Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 17, 2017

Chevrolet Uplander.

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Minivan cool

It’s time the multi-purpose vehicle got some respect

There was a Diet Pepsi commercial airing a while back. The spot opened with a thirtysomething couple at a car dealership having just signed a contract to purchase a brand new minivan.

“You’re not going to regret buying this minivan,” the cheesy-looking car salesman informed the couple. “A minivan is so practical, so responsible. It says you’ve accepted your middle age.”

The camera zoomed in on the woman’s face, which depicted a combination of disgust and horror. She then purposely tipped over her can of Diet Pepsi. The spilt cola conveniently washed away her freshly-minted signature.

“Oh, I’ll have to get another contract for you to sign,” said the salesman.

But it was too late for that: the couple – newly consumed by minivan misgivings — bolted from the dealership, no doubt looking to snag a two-seat convertible elsewhere.

There is so much that is loveable about the minivan, and yet, for reasons that are hard to explain, this vehicle continues to suffer from a woeful image problem. The minivan is no longer lauded for its utility and value, as it was when the first Dodge Caravans and Plymouth Voyagers rolled off the assembly line a quarter-century ago. Rather, the minivan is endlessly mocked as being the conformist’s ride of choice.

The mild-mannered minivan was a key element in the phoenix-like rise of a left-for-dead Chrysler Corporation in the early 1980s. Canadians, especially, love minivans. There are 22 crossover vehicles for sale in the Canadian marketplace, and last year, the Dodge Caravan alone outsold 21 of 22 crossovers — combined.

Recently, Chrysler celebrated the 25th anniversary of the minivan at its Windsor, Ontario plant which continues to churn out the Dodge Grand Caravan, the Chrysler Town & Country and the Volkswagen Routan (ageing hippies still lamenting the demise of the VW Microbus can now rejoice!)

Worldwide, Chrysler has sold a staggering 12 million minivans. Yet, for all its practicality and popularity, the minivan is the Rodney Dangerfield of motor vehicles: it gets no respect.

History of a breadbox

Back in 1983 — when Ronald Reagan was president — the economy was far from robust and Chrysler was on death’s doorstep (talk about déjà vu). Chrysler needed a home run, and Lee Iacocca, who was running the company at the time, gambled that the first wave of baby boomers who were starting families would likely want something roomier and far more practical than the traditional family hauler, the station wagon.

Iacocca practically bet the company on the fact that a new automotive segment dubbed “the mini-van” — a front-wheel-drive small van built on the K-car platform — would cotton on with the boomers. It was a $660-million gamble, only made possible by money acquired earlier from Washington’s US$1.5-billion bailout of Chrysler.

The minivan’s mandate was to be fuel-efficient, easy to step into, family-friendly and smaller than the Dodge Ram Van. Even so, nobody knew if the minivan would soar or sink. When the first models began to roll off the assembly line, industry trade journal Ward’s AutoWorld scoffed that Chrysler would be “lucky” to sell 74,000 units annually.

Even recently-appointed Canadian Autoworkers Union president Ken Lewenza — who was a Windsor minivan plant employee at the time — had his doubts.

“We were building the Fifth Avenue New Yorker at the time and it was selling like hotcakes,” he said. “When they told us they were dropping the New Yorker for this product, I couldn’t believe it. I wasn’t sure if we’d won the lottery or not.”

It soon turned out that Iacocca’s gambit wasn’t merely a home run — the Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager turned out to be a bases-loaded grand slam. A second shift was soon added to the plant — and eventually a third shift — to keep up with demand. Fast-forward to 2008 and Chrysler has sold more than 12 million minivans in more than 80 countries worldwide.

A superhero in disguise

Indeed, how soon we forget that the minivan, when it debuted 25 years ago, was such a welcome replacement for the station wagon. The minivan is often considered the white flag of suburban surrender. Or it’s stigmatized as the “Official Vehicle of the Soccer Mom.” But it’s a bum rap. A minivan is not boring. Simply put, a minivan is way more Superman than it is Clark Kent.

