What was once a booming market now struggles. Minivan sales have been stagnant for years, as SUVs boast improved fuel efficiency, roomier third row seating, and a more practical use of cargo space. One might think this remains a blessing, allowing us to finally rid the streets of the stereotypical “Mom Van.” I believe, however, it’s a travesty, and that a minivan can actually be fantastic – if you’re able to shed the stigma.
I, like many, was a bitter critic of the minivan. Even after I had my first daughter, I still felt it exuded a soulless existence, portraying the driver as an individual who cared not about appearance, or what others thought, and possessed an unhealthy addiction to shopping at Walmart. Who wants to be known as that?
My career, before writing about cars, was driving 230 mph IndyCars around tracks like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I even drove a McLaren Formula One car. I had a reputation to uphold. I wouldn’t be seen dead in a Mom Van, and I laughed at those who were.
By the time I had my second daughter, things changed somewhat. I still hated the concept of the minivan, but the vast amount of usable space seemed convenient.
Later that year, I planned to bring my whole family to a race in Kansas. The drive was around eight hours and my midsize SUV might be a tad cramped, I thought. So, we rented a minivan. My only concern, at the time, was avoiding being seen piloting the monstrosity. As it happened, I was seen, garnering much unwelcomed abuse from my peers; parking a minivan next to a Mercedes seldom looks good.
But, despite the pointing, I noticed something rather odd. I didn’t mind driving it. The van in question was a Dodge Grand Caravan. It boasted bountiful storage, a DVD player, the obligatory electric sliding doors (the single greatest invention ever), and more floor space than a Beverly Hills mansion. Plus, and this remains quite shocking, a 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 - a motor with a sound as smooth as a Macallan 18. Like with the Macallan, that smoothness emitted a subtle bite to round off what became a rather baffling experience.
Did I really just say I enjoyed the engine in a minivan?
The fact remains, many minivans come with tasty powerplants, and although the handling might be a touch spongy, it’s something unexpected. Sure, they look like a blob of marshmallow and evoke feelings of hatred amongst fellow motorists, but they do come with one very unique attribute: underfloor storage. In our case, we stored about 76,000 diapers and around 23,000 packages of baby wipes. But to me, the compartment screamed out as the ultimate beer cooler. Why don’t minivan makers exploit this?
Plus, and this is a big plus, if you sit on the back row, lay the middle row flat, you are gifted an experience akin to a stretched Hummer. Sure, it’s a little more hillbilly: Instead of champagne we have compartments full of ice, beer and diapers, and rather an ambience resembling a Miami nightclub, we encounter a setting akin to a $29.99 special at the Dollar Inn. Still, when you sit back, feet on the reclined second row, beer in hand, movie playing, you're transported to Walmart in ultimate style. (Sort of.)
OK, I’ll admit, that remains one of the worst sales pitches of all-time, but you get the point. Even without kids, adopting a vivid imagination, the vast space becomes quite entertaining. And if you do have kids, nothing else will do. I now have three (soon to be four). If I weren’t already onboard with the van, I’d be in trouble. After all, not many cars will comfortably contain four wriggly kids. SUVs, while fine, are still very limited. With the third row up – which remains a necessity with three or more kids – the trunk space is usually minute. Try getting a double stroller in there. Probably not going to happen.
There are SUVs, like the Chevy Suburban, that has a decent sized trunk and reasonable seating, but if you’re used to a minivan, it doesn’t compare. Not to mention it costs considerably more pennies than your typical van.
So, did I buy one myself?
Of course I did. I couldn’t make a legitimate case for the van if I didn’t take the plunge, so I purchased a trusty Honda Odyssey. In all honesty, I don’t drive it much. And when I do, I admittedly feel a tad self-conscious. It all comes down to the aforementioned stereotypical stigma, but if you drive one, you can’t deny its value. And while buyers desperately search for a comparable alternative that generates less ridicule, what they really need remains socially unacceptable.
I grew up swearing I'd never own a minivan, but now, I can’t live without one. The trick remains to ignore its faults and focus on its many positives. Appreciate it for what it is. If you’re a guy, don’t take yourself too seriously, and remember those that laugh today, will see the light tomorrow.