Minivans are indispensable to many a suburban family. But who gets the credit for inventing what Pulitzer Prize author Paul Ingrassia calls "one of the 15 most influential vehicles in automotive history"?
There is much dispute. When Chrysler introduced it's Dodge Caravan in 1984, the popularity of the vehicle cemented the demise of the station-wagon, which had been the car of choice for baseball, soccer and hockey Moms throughout the 1950's 60s and 70s. The rise of the SUV in the 90s really iced the "family wagon."
There is a lore that Chrysler '"invented" the minivan. It may have been the first to popularize the term in the U.S. but the actual vehicle design is much older than the Lee-Iacocca-led Dodge Caravan.
Check out the the evolution of the minivan here, from a few you may have never heard of, or forgotten about starting back to the 1940s, all the way up to a couple of today's leaders and their current best-deal prices. And see if you can come to a conclusion on who should get the credit. Chrysler? Volkswagen? Renault? Or maybe even an obscure German automaker you have probably never heard of?
The Schnellaster was manufactured from 1949 to 1962 by DKW, a German automaker that ceased making vehicles in 1966. A small one-box design featuring its front wheels set forward of the passenger cabin, with a short and sloping aerodynamic hood, this early design was front-wheel-drive and had a flat load floor ideal for rearranging the flexible seating.
This design clearly influenced the Volkswagen Type 2, which would come later, as well as the Reanult Espace in Europe.
Fiat 600 Multipla
Fiat in 1956 launched the Multipla off of its existing 600 model. Like the Schnellaster, and the VW Microbus Type 2, the driver and passenger are sitting in front of the front axle, a design feature that would later become known for mashing the front-seat passengers in a front-end collision.
This car was not sold in the U.S. Fiat is back in the U.S. now as owner of Chrysler, and it has re-introduced the Italian Fiat brand with the 500 mini-car. Look at today's Fiat 500, and you can actually see some design cues in it that look like part of the same family as this "minivan" from the 1950s.
Volkswagen Type 2 "Microbus"
This iconic van--virtually synonymous with the 1960s hippie revolution, Grateful Dead concerts and the rise of smoking pot--the Type 2 was designed as a straight-forward commercial vehicle, as well as a van that could carry families and gear.
Go to a classic Volkswagen meet this summer, and you will probably see quite a collection of fabulously and lovingly restored Type 2's with all sorts of custom accessories--kitchens, camping canopies, plaid upholstery, curtains, etc. Many non-VW aficionados are surprised to learn that the Type 2 was built on the same chassis as the original VW Beetle and employed the same engine.
Around 2000, Volkswagen flirted with a concept van meant to bring back the Microbus. It was fun looking, but ultimately too expensive to produce and sell against far less expensive U.S. and Asian minivans. More recently, VW has shown a new concept vehicle at auto shows that would be a "micro-van" reminder of the Microbus that seats just five people.
Lloyd was a German automaker that dates back to the first decade of the twentieth century. The Bremen, Germany-based company produced the fun looking LT500 between 1953 and 1957. A six seater minivan version was offered starting in April 1954.
Powered by a two-stroke engine, the vehicle was replaced by the Lloyd LT600 which was built between 1955 and 1961, and which featured a slightly larger, modern four-stroke engine. The company went out of business in 1961, but not before its "minivan" design inspired other designers.
The Espace's design is said to have been originally conceived in the 1970s by a British designer, Fergus Pollock, who was working for Chrysler's U.K. division at the time. In 1978, when Chrysler was struggling financially and raising funds, it sold its U.K. business to French automaker Peugeot Citroen. The van design was given to French design house Matra that had had an affiliation with Chrysler. Matra then took the design to Renault, and the result was the Espace, introduced the same year as the first Chrysler minivan.
The first Dodge Caravan was smaller than today's model, reminding many of both the VW Microbus or even a larger, taller station-wagon. The vans came equipped for seven passengers in three rows of seats. The second and third rows of seats could be removed via a latch system, making the van attractive to both families and commercial businesses.
The Caravan could be optioned with either a three-speed automatic transmission, or a manual. The manuals are collectible today if they vans are in good shape.
One of the very popular body styles for the Chrysler van was to order it with "woody" body panels.
Chrysler is on the sixth design of the minivan. Current owner Fiat says it is deciding which one, The Caravan or the Chrysler Town & Country, to continue with, as it doesn't intend to keep selling two versions of the same van.
GM was late to the minivan market and launched three for the 1990 model year. They were the Chevrolet Lumina APV, Oldsmobile Silhouette and Pontiac Trans Sport. The minivans were front-wheel-drive and characterized by plastic body panels that could absorb the blows from wayward shopping carts and its "dust-buster" profile.
The GM minivans were often derided by journalists and the public for the long front-end snout and sloppy handling.
1995 Honda Odyssey
In 1995 Honda introduced the Odyssey, based on the Honda Accord platform, with swing-out doors and roll-down second-row windows. The big innovation was a rear-seat that folded into the floor. Honda was inspired by the station-wagons in the U.S. that had a third-row of seats that folded away into the floor, and had the children who typically sat back there facing rearward. In the Odyssey, passengers sat front-facing.
Honda is credited with popularizing the fold-away third row in the minivan category. Chrysler would later one-up Honda by having both the second row and third row of seats fold away into the floor so that the seats did not have to removed and stored when not in use.
MSRP: $28,675 - $44,025
Fuel Economy: 18 mpg city, 27 mpg highway
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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Dodge Grand Caravan
MSRP: $19,995 - $29,995
Fuel Economy: 17 mpg city, 25 mpg highway
The Grand Caravan's most important feature, both from a usability stand-point and competitive stand-point, is that it is available with Stow'n Go seats. The second and third row seats can be folded into the floor. No more fumbling to release and remove awkward heavy seats and then trying to find a suitable place to store them.
A 3.6-liter V6 sends power through a six-speed automatic transmission to the front wheels. All trims come equipped with a tilt and telescoping steering column, remote keyless entry and a tire pressure monitor. Standard safety features include traction control, stability control and antilock brakes with brake assist.
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Chrysler Town & Country
MSRP: $30,620 - $41,145
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.Research the Chrysler Town & Country.
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MSRP: $26,585 - $41,475
Fuel Economy: 18 mpg city, 25 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 - $42,640
Fuel Economy: 19 mpg city, 25 mpg highway
"While minivans remain one of the most maligned symbols of adulthood, where some see them as a surrendering of youth and fun, Nissan sees the minivan as a celebration of family life," says Al Castignetti, vice president of Nissan North America.
In celebrating that, Nissan has come up with a vehicle that stands out among the family-oriented segment – a "fluid sculpture" body to the Quest, which was most recently overhauled in 2011. Depending on your perspective, it's a bold step in the right direction or a little too much of a breakaway from type.
Starting at $27,750, it can be more expensive than some of its competitors and it offers less flexibility in seat arrangements. Still, it's got a 3.5-liter, V6 engine with 260 horsepower and 240 pound-feet of torque available.
With all the engine and fuel economy specs in line with its competition, the Quest gives drivers concerned with exterior appearance a chance to stand out from the minivan pack.
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