Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Minivans May Never Become Cool

Back in 1984 I bought a minivan the first year they came out. It was a Plymouth Voyager, and it had a 2.2 litre engine. I ordered it with a manual transmission for fuel economy, and extra performance, but it was still not really fast or particularly fuel efficient. Its best features had to do with kids, and I had three of them. No door on the street side, so no danger of kids jumping out the wrong side. The sliding door also meant no danger of dinging the car beside us when they piled out of the van in a mall parking lot. And all three had their own window seats, with little opportunity for poking each other during the drive. Finally, it fit in my garage, and in our fairly short driveway. Chrysler called them "Magic Wagons" and they were indeed magic.

I was aware from the start that the minivan did not cut a dashing image out there on the streets. This was never going to be a classic car. James Bond agent 007 was never going to be seen outrunning Russian spies in a minivan, or even seducing the ladies after driving them at scary speeds on mountain roads in the French Riviera. But it was not important enough to give up the practical advantages for the fantasy. However, owning the minivan may have helped later to push me into the decision to buy a motorcycle with six cylinders, as a way of overcompensating.

This morning, I saw a CBC report on minivans in the morning news. "Will Minivans Ever Be Cool Again?" My first thought actually was that the CBC was cutting corners by running a canned piece from a Toyota ad agency. I noticed it was mainly about a new Toyota Sienna ad featuring a Mom and Dad and two kids, with the Mom and Dad doing a rap music video, and saying they called their minivan a "Swagger Wagon". Further mention was made in the video that another maker was calling their minivan a "people mover" and another was calling it a "Man Van".

No matter what they call the minivan, they are going to have a hard time shaking loose the image. These are vehicles that parents buy to drive their kids around in. Even if a young person (say up to 25) bought one of these, everyone who saw them would immediately assume that they were driving Mom's car because they still lived at home and went to school, and they didn't have a car of their own.

I thought it was also significant in the video that the family had two kids. Many years ago, 8 would have been the norm, then it gradually dropped. Two kids is a respectable number these days, and I expect one day the norm may even go down to one. Minivans make most sense for bigger families, (3 kids or more) while apparently families are getting smaller.

I think the cool car today is the SUV. Instead of your vehicle saying "I'm driving Mom's car because I live at home" it says "I live on a mountain top in the Rockies where I shoot moose and grizzly bears, and this is the only way I can get home."

The facts, of course are totally different from the image. Although granted, occasionally I see somebody driving an SUV who actually might fit the image. For example, one person I met had an SUV because he had to drive up a luge track to get to his house. Most people have paved driveways.

I don't know if this ad campaign is aimed at me, but if it is, it is a failure. I have seen many ad campaigns that turned me off over the years, and this campaign also has the effect of making me want to never buy another minivan. "Man Van" and "Swagger Wagon" are horribly embarrassing. Rap music is something I have never had the slightest feeling for except disgust that it ruins real music for everyone.

Here are two examples of Mercedes car ads. The third one is the Toyota ad.
Banned Mercedes ad "Not in this weather" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mi47UcyK4Ms
Crazy for a different reason, but at least its work safe http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=joC5MvzO1_w
The Swagger Wagon commercial http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ql-N3F1FhW4

I have not had a minivan since I got rid of the Voyager back in 1996, I bought a Honda Civic with good gas mileage and sporty performance. That was after the kids had basically moved out, or at least I didn't have to transport the gang around with me. After the Honda Civic I bought a Toyota Matrix because the higher door and seating position makes it easier for my increasingly creaky bones to extract themselves from the car.

The last time vans were cool with kids was the seventies, when they were "Shaggin Wagons". If you drove one back then, everybody still assumed you lived at home, but at least you had your own vehicle, and a girlfriend or a shag rug.

Minivan sales are down from over a million in 2000, to under half a million today. The marketing people are going to have to try harder to come up with a winning concept. Let me throw this one out for them, since they are having such a hard time. Promote the idea that driving a minivan makes you lose weight. According to a recent health survey, Canadians apparently think driving the kids to a hockey game is a healthy activity. I know it's not true, but in marketing, you have to go with the flow. Work with the subliminal messages. For example show fat people walking to work and playing hockey, intercut with fit thin people driving minivans. Now there's a winning idea in sales campaign. Remember you sell the sizzle, not the steak.

