In the fall of 1983, Lee Iacocca and an associate named Hal Sperlich staked much of Chrysler Corporation's then-precarious financial condition on a bet-the-house wager. They gambled that the category known as vans could be transformed from business truck or traveling passion pit into a sedan-hatchback-station wagon they called "a garageable van," with the potential to become the most popular transportation for America's families.

Prior to heading Chrysler, Iacocca had been a legendary exec at Ford, the man behind the original Mustang, Mercury Cougar and Lincoln Continental Mk III. However, some of his other ideas, including an early minivan concept called the MiniMax, got him nowhere with his boss Henry Ford II, and Iacocca was fired from Ford.

In Pictures: 2007 Safest Minivans

Meanwhile, Sperlich, Iacocca's associate directly responsible for the MiniMax project, had been fired a few months before Iacocca and was waiting for him already at Chrysler, which was badly in need of best-sellers.

It turned out their gamble was an absolute sure thing. Twenty-four years later, one in every 15 vehicles sold -- 18 million-plus to date -- is a minivan. Chrysler expects that figure to remain stable or possibly even grow based on forecasts for minivan demand from the aging baby boomer segment and the Gen Y group, plus data that shows family sizes slightly increasing.

In addition to its popularity due to its flexibility, versatility, social acceptance and value, the minivan soon developed a reputation for being one of the safest vehicles on the road. This factor was/is at or near the top of vehicle shopping list requirements for both the genetic parents of the nation's young and also those drivers who participate in the nation's child-rearing, including schools, clubs and sports teams.

So popular did the genre become, so valued for universal applicability to family needs and activities, that a new housing tract might have seven out of 10 driveways in a block occupied with minivans of various hues and makes.

Eventually, social critics began satirizing the minivan motorists as "soccer moms," a semi-denigrating term rapidly popularized by many ex-minivan moms who had switched to SUVs in what turned out to be a lateral move for individuality.

Not only did the former soccer moms who went to SUVs trade membership in one mass group for another, but in so doing they gave up a measurable amount of inbuilt vehicle safety in the switchover, since SUVs had more than 67 driver deaths per million vehicles compared with an average of 52 per million for minivans in a Insurance Institute for Highway Safety status report issued in April.

Russ Rader of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said, "The minivan is a good choice for safety ... they typically have low death rates in real-world crashes partly because contrary to the word 'minivan,' they're typically large and heavy. Size and weight are important safety considerations because bigger is usually better."

This is borne out by the Insurance Institute's report covering overall driver death rates by size and body style groups. Covering 2001-2004 year models during the years 2002-2005, it showed that whereas mini four-door cars show an overall death rate of 148 per million registered vehicles, large minivans such as the Mazda MPV or short wheelbase Dodge Caravan have a fatality rate of 66 per million and very large minivans, such as the Honda Odyssey or the Chrysler Town & Country show a death toll of 39 per million.

This latter number is the lowest death rate for vehicles of all sizes and weights in the report, except for midsize and very large luxury cars, which come in quite close to very large minivans at 33 and 34 deaths per million vehicles.

Based on continuing safety studies, the minivan in general continues to be one of the top safest vehicle categories which consumers can drive.

Examples of the continuing emphasis on minivan safety are demonstrated by the 2008 Dodge Caravan and its uptown big brother, the Chrysler Town & Country. The freshly introduced models feature all-row supplemental side-curtain air bags, electronic stability control with traction control and brake assist, a special child seat anchor system plus such innovative new safety features as a rear back-up camera, a rearview interior conversation mirror, an integrated child safety seat and a minivan-first, an integrated child booster seat.

Another proof of dedication to increased driver and passenger safety in the minivan is the Honda Odyssey's "Best Pick" rating from the Insurance Institute for results of its frontal offset crash test. Honda points out that its new models feature such safety advances as electronic stability control (which they are calling Vehicle Stability Assist with traction control), front side airbags with an occupant position detection system, dual-stage, dual-threshold driver and passenger front airbags, and side curtain airbags with rollover sensors for all three rows.

Kia's Sedona Minivan (the 2007 IIHS "Best Pick" award winner tied with the Hyundai Entourage) has a complete range of advanced safety equipment and systems. In addition to advanced airbag systems, it offers traction control and electronic stability control, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes with brake assist, electronic brake-force distribution, advanced child protection facilities, a tire-pressure monitoring system and an optional back-up warning system is available as an option on the EX.

In Pictures: 2007 Safest Minivans

With all this safety in mind, AOL Autos here lists the top 10 safest minivans as determined in separate tests by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute. The NHTSA tests measure front and side impact effects on dummies and vehicles, awarding stars (five being the highest) for the safest results, plus they conduct a rollover test. The private industry Insurance Institute tests vehicles differently. For example, instead of the NHTSA's grille-to-grille head-on crash test, the Insurance Institute For Highway Safety does its head-ons left headlight to left headlight. It also uses a 10 percent heavier crash sled, hitting a vehicle in a higher, more typical location than the NHTSA side test, and it also measures rear end impact.


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