1984 Plymouth Voyageur
1984 Plymouth Voyageur. Photo: Chrysler Group. Click image to enlarge

by Tony Whitney

Recent announcements by a couple of major automakers that they’re getting out of the minivan business may prompt some buyers to believe that the days of these amazingly practical vehicles could be numbered. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

Automakers often justifiably consolidate their line-ups to try and keep the bottom line healthy; this may result in the demise of one product or another so that plants can concentrate on vehicles that bring a better return for the vast sums spent on research and development. Even entire nameplates may disappear – Oldsmobile is an example – and past decades have seen many others go by the board. In some cases, they are far from missed. How many buyers wish they could get another Austin, Vauxhall or Yugo?

With minivans, it’s a market possibly over-served and in need of a little rationalization, if only to help buyers find exactly what they want more easily. At one time, there were over 20 different minivans on the Canadian market, and buyers had an awful lot of shopping around to do if they wanted to try them all.

There’s no doubt that the minivan has been one of the most versatile vehicles developed in the history of the automobile. How many vehicles can carry seven people in great comfort, as well as their luggage, on a long trip? And a minivan with the interior seating either removed or folded into the floor becomes almost a cube van, such is the cargo space it offers. Several minivans on the market have substantial levels of power and many of them handle more like decent sedans.

1984 Dodge Caravan
1984 Dodge Caravan. Photo: Chrysler Group. Click image to enlarge

As just about everybody knows by now, the minivan as we know it today was a creation of Chrysler, with its groundbreaking range of mid-1980s “Magic Wagons.” It’s certainly true that Volkswagen had a minivan of sorts with its 1960s Microbus, and there were other contenders from various automakers. But the “garageable” minivan with its three rows of seats and sliding door (later doors) was very much the brainchild of the Chrysler design and development department.

Over a couple of decades, the once-humble minivan evolved into a highly sophisticated, all-round vehicle capable of a wide variety of family, touring and business tasks. The early ones were pretty crude by today’s standards and usually offered fairly gutless four-cylinder engines barely able to haul the family and their holiday luggage over the next hill.

The current crop of minivans are amazing vehicles with dual sliding doors (often remotely powered), power liftgate, a complete high-tech navigation system, rear-mounted DVD screens to keep the kids amused on long runs, power in the 200-plus horsepower range and all kinds of ways to configure the interior.

A few model years back, automakers with minivans in their ranges started offering rearmost seats that disappeared into the flooring area. Chrysler followed up a couple of years ago by coming up with a van with the capability of folding down both second- and third-row seats to create what is essentially a commercial delivery van. Looking at the spec sheets of the 2006 minivans, it seems impossible to believe that these rigs can be improved to any great extent, but no doubt one manufacturer or another will dream up some new innovation.

2005 Honda Odyssey EX
2005 Honda Odyssey EX. Photo: Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge

There’s lots of talk about the “image” of minivans and the “uncool” notion that the vehicle is a mode of transformation for moms and dads taking kids to sports events. Frankly, I believe that people who buy minivans don’t care a jot what their “image” might be – they’re just glad to enjoy the most capable vehicle on the planet.

Recently, I’ve been driving a Honda Odyssey to help with a house move and have, in a sense, rediscovered the minivan. The Odyssey has amazing levels of power from its V6, it handles like a sedan, it’s easy to configure as a load hauler and is supremely comfortable. For many long family holiday drives from the BC coast to southern California and Arizona, I’ve always chosen a minivan when one was available. The driving position offers a commanding view of the road, the vehicle is easy for everyone to get in and out of at rest stops and the level of comfort can’t be beaten until you get into the high-end luxury sedan class. And minivan owners tell me that they’re constantly pestered by friends and neighbours who want to move some gear and can’t do it in a sedan or even a small SUV.

It’s certainly true that there has been a shift of interest from minivans to SUVs by many buyers, though Canadians have never really forsaken their vans, even if the folks south of the border have. And if you believe manufacturers have lost interest in vans, note that fast-growing Korean automaker Kia has just launched its all-new Sedona minivan and will probably sell lots of them. At least one automaker is waiting in the wings with yet another new van, so to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of these vehicles have been greatly exaggerated.

Are minivans really on the way out? I don’t think so!

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