Meet Jessica, who seems to be leading a fairly lonely life as a minivan mom in love with her Toyota Sienna.
Jessica (not her real name for privacy reasons, but a real person nonetheless) is a working mom with the means to drive almost any car she wants. In fact, her group of moms in an upscale Toronto neighbourhood drive around in Audi Q7s, Mercedes-Benz MLs and Land Rover Range Rovers, though she's not interested in the slightest.
Jessica is a rarity in the 'hood, a minivan devotee and, more specifically, a Sienna diehard. Not the cheapo base model, either; her minivan has all the bells and whistles, including a DVD entertainment system, a navigation system, leather upholstery - the works.
Four minivans for 2011
"But I do have a few comments on how to improve even a minivan as perfect as mine," she says. "Perhaps the designers might want to stop in at the local spinning class and listen in on the yummy-mummy insights for lessons on how to improve their brand."
Among other things, she'd like as many entertainment system headphones as there are seats for kids. That's five, two buckets in the second row and a pop-up bench in back. A $50,000 minivan should come properly equipped, she argues.
Another thing: Toyota's Roadside Assistance program could be more useful and responsive. In a recent incident, when Jessica called for help to boost a dead battery, the tow truck driver refused to drive down the cottage road, arguing the snow was too deep and he'd get stuck. Thank goodness her salesman at the Toyota dealership came over to give me a jump. He didn't get stuck.
Sunglass holders would be useful and a proper 110-volt plug-in up front for various high-tech doo-dads would be a good idea, too, she says. (The plug in the rear works for kids, but what of moms?)
Jessica's plight begs a very basic question: Why do auto makers continue to miss the minivan target? Why do minivan moms have so much trouble getting their points across? Why do car companies still get a poor grade in the minivan category, even after nearly three decades.
This is not a small, irrelevant category of vehicles. Slightly more than 550,000 minivans were purchased in a mediocre combined Canadian and U.S. market last year - about 86,000 of them in Canada, alone. Minivans accounted for 5.5 per cent of all Canadian new-vehicle sales last year, with the Dodge Caravan dominating as the country's best seller at 55,306, according to DesRosiers Automotive Consultants.
There is room for improvement, however. Lots of room. More than 1.2 million were sold annually just a few years ago in Canada and the United States. Moms like Jessica argue that it's long past the time for auto makers to again take minivan buyers seriously and to make them happy.
Jessica and her shrinking minivan clan wonder why car makers keep making minivans that owners can't wait to graduate out of when the kids get old enough. Could it be that women aren't properly and fairly represented in the auto industry - especially in key engineering and design roles?
Perhaps so. Not a single car company has a woman in charge of its design department, and only here and there are women sprinkled about in the most senior product development jobs. Ford's Barb Samardzich, for instance, is the auto maker's vice-president for global product programs. She's the exception in product development, not the rule.
Thus, this latest minivan revolution now under way is being managed by men. Ford is launching a C-Max compact minivan, with men in charge. Updated versions of the standard-sized Chrysler Town & Country, Mazda5, Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna minivans are just on the market, and in each case men oversaw all the development and design work.
It is probably sexist but also quite true to suggest that men are probably not in the same mindset as moms like Jessica, who are committed to the notion that minivans have lots of neat options and are wonderfully practical solutions for families. Nifty bells and whistles are nice - things like DVD entertainment systems - but the main selling point for minivans boils down to this: a minivan is the most convenient vehicle for families with more than two kids. You want comfort, storage space and a good deal? Buy a minivan.
Working moms like Jessica have no trouble getting worked up about convenience and practicality. They can even fall in love with easy, sensible transportation, in a platonic sort of way. But true passion? That seems to be the domain of the bad boys of family vehicles, SUVs. SUVs project the right image, even though minivans are cheaper and more useful.
The auto industry can move on two fronts here. First, with the existing crop of minivans, get all the small details right. Make Jessica happy today.
From there, car companies should rethink minivans entirely, from top to bottom, from styling to functionality. They must embrace the idea of the minivan, rather than making it a ghetto for car designers and product development types. Think of the minivan as one part of a bigger celebration of family.
There's more. The time has come to put some "cool" into minivan design. Kia's KV7 concept van is an example of an auto maker trying to make a boxy, practical people hauler into something different and even exciting.
In fact, "embracing the box" is a phrase that Peter Schreyer, Kia's design director, uses to describe the KV7, with its gullwing door on the passenger side that opens to a spacious lounge-like interior.
"A minivan is a box," Schreyer said recently, suggesting boxy can be good. "But an iPhone is a box, too." Schreyer says the KV7 is also about celebrating a time (the 1960s) when vans were groovy, and "before minivan became a stigma."
To give the design some life and to de-emphasize boxiness, the KV7 sports a graceful bend at the rearmost side windows. This bit of stylistic cleverness picks up on the tiger-mouth grille, a characteristic of Kia's new design language. See? It's not that hard to make a minivan look interesting.
Going back in minivan concept history is also instructive. Think of the futuristic 2007 Ford Airstream Concept with the creative wraparound seating in the back. Why was that never built? Or the beachy, wood-panelled 2003 Dodge Kahuna Concept. What happened to that concept? The idea cupboard for minivan designs is not barren, just ignored.
Yes, Jessica loves her big, sensible Sienna with seating for seven and a fold-in-the-floor rearmost seat. She loves the ample cargo space, the comfy ride, the sensibly sliding side doors and all the electronic gizmos. But even Jessica concedes the design is lacklustre.
So while she loves her van, she's not passionate about it. The thing is, even working moms will welcome a little passion in their lives - as long as it doesn't require a van full of compromises, of course.
Jessica the minivan mom really shouldn't be so alone and lonely.
Four minivans for 2011
Fun-to-drive micro minivan gets even better