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Remember When Ford and GM Just Gave Up on Minivans?

When Chrysler invented the minivan back in the 1980s, the Dodge Caravan, Plymouth Voyager and Chrysler Town & Country effectively changed the default big family car from the station wagon to the minivan. And rightly so, as this newfangled minivan offered a ton of family-friendly conveniences like a lot of seats and a sliding door (just one back in the day). It was a van that drove like a car, which was what a lot of families wanted.

It didn’t take long for the rest of the industry to try their hand at their own minivans. A few early examples include the Ford Aerostar and the Chevrolet Astro, rounding out minivan offerings from the Big Three of Detroit. Ford and General Motors’ first attempts at minivans were OK, but widely considered just not as good as what Chrysler was producing.

The three American automakers kept up this minivan race for a couple of decades. Ford and GM eventually switched their minivans from rear-wheel drive (RWD) to front-wheel drive (FWD), copying Chrysler. This was a bit of a trend — Chrysler to come out with a new minivan innovation, like dual sliding doors and back-seat entertainment systems, and Ford and GM would be scrambling to catch up to stay competitive.

Then something strange happened in the late 2000s: Ford and GM just threw in the towel. They gave up on minivans and instead chose to focus on big 3-row crossovers that were less practical and more expensive — but popular, because American families just couldn’t get enough of the likes of the Chevy Traverse and redesigned Ford Explorer.

One could argue that Ford and GM switched their focus from minivans to SUVs simply because consumer tastes were shifting that way, but I think there’s more to it than that. It’s pretty unusual for a gargantuan car company like Ford and GM to completely give up on an entire automotive segment. I think they got sick of every review for their minivans saying some version of "pretty good, but not as good as the Chrysler [and eventually the Honda and the Toyota]."

I’ve had the misfortune of driving both Ford and GM’s last attempts at minivans before giving up: The Ford Freestar was my driver’s ed car, and I drove the Chevy Uplander for the post office when I wasn’t driving a Grumman LLV. Let me tell you, both of those minivans were trash. The Freestar was weirdly uncomfortable for a vehicle that’s designed for family comfort. The seats were stiff and the ride was rough, and it made it easy to understand why Ford gave up on minivans.

"Trash" might be a strong word to describe the Uplander. It wasn’t terribly uncomfortable, but — like every other minivan offering from GM — it just wasn’t nearly as good as the competition. Also, it looked weird. The post office also had some Caravans in the fleet, too — and a day with the Chrysler was always better than a day with the Chevy. The Chrysler was just more comfortable, more functional and had more user-friendly controls, making it easy to see why that’s the one that the families of America chose as their favorite of the three homegrown minivans.

What’s weird to me is: Why were Ford and GM so bad at minivans? Why couldn’t they come up with innovations of their own, instead of constantly trying to play catch-up with Chrysler? It’s like they were taken by surprise back in the 1980s and never quite got their footing in this segment that was so hot for a few decades. Ford and GM were both ahead of the curve with crossovers, and are now selling a ton of unibody, 3-row, FWD family haulers — but what was it about sliding doors that made them completely forget how to make a competitive car?

Whatever the real reason is, I think it’s unlikely we’ll ever see another minivan from Ford or GM again. That’s too bad, considering how great this segment is now with the likes of the recently updated Honda Odyssey and Chrysler Pacifica being so good. One has to wonder if the minivan world would be a better place today if Ford and GM stuck with it. Find a Minivan for sale

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