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Mocked as Uncool, the Minivan Rises Again

Could driving a minivan, the ultimate embodiment of the suburban family vehicle, ever be considered cool?

2011 Honda Odyssey
Source: Honda
2011 Honda Odyssey

The automakers are trying mightily to persuade us.

In marketing campaigns featuring heavy-metal theme songs, rapping parents, secret agents in cat masks, pyrotechnics and even Godzilla, minivan makers are trying to recast the much-ridiculed mom-mobile as something that parents can be proud — or at least unashamed — of driving.

Toyota led the effort early last spring with a campaign for its Sienna model that features a self-indulgent couple rapping about rolling through the cul-de-sacs with their posse of kids in their “Swagger Wagon.”

“The stories we heard were, ‘I just don’t want to be seen in a minivan. I don’t like being the soccer-mom joke or feeling like I’ve given up all trace of my identity to be a parent,’ ” said Richard Bame, Toyota’s national marketing manager for trucks and minivans.

Other automakers have jumped on the theme, too. For example, in a series of ads that began this fall, Honda claims its 2011 Odyssey “beckons like no van before.” One spot deploys a song by the metal rockers Judas Priest to awe a grocery-toting father with the van’s capabilities. In another, a couple seeking a romantic night outfinds an Odyssey with rose petals spilling out of the sliding doors, chocolate-covered strawberries in a cooler compartment and a fire crackling on the rear-seat video screen.

Chrysler, which invented minivans in 1983, plans to offer a high-powered version of its 2011 Dodge Grand Caravan, aimed at fathers, which it has nicknamed the “man van.”

And Ford Motor, which stopped making minivans in 2006, is jumping back into the game with the diminutive C-Max. The seven-passenger vehicle is about two feet shorter than the Odyssey and Sienna and offers high-tech features like sensors that allow drivers to open the rear liftgate simply by waving a leg under the bumper.

Ford calls the C-Max a compact “people mover” and hopes its European design will make the vehicle practical for families without the unflattering “minivan” label. “Many are hard pressed to notice it has sliding doors. That wasn’t by accident,” said a Ford spokesman, Said Deep.

Having spent recent years making minivans more child-friendly through amenities like dual-screen entertainment systems and reconfigurable seating, the automakers are now focused on making them more appealing to adults, especially men, who have shied away from the vehicles and their connotations. Nearly every minivan sold in the United States has been redesigned in 2010 to offer flashier looks, more advanced technology and a sportier ride.

Making a minivan seem hip might be a stretch, but the new marketing efforts seem to be paying dividends, although the vehicles remain a small niche of the auto market.

The Toyota Sienna spots have become a Web sensation. The original ad drew more than 7.8 million views on YouTube, and the term “swagger wagon” — coined by the actor playing the father, Brian Huskey — has been adopted by some parents as a generic term for minivans.

Analysts credit the Toyota campaign with helping to increase sales of the Sienna by 18.5 percent through November — double the industry average for minivans and a rare bright spot for Toyota, whose overall sales have been flat since bad publicity over product recalls.

Sales of the Honda Odyssey are up 42 percent since October, when the 2011 model and new ad campaigns were introduced.

Colin McGraw, who has three young daughters and is expecting a fourth child in March, bought a 2011 Odyssey after discovering that most crossovers, which provide the capacity of a sport utility vehicle or minivan but are generally smaller and have four hinged doors, offered less cargo space and lower fuel economy.

“Minivans just make more sense for families,” said Mr. McGraw, a software consultant in Castle Rock, Colo. “They’re easier to get kids in and out of.”

At the Weymouth Honda dealership near Boston, the general manager, Jason Tobias, said the new Odyssey, with a bold new exterior that has been described as ugly in some reviews, has been gaining fans rapidly. Each one arrives on the lot already sold, and there is a waiting list for the top-end Touring Elite trim level, which sells for more than $40,000.

“With the new design, I think that it’s changed a lot of people’s opinions,” Mr. Tobias said. “So many people used to say, ‘I’ll never drive a minivan,’ and then, guess what? It’s called children.”

Form and functionality

Chrysler just started shipping the updated versions of the Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan to dealers last month, but their sales rose even before that as Chrysler ramped up its advertising. One of the seemingly nonsensical — and certainly nontraditional — commercials showed suit-clad adults donning cat and mouse masks to prepare for a gang-style fight.

Minivans have a long way to go before coming even close to regaining the popularity they enjoyed a decade ago. They account for just 4 percent of all new-vehicle sales in the United States, compared with 20 percent for crossovers, according to Autodata, which tracks industry sales.

Automakers were on pace to sell about 450,000 minivans last year, a 9.3 percent increase from 2009 but far below the peak of 1.37 million in 2000. And the growth in minivan sales trails the overall domestic auto industry, which grew 11.1 percent through November.

Jack Nerad, editorial director at the Kelley Blue Book, which provides information about vehicles to consumers, said he thought the minivan segment was no longer shrinking. But whether it can grow again depends on how much the automakers can shed the stigma of vans.

“I don’t think anybody can dispute the functionality of a minivan for a family,” he said. “They’re not going to blow you away the way a coupe would, but in terms of what they do, they’re pretty amazing.”

But Chris Cedergren, a partner with Iceology, an automotive marketing consultancy in Los Angeles, said the vehicle would remain a tough sell to shoppers, no matter how well it might suit their needs, because of the image problem.

“Minivans quickly became appliances, and no one wants a white washing machine or a white refrigerator,” he said. “They want something they feel proud of driving, and they don’t want to be embarrassed.”

That’s why Kristen Howerton, a marriage and family therapist in Costa Mesa, Calif., never wanted to own a minivan. She disliked them so much that she titled her popular parenting blog “Rage Against the Minivan.”

“It’s just a symbol of women becoming the invisible, exchangeable mom — the soccer mom — where we all look the same and no longer have a sense of what’s cool,” Mrs. Howerton said.

But last year, she and her husband found that going anywhere with four young children had become impossible. Many of her readers suggested the unthinkable.

After searching desperately for an alternative, Mrs. Howerton gave in and bought a Toyota Sienna. “As much as I was opposed to it initially, it really has made life easier,” she said. “Mobility is more important than any standards I’m trying to uphold in my mind.”

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