What do people want from a family car? Do they want something completely practical or do they want something that can also be fun? And just how much more fun do they really want it?
Getting the mix right isn't as easy as one might think. Just ask the folks at Nissan Motor (NSANY). When the company put its overhauled Quest minivan on sale last July, the car's mission was clear: to stand out from its competitors by offering racier styling and becoming the first so-called "sexy" minivan ever sold.
Of course, people buy minivans for utilitarian reasons. If they want a sexy car, they don't buy a minivan. Unfortunately for Nissan, the new Quest's sales have been abysmal. In the United States, Nissan dealt 4,501 Quests in May and 21,151 from Jan. 1 through May 31. In comparison to its fellow Japanese rivals, the Quest matched only 27 percent of Honda Motor's (HMC) Odyssey minivan sales in May, and only 29 percent of Toyota Motor's (TM) Sienna minivan sales in the first five months of 2004.
The Quest features an unconventional exterior design, and four skylights cap an interior that has what Nissan calls an "urban loft" theme. There's nothing wrong with the van per se, except that it doesn't appear to be what the minivan market wants.
Red hot wagons
While sexy minivans may not have much of a place on the road, the same is not true for wagons and sport utilities. The Porsche Cayenne sport-utility vehicle, for example, is not only a formidable performance machine, but also a runaway success. It has helped Porsche's sales increase despite the fact that sales of the company's sports cars, the Boxster and 911, have been on the slide.
What's really surprising, though, is the large variety of hot rod wagons that have suddenly appeared, such as DaimlerChrysler's (DCX) Dodge Magnum, Volkswagen's Audi S4 and Ford Motor's (F) Volvo V70 R. Apparently, enough time has passed since station wagons were associated with wood paneling and suburban moms for society to accept them as body styles that can be fun, not just useful. Expect to see more stylish wagons on the road as high gas prices and changing social conventions could hobble America's demand for SUVs — a demand that once seemed limitless.
For this list, we looked at the sexier side of minivans, SUVs and wagons. Sedans are not included for two reasons: For one thing, the bigger body styles are the true American family cars, as most American families require more cargo room than passenger cars will afford them. Also, while fun, sexy wagons and SUVs are available, they are the exception to the rule. We chose to focus on these kinds of vehicles instead of pitting them against the best sedans in order to avoid giving an unfair advantage to sedans. The Dodge Magnum is truly amazing, but how could we possibly compare it to a Rolls-Royce Phantom or a Jaguar XJR?
That said, take a look at the hottest family cars out there — just don't expect to see more than one minivan.
For our purposes, base prices are expressed as manufacturers' suggested retail prices plus destination charges.