Why Does the Minivan Have Such a Horrible Stigma?

Thanks to Lee Iacocca, the minivan was The Next Big Thing (TM) in the 1980s. It combined the larger size and versatility of full-size vans with the fuel economy and practicality of the K-car platform. It was also classified as a truck, not a car, to qualify for a truck’s lower safety standards — which reduced expenses. It was superior in every way to the station wagon it essentially replaced. Nobody wanted the wood-paneled long-roof land barges of the 1970s anymore, no doubt because of bad memories of childhood road trips, license plate spotting games and that bratty brother cramming you into the third-row seat and not letting you out.

Minivans dominated the "mommy-mobile" segment for years. They are still super practical, with most of the space of a van but the practicality and comfort of a car. Some high-end vans are even well appointed like a luxury car. For today’s generational gaps, though, the minivan has replaced the wood-paneled long-roof station wagon as the ultimate family vehicle that nobody wants anymore. Perhaps today’s parents have bad memories of childhood road trips, license plate spotting games and that bratty brother cramming you into the third-row seat and not letting you out.

While the minivan is the ultimate family machine, it’s also the ultimate "I’ve given up on enjoying life" machine. In Furious 7, even Brian O’Conner, the ultimate badass cop turned street racer, traded his 10-second Toyota Supra for a Chrysler Town & Country. They could’ve given him a Jeep Cherokee Trackhawk or a BMW X5 M, both of which can legitimately haul ass as well as kids and their associated stuff. But no, they gave him a Chrysler Town & Country, the most luxurious and anti-performance kid hauler they could possibly find to demonstrate just how far O’Conner had fallen in the enthusiast scene.

It’s also unrealistic (like anything about the Furious movies is realistic, but anyway…). Crossovers and SUVs have all but replaced the minivan as the practical family car for the person who still wants something cool to haul the whole family around. They can be tough and rugged, sleek and svelte or even a little bit quirky, which is what led my wife to buy her Ford Flex. It looks like a truck, drives like a car and has the comfortable 3-row seating of a van for the bratty brother to cram the other kids into and not let them out. (But the joke’s up on the brat, since the rear hatch opens automatically at the press of a button.)

There used to be a plethora of sliding-door kid haulers on the market, but most of them are gone today. General Motors discontinued the Chevy Uplander/Buick Terraza/Pontiac Montana/Saturn Relay clones. Ford dropped the Freestar and its Mercury Monterey clone around the same time, and Nissan abandoned the Quest. Few choices remained: The new Chrysler Pacifica, the Honda Odyssey, which was known for transmission problems (fixed since the first generation), the Toyota Sienna, which was expensive but typical Toyota high quality, and the oft-forgotten Kia Sedona. The Dodge Grand Caravan also still hangs around as a fleet special, though sales of the Grand Caravan and the Pacifica are still dwarfed by the Jeep Grand Cherokee alone, never mind all the other Jeep and Dodge SUV models.

But all of the things that made the Caravan such a popular choice after its invention in the 1980s remain true today. Sure, comfort is no longer as much of an issue, as trucks, SUVs and crossovers have all significantly improved in that department, but while today’s crossovers have much better gas mileage than the truck-based SUVs of old, my wife’s Ford Flex, rated at 16 miles per gallon in the city and 23 mpg on the highway, still doesn’t match the Toyota Sienna at 19 mpg city/27 mpg hwy. Sliding passenger doors provide superior access without the risk of kids smashing them into cars parked next to you, and unlike in the 1980s, these doors now have windows that open and exist on both sides of the car. While SUV seats can fold up and down, none can truly disappear into the floor like some minivans, providing a vast cargo area that you could literally live in.

As I consider getting rid of my Subaru WRX, I have to admit that a minivan has crept onto my list of possible replacements. Why? The old cliche of "business in the front, party in the back" applies, but in a different way. Up front, I can get a cushy refined driving experience. It may not be sporty, but sporty isn’t the point of this vehicle. It would handle traffic well and be comfortable and easy to drive. But behind the front seats, it’s party time — not in the El Camino way (I have a VW Jetta ute for that) but in the #vanlife way. I can set it up with many of the comforts of home, including power, storage and a place to sleep. A cooler or plug-in refrigerator can keep my beer cold, as well as any food that needs to be kept on ice. I can commute in comfort, but I can also leave work on Friday and run to the hills as the great philosophers of Iron Maiden emphatically suggest and camp out for the weekend.

Or I could just get a Prius. But the camper/commuter sounds more fun — even if the actual driving experience isn’t.

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