LARRY P. VELLEQUETTE

Minivans: So practical, so maligned

COMMENTARY
Larry P. Vellequette is a staff reporter for Automotive News
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Here's an exercise: Think of the most practical product you own, something you use every day.

Maybe it's a pen you keep in your pocket, or a garment, a briefcase, a handbag -- whatever.

Do you like it? Probably, or you'd switch to an alternative. Is it stylish? Maybe, but it doesn't have to be in order to be practical. Yet, because of the parameters of this exercise, the item you chose is something that when you need it would be hard to live without.

You now understand the conundrum of the minivan -- simultaneously one of the most practical yet wrongly maligned vehicles on the road today -- and the challenge facing Chrysler Group as it redesigns its minivan for a new generation of drivers.

If all vehicles represent compromises to necessity, I would argue that minivans are the least compromised of any segment. They comfortably and safely haul people or cargo, and they do so very efficiently compared with large crossovers, SUVs and pickups.

Minivans provide nearly unparalleled interior creature comforts and access within the cabin and superior visibility for the driver, and they are relatively safe compared with similar vehicles. Their biggest weakness -- even a "mini" van is exceedingly large as a one-person commuter -- is shared with every other vehicle that could be described as a people-hauler.

Yet so many people view minivans the way they would a socially awkward class valedictorian -- a best friend when you need help with your chemistry project, an embarrassing social pariah when you don't.

I see this dichotomy play out on several fronts in my own extended family.

One family member with multiple kids would rather drive an SUV that gets 13 mpg for her yearly 35,000-mile drive than suffer the indignity of owning a minivan.

My sister, on the other hand, is the mother of four adult children and a true believer who just bought her latest in a long line of minivans. Yet her children, now with their own toddlers, would stuff their kids in a Yugo before they would own a minivan.

Funny and telling side note: They're more than happy to borrow my sister's Chrysler Town & Country when it's time to go on a long trip.

It was 30 years ago that Chrysler created the minivan segment from whole cloth.

The automaker is beginning to tool up for its next-generation design, due in 2016, according to the five-year plan it presented in May.

I won't try to predict whether Chrysler's next minivan will be able to persuade a new generation of potential buyers to choose function over form. Or whether equally useful vehicles such as the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna will live as long in the segment Chrysler created in 1984.

All I know is that family road trips would be a lot less enjoyable if there were no minivans available to enjoy them in -- even for those folks who feel embarrassed to be behind the wheel of one of the most practical vehicles on the planet.

You can reach Larry P. Vellequette at lvellequette@crain.com.


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