Picture: I am surprised to see a 1984 Plymouth Voyager in a museum. Mine was the basic model with no wood grain panelling, without even a right side mirror. (each outside mirror was $70 extra) In those days the 401 had only two lanes, who needed a third mirror? But I did need a third row bench seat, and that was $800 extra. http://www.flickr.com/photos/harry_nl/3039372888/


  1. You write, 'Rap music is something I have never had the slightest feeling for except disgust...'

    'Rap music' is an oxymoron. It may be 'rap' but it sure ain't music.

    The minivan was simply the logical successor to those huge, boatlike family 'station wagons' which went of out of vogue in the Seventies as fuel prices took a big hike.

    Chrysler struck the mother lode in the early Eighties when they mated a boxy metal box to the K-car platform and labeled it a 'minivan.' First out of the gate with that one, it was a winner for Chrysler. It hit the market just in time for the 'baby-boomlet' - the Boomers' first crops of kids.

    Minivans sales were eroded by increasing sales of alternatives such as the SUV and, laterally, the XUV. Which, of course, are much, much cooler.

    (Unsafe, largely useless, but oh, so kewl.)

  2. Is there any Mercedes Mini van as you know?
    Most of the Mercedes models are fabulous and I like most to buy one of them. Thanks for a great sharing.

  3. A Mercedes 'minivan' is almost certainly an oxymoron ... LOL!!

    However, the R-Class comes pretty close ... 'if it quacks like a duck ...' ;-)

  4. I don't think of any Mercedes Benz vehicle as an oxymoron. When I was in high school, my home town had Mercedes Benz mini buses like this one (although I remember they had a higher roof so you could stand up, and it had an open aisle in the middle.)
    Mercedes O 319D

    Mercedes makes a wide range of vehicles that they have no fear of putting their name and star logo on,
    like a garbage truck.

  5. Oh, of course, Mercedes makes 'commercial' (as well as military) vehicles and has done so for a century.

    And, similarly, Rolls-Royce, BMW and other prestige car manufacturers have not restricted themselves to passenger cars.

    However, when one thinks of 'owning a Mercedes,' it is probably not a fire truck or bus that comes to mind.

    Although some do seem to consider a G-Wagen, a military vehicle, suitable transportation for hauling their lattes to their McMansion, it's the passenger cars that one normally associates, in general conversation, with the marque   ;-)

  6. We don't see many Mercedes Benz branded commercial vehicles in North America. Those busses I mentioned were in North America, but other than that, not much. The Dodge Sprinter van I think is branded as Mercedes Benz in Europe.

    Also in Africa, I saw Mercedes Benz commercial vehicles.

    But yes, if you say Mercedes Benz anywhere, people assume a well built expensive luxury car. (not a minivan)

  7. Running your vehicle's air conditioning is no worse for your gas mileage than driving with your windows down. As your vehicle speeds up, air flow creates a drag against the vehicle, making the engine work harder and hurting gas mileage. In fact, air conditioning can be a more efficient option at higher speeds.

    1. I don't know how this comment got in the wrong blog post, but here is the actual blog post I wrote about air conditioners vs. gas mileage


      The myth of getting better gas mileage with A/C seems to have started with one biased SAE paper, backed up by a lot of wishful thinkers but not a lot of scientific studies.

      The observable facts, as Consumer Reports, and many other doubtful people have pointed out, is that there is almost no measurable difference in gas mileage in rolling down the windows at speed. But there is a measurable difference in turning on the A/C, sometimes you can actually feel the car slow down, but more importantly a 1 to 3 mpg difference in fuel economy,

      My car does not have A/C so I can't really test the effect of A/C for myself until I trade in on a new car.

    2. Yes, you're right. The 'science' on this is weak. And YMMV depending on a number of factors.

      However, there are arguments to be made for the 'drag' effect of open windows. When auto engineers go to great lengths to improve the CoD, eliminating drip rails, burying wipers, &c., &c., it seems paradoxical to open windows and introduce all that turbulence (and additional drag).

      Naturally, one would need to control for variables, such as air conditioner settings, &c., which would vary from instance to instance, and that makes general statements about which is more 'efficient' result in the plethora of articles on the web arguing both sides of this ... LOL!

      I prefer to run with the windows up at speed - summer or winter - simply because I don't like the noise ;-)

  8. 'when traveling at speeds around 50 miles per hour (80.5 kilometers per hour) or faster, air conditioning is usually a better bet'