The sedans of the 1970s were boring. The vans of the same decade were behemoths. The station wagons were, stylistically speaking, dated in the 1970s. At the dawn of a new decade, Chrysler converged all three into a vehicle that revolutionized the auto industry.
When the company introduced the minivan at the end of 1983, it had an instant success on its hands, one that helped rescue it from the brink of bankruptcy.
In his new book, “Engines of Change,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Paul Ingrassia calls the Chrysler minivan one of the 15 most influential vehicles in automotive history. That influence, though, wasn’t exclusive to Chrysler’s recovery, or the auto industry in general, for that matter.
The minivan both shaped and reflected changes in American culture.
The minivan “would help define the lifestyle of a generation, or at least the lifestyles of baby boomers who were into painting the nursery instead of painting the town,” Ingrassia writes.
“All this would signal a shift in America’s love affair with the automobile from sleek cars to tall and burly trucks, a change that would resonate with America’s restless national psyche in the last two decades of the twentieth century.”
By the end of their first full year in production, Chrysler sold 210,000 minivans. Over the course of nearly three decades, the company alone has sold more than 12 million.
Three decades later, Chrysler still leads the industry in minivan sales. But it has competitors that have copied it and even bested it in some cases. Here is our take on Chrysler's competition.
MSRP: $27,020 - $44,280
Fuel Economy: 17 mpg City, 25 mpg Highway
There’s no doubt Chrysler perfected the minivan for mainstream American consumption, but its claim to have invited the minivan has not gone undisputed.
Volkswagen introduced its Type 2 in 1950, its second car model. It was better known as a Microbus or Transporter, and perhaps unofficially, as a Hippie Hauler in America. The small-sized buses, with their rear engines and rear-wheel drive, were a hit in Europe and sold in the U.S. for 17 years. They are indeed smaller-sized people movers that paved the way for the Chrysler products.
One thing about the Microbus a lot of people don't realize is that it is built on the same chassis as the VW Beetle and had the same engine.
Rather than compete with Chrysler for the title of minivan inventor, Volkswagen partners with the company today in the minivan market. Its minivan offering, the Volkswagen Routan, is manufactured on the same line as Chrysler and Dodge products in Windsor, Ontario, and is really a re-badged version of the Chrysler minivan.
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Chrysler Town & Country
MSRP: $29,995 - $39,650
Fuel Economy: 17 mpg City / 25 mpg Highway
After inventing the minivan as we know it in the early 1980s, Chrysler was the first to attempt to add luxury to the segment in the late 1980s. It introduced the Town & Country in 1989 as a complement to its lineup that already included the Caravan and Plymouth Voyager.
The first T&C offered leather seats, door trim paneling, rear air conditioning, all of which raised the bar at the time. But perhaps the T&C’s biggest breakthrough came midway through its fourth generation car with the introduction of Stow ‘N Go seating, second and third row seats that folded into the floor with ease. It had one-upped everyone else on the crucial fold-away seating innovation.
In 2011, the Town & Country received a mid-cycle makeover that included revised styling, a standard 3.6-liter V6 engine and upgraded suspension.
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MSRP: $28,375 - $43,825
Fuel Economy: 18 mpg City, 27 mpg Highway
Honda offered its own spin on the minivan. Although the Japanese recession of the 1990s delayed its development, it became the company’s fastest-selling North American car once it hit the market. It contained innovations that helped make it an immediate contender. Honda was the first manufacturer to offer the third-row seat that folded away into the floor, and the first to conceive of a center aisle.
Today, the fourth-generation Odyssey ranks among the three best-selling vehicles in segment. The car competes directly with some of the premium options available on the Sienna Limited, offering a 12-speaker system on its Touring Elite model, voice-controlled GPS, a 16.2-inch split-screen DVD player and an HDMI input, as well as a small “cool box” for keeping beverages cold.
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MSRP: $25,060 - $40,570
Fuel Economy: 19 mpg City, 24 mpg Highway
If Volkswagen pioneered the rough sketch of the minivan and Chrysler officially invented it, then it’s probably Toyota that has polished it best. Despite the catastrophic problems that beset Toyota last year from its massive recall, the Sienna claimed best-selling honors in its segment. Chrysler and Dodge combined led in minivan sales, but Sienna was the top selling single brand in the category.
Earlier this year, J.D. Power named Sienna the most-dependable minivan.
Toyota believes the minivan market will expand by 30 percent within the next few years, and its Limited model's lounge seating comes replete with ottomans and provides a more comfortable ride than competitors. The widescreen monitors don’t hurt either. And the Sienna’s SE model gives drivers who want a more engaging ride an option, one that might just help them forget they’re actually driving a minivan.
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MSRP: 25,990 - $42,350
Fuel Economy: 19 mpg City / 24 mpg Highway
One common criticism of the entire minivan segment is that, no matter the manufacturer, all minivans pretty much look the same. An exception to that rule may be the Nissan Quest. Although its roots started two decades ago with a collaboration with Ford, which badged the vehicle as the Mercury Villager, the current Nissan model, which it designed on its own, looks like a minivan in the front and a full-size van in its back half.
It currently shares a platform with the automaker’s Altima and Murano models. Although it can be more expensive than many competitors, the Quest offers a 3.5-liter V6 engine and interior upgrades that put it on par with its competitors. It does not, however, have the fold-away seating innovations of the others.
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