Minivan Love: Don't Be Surprised To See Them Rockin'

Chrysler and Toyota making vans cool. Ford and VW showing new van love.

One of the most surprising statistics to cross my desk in the last few years is that almost half of Honda Odyssey buyers have no kids. They are so-called empty nesters, which means the kids have grown up and left home. Huh?

And instead of using the opportunity to go out and buy a MINI Cooper or Mercedes-Benz coupe -- the kinds of cars that discourage people from wanting to join you in the backseat -- they re-up with another Odyssey, only a new one without the stench of milk spilled when George Bush was still in the White House, or barf that never really came out of the carpet.

It's because there is a lifestyle connected to minivan ownership. As baby boomers age, they like the ride height of minivans. And just because there is an AARP card in their wallet doesn't mean aging boomers have stopped hauling things home from Home Depot or sold off their bicycles on Craigslist.

Fifty and Sixty-somethings are more active than their parents by a long-shot. And they need, and want, a ride that can handle the bikes and the mulch, as well as, eventually, the grandkids.

Chrysler and Toyota have seen this trend as well. Indeed, Chrysler is running an ad for its redesigned Dodge Caravan minivan that shows a single man sitting in a minivan at a Chrysler showroom seriously considering all the advantages to minivan ownership, and thinking it might be the thing that moves him to actually have kids.

View Gallery: The Minivan Is Cool Again

"We have re-tuned our minivans to be much better driving experiences for everyone, but especially for men who have always been the obstacle to minivan purchase," said Chrysler design chief Ralph Gilles. "The minivan is a very misunderstood vehicle because what you drive is important, but what also makes you cool is what you can bring to the party...and you can haul a lot in a minivan."

Dodge is now offering an R/T (performance) version of its Grand Caravan to try and lure a few extra men to the brand. The red van is powered by a 3.6-liter engine delivering a best-in-class 283 horsepower and 260 lb/ft of torque. The trim package includes black leather seats with red stitching, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, a premium sound system and a performance-tuned suspension that makes it tough to beat in this category for ride and handling.

Dodge could be reacting a bit to Toyota, which should be credited with kicking off a bit of a competition among auto companies over who has the coolest minivan. In spring of last year, the company launched a campaign for its redesigned Sienna minivan featuring a husband and wife given to rapping about their "Swagger Wagon" around their suburban neighborhood. Ads and videos featuring the couple have registered some 8 million views.

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The minivan market has really become a three horse race among Chrysler, Honda and Toyota, which have 46%, 23% and 23% of the market respectively. Kia markets a minivan called the Sedona. Nissan is out with a new design of its Quest minivan. And Volkswagen markets the Routan. But they have just 8% of the market among them.

There is an interesting dynamic that has made minivans more expensive than ever before. Empty nesters have a lot of disposable income and though they have opted to buy another minivan, they want all the creature comforts and the latest gadgets. A Chrysler Town & Country, Honda Odyssey or Toyota Sienna with Bluetooth capability, navigation and a back-up camera will all run buyers around $35,000 or more. Fully optioned, going over a $40,000 sticker is quite easy.

And a certain percentage of couples with kids will be drawn to minivans for their overwhelming practicality. Besides the sliding door issue making getting kids out of car-seats a huge plus, minivans get steady work hauling their kids, plus from the neighborhood, to soccer and hockey practice, as well as field-trips at schools that don't use a bus.

The Kia Sedona's role in the market seems to be to cover the more budget-minded family, with a fully loaded van topping out around $30,000.

It's noteworthy that Ford and GM, two of the biggest automakers in the world, abandon the minivan market in the U.S. GM pursues would-be minivan buyers with its full-sized crossover SUVs: Buick Enclave, Chevy Traverse and GMC Acadia. While those vehicles have found their audiences, they lack one of the design features families love best about a minivan and hate to do without-the sliding side doors. Without a sliding door, getting kids out of car-seats in a crowded parking lot is a terrible adventure for many parents. But GM's last minivans sold so poorly, and were so inferior in design to Chrysler, Honda and Toyota that the company threw in the towel.

Ford and VW Getting Back Into Vans

It's hard to believe that Ford, with its rich and storied history as a maker of family cars wouldn't be in the minivan segment, but it's true. Ford's Windstar, and then Freestar, were such sorry also-rans in the minivan category that the company dropped it in 2006 from its showrooms and focused on what it feels it does best-SUVs like Explorer and Expedition.

But Ford, it turns out, can't stay away. This Fall, it will introduce the Grand C-Max to the U.S. It is a van that Ford sells in Europe, seats seven passengers and is widely expected to be priced a bit below the entries from Toyota and Honda. It is also a bit smaller than those models. Ford is hoping it finds a market for a smaller, more fuel efficient minivan for families, popular in Europe, with just one, two or three kids.

Chrysler, too, is expected next year to introduce a small van, sometimes called a "micro-van," to either the Dodge or Chrysler brand, while selling today's full-size minivan at one brand. That means either the Dodge Caravan or Chrysler Town & Country will go away. Italian automaker Fiat, which is relaunching its brand in the U.S. this year, is also expected to add a small van to its showrooms by the end of next year. Fiat owns a minority stake in Chrysler now, and is expected to own a majority of the automaker by next year.

Chrysler likes to think that it invented the minivan segment back in the early 1980s. But there is much dispute about this, especially among fans of the Volkswagen Microbus of the 1960s and 70s. Volkswagen has been reminding fans of this since last Fall when it debuted a redesign of the van, also known as the Kombi. The van, which is at the Volkswagen stand at The New York Auto Show this week, is only in "concept" form. Called the "Bulli," VW executives say the project is not green-lighted yet. Different than the original, and from current minivans (including the slow-selling VW Routan, which is a Chrysler Town & Country that VW badges with its logo), the Bulli looks like it would only seat four comfortably, with room behind the rear seats for gear or groceries. This small van could work for some families. Mazda has had success with a small van, the Mazda5, which seats five or six people, and has the benefit of a side sliding door.

Seeing as how the Bulli is on the show-stand a few yards away from the all new Volkswagen Beetle, though, it's hard to believe the company will not produce it for U.S. consumers with a growing yen for vans of all sizes.

View Gallery: The Minivan Is Cool Again

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