Explainer: 2011: The year of the reborn minivan
The minivan has been alternately pronounced dead and revived repeatedly as various alternatives have debuted and departed. But the van chugs onward, unassailable in its position as the best vehicle for transporting the maximum number of people in the least amount of space and with the least amount of fuel.
Minivans are easier to park than long-snouted crossover SUVs, they have more fight-reducing elbow room inside and their sliding doors mean that the young’uns don’t inflict insurance claims on adjacent cars every time they climb in or out of the van.
Whether 2011 marks a renaissance for minivans or just the recognition that this is a critical segment that isn’t going to be displaced, carmakers clearly agree on one thing: They need fresh products because every minivan currently on the market will be replaced during the 2011 model year, or in calendar year 2011.
Indeed, Americans bought more than 460,000 minivans last year, and with appealing all-new choices, 2011 should attract even more minivan adherents.
Here’s a list of new minivans for 2011.
Chrysler Town & Country
When Chrysler Chairman and CEO Lee Iacocca conceived of a “leather minivan” for the 1989 model year, the Town & Country was his notion that just because a box on wheels is practical doesn’t mean it can’t also be comfortable and luxurious. Now that model is more feature-packed than ever. Leather doesn’t set a van apart from the rest anymore, so the 2011 Town & Country has standard rear back-up camera, blind spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert to minimize the chance for “I didn’t see it” accidents. The 2011 Town & Country should be well-received, as the 2010 model was already America’s top-selling minivan, accounting for a quarter of all minivan sales.
Dodge Grand Caravan
The Dodge Caravan was the minivan that launched the minivan segment (along with the Plymouth Voyager) in 1984. As vans in the class grew not-so-mini, so did the Caravan’s name as it became the Grand Caravan. The Grand Caravan is Dodge’s version of the same vehicle as the Town & Country, and it aims to be less expensive, with less standard equipment, while offering a hint of sportiness (presumably just in case you need to race to the local Target for another box of Pampers). Key is the new 283-hp Pentastar engine, giving Dodge (and Chrysler) van drivers Hemi-style bragging rights for the most power. Cue Tim Allen.
Minivans have become maxi-vans, leaving a potential opportunity for smaller vans. Mazda has been in this space with its Mazda5 for several years, but a large brand like Ford could legitimize this so-far marginal van sub-segment. Ford terms the C-Max a 5+2 seater, recognizing that the third row is suitable for car-pooling teammates on their way to soccer practice, but is also probably not ideal for adults on long drives. Segment exclusive gadget: a sensor that lets a person carrying the van’s key to wave a leg under the back bumper to open the hatch, saving them from fumbling for keys while carrying groceries. Ford has announced plans for hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions of the C-Max for 2012, making it potentially the most fuel-thrifty family hauler.
Honda destroyed the myth that “minivan” equals “Chrysler” when its innovative Odyssey van set new standards for convenience features and garnered large sales. Until the Odyssey, competitors blamed the weak sales of their poor products on customers’ reflexive purchases of Chrysler vans, but Honda proved that consumers just want practical features. The new-for-2011 Odyssey proposes that consumers want a sleek, stylish minivan. It remains to be seen whether shoppers will be attracted by the styling, or whether they will continue to look past exterior appearances and concentrate on interior features. The rear seat video screen is so wide that its can show two different episodes of Dora the Explorer (or any other video content) simultaneously, side-by-side on the screen.
Kia KV7 concept
Kia is the only minivan maker that doesn’t have a fresh family hauler headed to showrooms in coming months, if not there already. But lest anyone think that the aggressive Korean upstart is satisfied with being left behind in the face of new competition, Kia unveiled the KV7 concept at the Detroit auto show, previewing the styling for its next generation Sedona. Of course, the Sedona won’t actually have the KV7 concept’s outlandish gull wing doors, but auto show concepts are supposed to be outrageous. Just don’t expect your kids to be able to disembark from the van’s back seat like Marty McFly climbing from his time-traveling DeLorean.
People movers are smaller in Japan, but Mazda thought its best solution to replacing its old MPV minivan was to “hit ‘em where they ain’t” by importing a smaller Japanese-market model with no direct competitor in the U.S. market. The six-seat Mazda5 retains the light weight and simplicity of manual sliding side doors that are so carefully designed that they close with the push of one finger. The 2012 iteration carries expressive new styling too. And this van’s claim to fame? Enthusiast drivers can buy one with a manual transmission if they want. Zoom zoom.
Nissan has followed its own path in the minivan segment, admirably and unsuccessfully, as family van buyers didn’t buy into the Quest’s quirks. For 2011, Nissan has punted that strategy, introducing a thoroughly conventional and completely equipped contender that should easily gain the attention of Odyssey and Sienna intenders rather than scaring them off. Available dual sliding glass moonroofs allow more light and air into the van’s interior depths than is normally the case, while still permitting space for the overhead video screen.
Toyota saw Honda’s success in challenging Chrysler directly with a full-sized contender and followed up with a bigger Sienna that was an instant hit. The 2011 Sienna continues that path with available eight-passenger seating and the only available four-cylinder engine among full-size minivans. Unfortunately, there is only a slight fuel economy benefit from the smaller engine, but it could be a step in the right direction. And the Sienna is the sole all-wheel-drive minivan on the market, making it a viable alternative to a crossover SUV for customers concerned about all-weather security.
The truth is that Chrysler did not invent the minivan; Volkswagen did, way back in the 1950s. The old Beetle-based microbus was the first minivan, but the company let that legacy wither away over the decades. VW still makes vans in Germany, but they are too expensive to be competitive in the price-sensitive U.S. market. So instead the automaker sells its own version of Chrysler’s minivan, branding it the Routan. So far sales have been tepid, but a refreshed version of the van (not yet revealed) featuring the improvements seen in the new Chrysler vans should make the Routan more appealing to U.S. car buyers.
Ford’s Flex gets an honorary mention here. It’s almost a van, and derived from the Fairlane concept, which like the Kia KV7 debuted wearing impractically designed rear doors. In the Fairlane’s case, they were rear-hinged “suicide” doors rather than Kia’s top-hinged gullwings. Regardless, they didn’t make it to production on the Flex. Ford considered proper sliding doors to make the Flex a minivan, but consumer clinics revealed such a strong customer aversion to minivans that Ford estimated it could sell triple the number of Flexes if the vehicle were equipped with SUV-style hinged rear doors, according to Ford styling chief J Mays. But in 2010 Chrysler sold three times as many Town & Country minivans and three times as many Grand Caravan minivans as Ford sold Flexes. Maybe if it had suburban-chic sliding doors Ford would sell more of them.
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Video: Minivans: The new hot wheels for parents?
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