Substance Over Style

Kia’s KV7 concept at the North American International Auto Show looked like a Sedona minivan replacement in all but name, although its goofy gullwing doors and trendy office-style seating won’t make it into production.

Kia’s KV7 concept at the North American International Auto Show looked like a Sedona minivan replacement in all but name, although its goofy gullwing doors and trendy office-style seating won’t make it into production. Kia was keen to distance the concept from its current minivan, presumably because the Sedona hasn’t been a great success in the U.S. Both Kia’s design boss Peter Schreyer and U.S. chief designer Tom Kearns said that the KV7 celebrated the “boxiness” of a minivan. These comments had bloggers bloviating about how the shape was retro and cool, a break from the dominant dustbuster minivan aesthetic.

This rather misses a couple of points. First, that the Chrysler Town & Country and the Dodge Caravan, the best-selling vehicles in the segment, went back to a boxier style for the 2008 model year, one that’s somewhat reminiscent of the original 1984 Chrysler minivan. The Kia KV7 simply went further in its homage to the design of Hal Sperlich’s original Chrysler. Second, whether minivans embrace their essential boxiness or not, they aren’t exactly cool. (The VW Microbus concept shown at Detroit in 2001 is the exception to this comment. But note that it is a concept, and not the Routan.)

The real reason that automakers except Chrysler, Honda, and Toyota want to reinvent the minivan is that the sales have tanked, from 1.37-million in 2000 to just over 500,000 last year. The market last year was down, but “car-based” three-row utility vehicles accounted for around 1.3 million vehicles in suburban driveways, or about the number of minivans sold in 2000. The slack has been taken up by crossover SUVs (CUVs) including those from automakers such as Ford and GM, which walked away from making minivans in the last decade. (Remember the Buick Terraza, Saturn Relay, or Mercury Monterey anyone? Nor can we.) Ford likes to call its Flex a CUV, but it’s an oversize riff on a 1950s station wagon that’s functionally a minivan. Whatever it actually is, customers haven’t been that keen to embrace it: just 34,227 Flexes were sold in 2010 despite Ford’s current status as the auto industry’s darling. Chrysler shifted more than six times as many of its minivans. GM has been much more successful than Ford with its Lambda-platform crossovers, although the new Explorer deserves to do well.

I’m still at a loss as to why consumers favor CUVs, however, because minivans are the most logical of family vehicles. The only reason for choosing a three-row crossover SUV over a minivan has to be image. Perhaps it’s just unacceptable for soccer moms and dads to turn up in a minivan—even at their kids’ soccer matches. But when it comes to substance over style, a minivan wins out. Compare the Honda Odyssey with its Pilot stable mate. Both are based off the Accord platform and have a 3.5-liter V-6 engine driving the front wheels through a five-speed automatic transmission. Both can seat up to eight passengers, but those in the Odyssey will be much more comfortable. The Pilot has a similar amount of head-, shoulder-, and legroom in the first two rows, but third-row occupants—that would be you, kids—have room to stretch their limbs in the back of the Odyssey. Plus, you can actually get to the third row.

Neither vehicle is going to have an enthusiast panting with pleasure after a back road excursion, but both drive nicely, the edge going to the Odyssey because of its better ride quality. The base Odyssey also shades the Pilot on mileage, delivering EPA numbers of 18 mpg in the city and 27 mpg on the highway compared with the Pilot’s 17/23 mpg.

Where they really don’t stack up, though, is in the sheer usability and versatility of the cargo areas. The Pilot has 47.7-ft3 of space with the third-row folded and 87.0 with the second row flat. The Odyssey has 93.1- and 148.5-ft3 respectively. In real-world terms, you can get a 4-ft wide sheet of plywood into an Odyssey. My son’s go-kart will fit, it’s easy to get it in and out because of the low load floor, and it won’t go into a Pilot, period. As a keen cyclist, I appreciate that you can put bikes upright behind the second-row seats in a minivan, which you can’t in most SUVs.

Hmm, just looks like I’ve convinced myself that the next vehicle in the driveway will be a minivan. Except, of course, there’s the question of style. As a soccer dad, I’m prepared to live with the stigma of turning up to a game in a minivan, but whether my wife wants to own up to being the soccer mom that she is may be a harder sell.