Minivan owners embrace their uncool with 35th anniversary editions for self-aware dads

Key Points
  • Fiat Chrysler rolled out a pair of special, 35th anniversary edition minivans at last month's Chicago Auto Show.
  • Minivans hit their peak popularity in 2000 when American motorists were buying roughly 1.4 million of them a year.
  • NPR humorist Peter Sagal wrote a 2007 homage to his minivan's lack of swagger.
Lee A. Iacocca, then chairman of Chrysler Corporation, introduced the company's new breed of garageable 1984 front-wheel-drive family wagons and vans, the Plymouth Voyager, Dodge Caravan and Dodge Mini Ram Van. Foreseeing the future, Iacocca said.
Source: Fiat Chrysler

Most minivan drivers are self aware enough to realize, even embrace, the deeply uncool impression the family hauler leaves about one's station in life.

Long before American families traded them in for SUVs or crossovers, the original Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager were transforming soccer-practice car pools across the country. Minivans hit their peak popularity in 2000, when American motorists were buying roughly 1.4 million of them a year.

It's been a long hard slide for the seven-passenger van since then. An estimated 489,000 minivans were sold in the U.S. last year, according to IHS Markit data.

"There's nothing wrong with the minivan that a better image wouldn't fix," said George Peterson, head of the consulting firm AutoPacific. "The fact is, the minivan is the perfect, practical family vehicle."

Authors have dedicated entire books to the kid-cargo-hauling lifestyle: "Dan Gets a Minivan: Life at the Intersection of Dude and Dad." In a 2007 homage to his vehicle's lack of swagger, NPR humorist Peter Sagal said: "A minivan is a vehicle that says to the world, 'Hey, I'm not in a hurry. I'm here to enjoy the scenery through my expansive windows. ... I am comfortable with myself, who I am, how much hair I have left, how much I weigh now.

"If a sports car is a symbol for the owner's manhood, well, my manhood is capacious and large.'"

Fiat Chrysler is banking on a resurgence in self-aware, confident dads looking for their next comfortable ride with back-seat video entertainment systems and keyless sliding doors. It rolled out a pair of special, 35th anniversary edition minivans the Chicago Auto Show in February.

Over the years, the company has dropped several minivan models, including the original Voyager that went out of production when the Plymouth brand itself was abandoned. But Fiat Chrysler continues to produce the original Dodge minivan, now stretched and renamed the Grand Caravan. It has added the Chrysler Pacifica, which offers the Euro-American automaker's first plug-in hybrid option.

2014 Dodge Grand Caravan
Source: Chrysler

There's some dispute over who invented the minivan, with some people pointing instead to Volkswagen and its classic Microbus. But most authorities, including Peterson, point to the original Chrysler offerings that debuted in 1984.

The design the automaker brought to market actually could have debuted even earlier — though it would have had a Ford badge on the grill. In 1974, Hal Sperlich, then Ford's product development chief, came up with the basic people-mover concept. Despite winning the support of then-Ford President Lee Iacocca, the idea was vetoed by former Chairman Henry Ford II. It was only after Iacocca and Sperlich moved to Chrysler that the minivan concept came to life.

And it took off immediately. By the time the minivan market hit its peak in 2000, American motorists were buying 1.4 million of them a year, and many analysts were forecasting sales could reach 2 million. An estimated 489,000 minivans were sold in the U.S. last year, according to IHS Markit data.

How America fell back in love with trucks and SUVs

That led to a flood of competition, including not only domestic rivals General Motors and Ford, but virtually every major manufacturer from Europe and Asia. But the industry didn't count on the drawing power of utility vehicles, especially the first wave of compact, car-based crossovers like the Ford Escape, Toyota RAV-4 and Honda CR-V. They quickly carved off buyers turned off by the minivan's functional but decidedly boring box shape.

Compounding the problem, from comic books to late night comics, minivans had become the butt of jokes -- derided as soccer-mom-mobiles, the vehicles you drove only if you had it. Not even Hollywood tough guy Mark Wahlberg and his chiseled abs could help revive sales.

"I like my car because it's very unassuming," Wahlberg told Ellen DeGeneres in 2015, referring to his Toyota Sienna. "It's got rims on it. It's got DirecTV. Tinted windows. My kids love it. My wife will not get in it."

As sales started to plunge in the early aughts, a number of manufacturers, notably including Ford and General Motors, pulled out of the minivan market, shifting their focus to their expanding roster of utility vehicles — and further cutting into people-mover sales.

Even the fate of the Chrysler minivan lineup seemed uncertain as the company shut down one of its original two minivan plants in St. Louis. As recently as three years ago, when Fiat Chrysler abandoned the Town & Country line, the automaker gave serious thought to only offering one minivan model.

Iacocca: "This vehicle has been a continuous "cash cow" and made billions with its staying power."First Production Year: 1990Total Production: Less than 10,000 units (1990)At left, the 2005 Chrysler Town and Country Minivan at DaimlerChrysler headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich.
Photo: Getty Images

The 2017 model-year debut of the Pacifica has turned things around for Fiat Chrysler, helping the carmaker justify what had been seen as a risky, $1 billion investment in its remaining minivan plant in Windsor, Ontario. Demand has surged enough to allow it to also keep alive the Dodge Grand Caravan.

Together, they generated a total of 270,000 sales last year, firmly placing Fiat Chrysler back in the lead position in the minivan segment with 55% of the market. While Honda's Odyssey slipped to second place, the Pacifica appears to have given some new momentum to the segment, which saw U.S. demand settling at 489,000 last year, according to IHS Markit data. That was down slightly from 2017, but in line with the overall decline of the American motor vehicle market.

The Detroit automaker isn't the only one sensing new life. "I think minivans are going to stay around," said Jack Hollis, U.S. general manager of the Toyota division for Toyota North America, following the brand's own Chicago news conference. "It won't go away at all. The segment may get a little smaller but it still plays an important role."

Minivan sales got off to a slow start in a Polar Vortex-plagued January, but IHS principal auto analyst Stephanie Brinley is betting that minivan sales finally "have found a natural level" and, barring a major recession, should stabilize at somewhere north of 400,000 in the years ahead.

And that, she said, gives companies like Fiat Chrysler, Honda and Toyota, the three largest players in the segment, reason to celebrate.