I laugh at all the people who call minivan drivers “soccer moms” while sitting behind the wheel of their Ford Explorers, Hyundai Santa Fes, and Dodge Journeys. It’s actually an ironic (and sad) reflection of the sheer vanity of car buyers these days. And, by vanity, I mean sheep-like behaviour. Few of the nay-sayers will admit that their Chevrolet Traverse is essentially a big, heavy, ugly minivan. But even fewer will say this about the Ford Explorer.
Let’s expand on my last point a little bit. Don’t get me wrong, the new Explorer is good at what it does. But there’s a reason why it’s far-outselling the old Windstar and the current Ford Flex (a car that I actually really like, but we’ll get to that later). And that reason is the way that it looks.
Ford Explorer: the original anti-minivan.
You see, back in 1991, the Ford Explorer was one of the very first so-called SUVs to really break the mold. It had a lot going for it—it was large, comfortable, powerful, capable and practical. But it didn’t look like a family-hauler. It looked like a fun-to-drive 4×4, partly because it was. Fast forward to 2011, and the basic outline of the Explorer has changed very little, but it has really become little more than an average Costcomobile.
But that doesn’t matter. It still looks the part, and that’s why it’s been a sales titan. Most North Americans seem to have the seed planted in their head that SUVs are somehow more capable, and more rugged than their non-SUV counterparts, such as station wagons and minivans. There are other social handicaps imposed on these types of vehicles, but I will cover those later. The basic message that should be taken away from this allegory is that a car company can sell a people-mover in North America so long as it looks like an SUV.
One of the very first companies to recognize this was General Motors. Throughout the 21st century, they have mastered the art of making “SUVs” that are more or less just minivans without sliding doors. They started in 2001 with the Pontiac Aztek and Buick Rendevous, which were actually derived from GM’s U-body minivan chassis. GM’s success with these vehicles (never mind about the Aztek) was the main reason for them to go through with the Lambda platform; which resulted in large crossovers that were largely derived from the Malibu platform, yet were longer than an Escalade. I am, of course, talking about the likes of the Buick Enclave, Chevrolet Traverse, and GMC Acadia.
2013 GMC Arcadia
As successful as GM’s big crossovers were, their minivans failed harder than Brett Favre after coming out of retirement, and GM pulled the plug on them as soon as the Lambda platform hit the market. The failure of their vans was a testament to the simple fact that the average family doesn’t want to be caught dead in a minivan if they don’t have to. Well, they were absolute garbage too, but that’s another conversation entirely.
You see, in North America, there’s somewhat of a “soccer mom” stereotype to driving a minivan. You know, the type of mom that might yell at her kids in public or say something to the effect of “can I speak to the manager?” Worse still, if you’re a man, the only reason you have a van is because your wife has successfully neutered you into giving up on your dreams of driving a Camaro, and forcing you to face reality. Kind of a depressing scenario.
Before minivans, however, the same sort of social awkwardness applied to the station wagon. Once again, the stereotypes are fruitful. As a man, you’ve got to be pretty secure to drive one, lest you get roasted by your buddies and becoming known as Clark Griswold (if you don’t get this reference, you have some Netflixing to do). Before that, even, the memories of the great big nine-passenger Ranch Wagons and Vista Cruisers were the loserhood symbol du jour of the 60s and 70s. Society would have you believe that the last person who actually wanted a station wagon was Eric Forman (again, you’ve really got to Netflix if you don’t get it. Seriously.)
But wagons are starting to get cool again. Look at some of Volvo’s recent svelte creations if you don’t believe me. Or the wagon versions of the Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG or the Cadillac CTS-V. Furthermore, most JDM guys will tell you that there are some pretty awesome wagons in their clique.
But why are wagons becoming cool again? One could say that it’s merely ironic, after years of being relegated to the trilby-wearing neckbeard club on the order of the social ladder, and that has a certain amount of truth to it. But in a day and age where thrift and sensibility are very much in vogue, wagons have a huge coolness advantage over the common SUV and crossover. They are lighter, less expensive, more efficient and sometimes even more capable than their crossover counterparts. Therefore, they make you seem smarter, and looking smart can be a haute-couture fashion accessory in the 21st century. Of course, the classic counter-argument is the wagon-like Ford Flex: despite being essentially the same car as the new Explorer, it has sold far fewer units because it’s “ugly” and “looks like a station wagon.” My response to that is simple: more sales does not a cooler vehicle make.
Therein lies the state of the humble minivan. If wagons can be cool again on the grounds of thriftiness and sensibility, it follows that minivans should do the same. Minivans are usually quite a bit less money than their crossover counterparts, and are generally quite a bit more practical (provided you don’t need to pull a trailer). The floor in a minivan is usually quite a bit lower than in a crossover, and that gives you two advantages: you have a more comfortable cabin for when you have passengers; and a lot more cargo space when you don’t. I wouldn’t want to try hauling a filing cabinet or a ladder in the back of a Traverse, but take the seats out of a Grand Caravan and it’s a cinch. What’s more, if you actually have to haul around 7 people, the gallery in the third row will not hate your guts if you buy a minivan. And they will fit there, too.
Part two of the minivan’s style upgrade is centered around its appearance. Let’s face it—vans are sexy again. Really. You can get a Mercedes-Benz Metris, which is a van, but is also a freakin’ Mercedes. And it looks genuinely like one. The new Kia Sedona is also pretty sharp-looking, as is the new Chrysler Pacifica. In fact, all three of these vans are much easier on the eyes than a Honda Pilot or a Chevrolet Traverse.
2016 Kia Sedona SX
Of course, it’s going to take a while to shake off the “soccer mom” and “reluctant suburban father” stereotypes. But, if you think that driving around a Dodge Durango is going to help your case out, you’re kidding yourself. If you actually wanted to have your way, you would have bought a Challenger or a Ram, not a Durango. Besides, you see far too many cringey stick-person family stickers on crossovers, anyway.
The Comic Sans of window stickers. These things have gotta go.
In short, you have every right to call me insane for calling the humble minivan the next ironically awesome family-hauler. But, you can’t deny that big 3-row crossovers have a certain air of compensation and insecurity about them. I get it: it sucks that you’ve got to haul your kids and their hockey bags and you can’t drive a fast car. But instead of trying to cover up your embarrassment, be that dad that wears socks and Crocs and just rises above it. Drive your minivan and like it, cool dad.
Unless, of course, you buy the new Mazda CX-9…