Mini Vans

The Ever-Popular Mini Van

Beloved by soccer moms and Little League coaches, the mini vans first appeared in 1983. Chrysler’s Dodge Caravan and Renault’s Espace were developed on different continents, but can trace their roots to the same source – a design developed in the late 70's by Chrysler UK in partnership with the French manufacturer Matra. The Chrysler-UK/Matra mini van design was slated to be sold as the “Talbot,” and was intended as a replacement for Matra’s station wagon. The Matra concept eventually became the Renault Espace, while Chrysler went ahead with a small van based on the Chrysler K model.

Even from the very beginning, mini vans were marketed to suburban families, advertised as a cross between the family station wagon and bigger passenger vans. Young families in the U.S. wanted something different, a bit hipper, than their parents’ station wagon, and that would get better gas mileage than the big vans. The mini van also offered front-wheel drive, allowing for more cargo and passenger area.

It’s a van ... it’s a truck ... it’s a van

To get around the strict 1980s emission standards, Chrysler had to classify their mini vans as “light trucks.” With the loophole in place for manufacture of a whole new classification of passenger vehicle, Ford and General Motors one-upped Chrysler's K-car based mini van by manufacturing truck-based front-engine, rear drive minivans. The Chevrolet Astro and Ford Aerostar both switched to a front wheel drive configuration by the 1990s. After the missteps of the bulky, boxy Chevrolet Lumina APV and Pontiac Trans Sport, General Motors developed narrower vans with optional eight-passenger seating and mini vans became bestsellers until around 1998, when mini van – derided as boring, middle class married-folk cars – began to see a decline in sales. Chrysler’s mini vans continue to be the best selling models on the market, though Honda and Toyota models are right behind them.

The modern mini van has a great deal in common with the classic station wagon, although they’re considered a tiny bit hipper. They’ve morphed into oversized cars – smaller than SUVs, but still with sliding doors like classic vans. The 1996 Honda Odyssey, in fact, is little more than a very tall car with three rows of seating. As appealing as a Honda mini van sounds, it was one of the few Hondas to ever receive a poor rating – lower than a similar sized Dodge – from Consumer Reports. A later version was made bigger, comparable to a Dodge Caravan, and received high marks.

A mixed reputation

Mini vans have a reputation for poor maneuverability and performance, and for inefficient gas milage. Ironically, since mini vans were originally positioned as a cooler alternative to the family station wagon, their association with suburban families and "soccer moms,” minivans started to seem boring and unhip. Many new car buyers prefer the rugged, adventurous image of SUVs, or the sleeker, more upscale European station wagons. Some manufacturers are building vehicles that bridge the difference between SUVs and minivans. Utility vehicles like the Pontiac Aztek and Buick Rendezvous are built on the same platform as GM’s front-wheel drive minivans, Even Mercedes-Benz has a minivan-style vehicle – their R-Class is built like a rounder, more stylish minivan and offers all-wheel drive. The next generation of mini vans will probably be even closer to cars, offering buyers the size and convenience of a minivan with a less dowdy, soccer-mom reputation.

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