacity, one of the new breed of crossover utility vehicles might make for a better minivan alternative.

Crossovers share the car-based engineering of minivans and thus overcome many of the disadvantages of traditional SUVs. Yet they retain the SUVs’ cool factor and have more contemporary exterior designs. Most midsize and full-size crossovers now offer a third row of seats and strike a balance among handling, cargo room, and towing capacity. “We do see owners coming out of minivans to the MDX,” says Honda PR manager Chuck Schifsky, “even from [Honda] Odysseys, that’s not uncommon.”

GM has launched a trio of full-size crossovers that take the place of minivans in the Buick, GMC, and Saturn lineups. “We’re seeing an influx of Chrysler Town & Country owners turning in their vehicle for a Buick Enclave because it can seat seven or eight passengers, has three rows of comfortable seating, and is very flexible,” says Buick spokesman Dave Darovitz, referring to Buick’s new crossover. “The Enclave’s design, compared to a traditional minivan, speaks for itself.”

The minivan’s decline is not spurring a wagon revival. As traditional family cars of the pre-minivan era, station wagons have suffered a fate similar to what the minivan is now going through.

Still popular in Europe and Asia, some foreign car companies continue to sell a token number of wagons in the U.S. But most Americans buy wagons as style statements rather than for their versatility, says CNW’s Spinella.

Even though station wagons haven’t held a large market share in the U.S., they’ve retained a tight grip on their small audience with stable sales over the past five years, according to J.D. Power and Associates.

Our list of ten minivan alternatives (see the “slide show” link above) doesn’t include wagons for one simple reason: they simply can’t seat more than five occupants. Here are some parameters we used to arrive at our varied list of vehicles:

  • Three rows of seats to accommodate at least six occupants.
  • A minimum cargo volume of 70 cubic feet, representing about half of the cargo space of a minivan but up to five times that of a typical midsize sedan.
  • Flexible interior arrangements with fold-flat or removable seats so the vehicle can carry different arrangements of passengers and cargo.
  • Second- and third-row comfort, convenience, and entertainment options beyond what is expected in a traditional automobile.
  • State-of-the-art safety features including, but not limited to, side curtain air bags for all passengers.
  • Variety in terms of brands, body style, and size (SUVs versus crossovers).
  • In keeping with ForbesAutos’ focus on luxury vehicles, we narrowed down the list by excluding those that cost less than $30,000.

© 2007 ForbesAutos.com

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