My wife, Loryn, is the owner of a 2000 Chevrolet Venture. We probably fit the minivan stereotype, given we live in a sleepy Toronto bedroom community and have the de rigueur two kids. But — and this is a big but — the Venture is my wife’s second minivan. Her first was a ’93 Dodge Caravan. And in 1993, we lived in downtown Toronto; the move to suburbia and the creation of a family were years down the road.

Why, pray tell, a minivan back then? Easy: practicality, affordability, flexibility. In a minivan, there is plenty of room for seven adults, and once the seats are removed (or, these days, folded into the floor), there is plenty of room for bicycles and camping gear.

And talk about value: a brand new 2009 Chevrolet Uplander can be had for less than $16,000. Just try finding a similarly-sized sport utility vehicle selling at that price.

Don’t get me wrong. When it comes to vehicles, I am, first and foremost, a car guy. My preferences include a manual transmission, crisp handling and a sufficient powerplant — qualities I enjoy in my seemingly bulletproof 1993 Honda Prelude SR-V.

Even so, I now have a love-hate relationship with my Honda. While the fun-to-drive index is sky high, just try squeezing oversized hockey bags into a trunk that is seemingly designed to contain a gym bag. On those occasions when I can borrow the minivan, I pop the hatch and throw — yes, throw! — hockey gear into the back, sticks and all. Bliss!

Sure, SUVs are big, too. But that is all they are — big. In the decades ahead, automotive historians will undoubtedly look back on the past 15 years of “SUV mania” and, with raised eyebrows, wonder why so many consumers were willing to pay a premium of several thousand dollars to buy gas-guzzling, four-wheel-drive hulks that are nowhere near as practical as minivans.

Also, contrary to popular belief, many SUVs are dreadful when it comes to towing a trailer. A typical SUV has a short wheelbase and a high centre of gravity — undesirable qualities when it comes to towing anything heavier than a hot-dog cart. A minivan, however, has a lower centre of gravity and a much longer wheelbase.

And why do so many city slickers covet a four-wheel-drive system when the vast majority of SUVs are never used for off-roading? Some models — such as the Chevrolet Suburban — can’t even fit into a standard-sized garage. The SUV emperor, my friends, has no clothes.

Muscle vans?

From a performance perspective, do not be fooled by the admittedly boring styling of today’s minivans; there are several models on the market that are very capable performers. A few years ago, Motor Trend magazine published its 50th anniversary issue. One of the most fascinating stories was “How Far We’ve Come.”

The story and corresponding chart compared the acceleration of a 1999 Honda Odyssey minivan with some of the greatest performance cars of the 1950s. The line-up of challengers going up against the Odyssey included the ’55 Chrysler 300, ’57 Maserati 2000-GT, ’58 Chevrolet Corvette, ’58 Porsche Speedster and the ’57 Jaguar 3.4.

The Odyssey beat every car except the ’58 Ford Thunderbird in the quarter-mile test. Amazing but true — a humble minivan easily held its own against the most iconic sports cars of the 1950s. And with just a V6 under the hood, to boot.

Indeed, as minivans have continued to evolve, they’ve become increasingly larger and more powerful (it’s hard to believe the first Magic Wagons back in 1983 only had four-cylinder engines). Minivans have also become more practical — just consider the proliferation of models that feature second and third rows of seats that fold away into the floor in a few seconds.

Indeed, I long for the day when an auto manufacturer will unveil a “performance minivan” complete with oversized mag wheels, a manual transmission and a smokin’ V8. Okay, such a vehicle is highly unlikely, but I can dream, can’t I?

Don’t get me wrong. Even in its current incarnation, the minivan is a superb vehicle. So I shall say it loud and proud: I am a fan of the minivan! The minivan is — dare I say it — as cool as it is practical. The minivan is truly the Superman of passenger vehicles. Just don’t let the Clark Kent exterior fool you.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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