When it comes to cool factor and sex appeal, the minivan is not a contender – it occupies a niche somewhere next to the sweat pant and the hearing aid.
This is the signature vehicle of the soccer mom and the beaten-down suburban dad – they ride in resignation, contemplating their thickening waistlines and thinning hair, lost to the world of performance driving, their rear windows emblazoned with hieroglyphic stick figures of children and dogs.
Never mind all that. I love the minivan. Others may slag it as the chariot that carries you to middle-aged hell, but when I look upon it I see design and packaging genius – like the lever and the wheel, the minivan is a simple but brilliant device that we all take for granted.
The intelligence of the minivan concept was pressed home yet again on a recent trip to Montreal. I was heading to the Grand Prix, and my wife wanted to come along with three friends. I decided to take a minivan (a Toyota Sienna with three rows of seats and a phalanx of cup holders).
As we headed east on Highway 401, the Sienna was like a small, leather-lined Greyhound bus – our luggage was packed easily in the back, everyone had plenty of room, and the scenery streamed past the tall windows like an endless film clip. We were cruising with the traffic at 120 to 130 km/h, and getting excellent fuel economy (10.2 litres/100 km).
Then I noticed the looks I was getting from other drivers. The silver-haired pilot of a BMW coupe shot me a commiserative glance as he glided past in the fast lane – in years gone by, he might have been a minivan driver himself, but now his kids were raised, and he was wheeling a polished German sports car. Then a guy in a Z06 Corvette went past, his eyes filled with pity – it was the kind of look I could imagine an Arabian stud horse giving a colleague as he emerged from the gelding shed. The Z06 guy and I represented the polar ends of the vehicular universe: he was in a 600-horsepower codpiece; I was in a four-wheeled daycare unit.
I didn't care. I was deep in minivan paradise, revelling in the Sienna's space and efficiency. And I was pondering the strange psychology of the automotive marketplace. Back in 2000, North Americans bought nearly 1.5 million minivans. Today, that figure has fallen to just more than 500,000 as buyers flock to SUVs. Almost every one of these SUV buyers would be better off with a minivan, which offers better fuel economy and a better ratio of external size to interior space.
So what's the problem with the minivan? It's a minivan. Its very name is a synonym for middle-aged ennui. The minivan is where desire and ambition go to die. I've had countless friends tell me why they'd never buy one. "They're boring," one said. "It says that you've given up." The most telling comment came from a reader who told me why a minivan was off his list: "My brother-in-law has one," he said. "And I don't want to be like him."
Here we come to the essence of automotive marketing – figuring out the associations that may come with a car, and catering to a buyer's vanity and sense of self. The BMW 7-Series sedan is associated with the autobahn and corporate success. The Alfa Romeo Spider is associated with top-down driving through Rome on a sunny day. Then we come to the minivan, associated with parental obligation and spilled juice boxes.
I could care less. My affection for this least-loved of all vehicles began more than a decade ago, when I bought a Honda Odyssey and set off on a long series of trips with my family. After years of travelling in a Honda Civic, the minivan opened new vistas – we could bring friends along, and I could tow my ultralight plane behind us in a trailer, stopping to fly whenever we spotted a country airport or an open meadow.
Our minivan was one of the best, most useful, vehicles I've ever encountered. It carried seven people in a smaller, shorter package than an SUV, and it burned less fuel. It carried my son and his hockey teammates, allowed my wife and I to carry our mountain bikes without a rack (they fit in the rear) and let us bring my mother-in-law along on an unforgettable family trip through Nova Scotia, Maine and Vermont.
As we cruised into Montreal in the Sienna, I was reminded of our years as minivan owners, and how great they had really been.
Our minivan wasn't about making a statement – it was about choosing the right tool for the job, and making family memories. The Toyota we took to Montreal was a newer, even better example of the genre, with a silky-smooth V-6 engine and a six-speed automatic transmission. The Sienna had two sunroofs and a flip-down video screen in the back with wireless headsets (back in 2002, we thought we were state of the art when we set up a laptop computer in the back and played DVDs).
Like our old minivan, the Sienna had sliding side doors that made it easy to get in and out, and there was a third seat in the back that provided extra seating and refuge (my wife slept there for a while on the return trip). If you were an engineer who was asked to create a travelling paradise for a group of people, it would be hard to do much better than this.
As we cruised homeward along the 401 after the Grand Prix, the vehicles on the road reflected the car industry's shifting mix – the majority of the larger family vehicles were SUVs, not minivans, and many of them were four-wheel-drive, a feature that has a significant impact on fuel economy due to its added weight and mechanical resistance. A small percentage of those families might actually use four-wheel-drive capabilities, but for most, it was just part of an automotive statement – they wanted a rugged SUV, not a lame minivan. Even if a minivan made the most sense. Truth be told, it usually does.
Here's to the minivan, the car we love to hate.
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