While often derided as highly unfashionable, minivans really are the Swiss Army knife of vehicles. They’re people haulers, cargo carriers, mobile campsites, and can even improvise as work vehicles for when a utility van (the Leatherman of vehicles) is unavailable. Minivans also drive more like cars than the brutes occupying the SUV and pickup segment, making them easier for some drivers to live with.
With vans having enjoyed a cultural renaissance during the 1970s, minivans hit the ground running in the mid-1980s and continued to swell in popularity until the millennium. By then, North Americans were buying an estimated 1.5 million minivans a year. But that’s also where society decided to apply the brakes. Sport utility vehicles and crossovers have effectively supplanted the van as the default family conveyance — though recent sales figures have suggested those dying flames are now being rekindled.
According to a report from The Wall Street Journal, minivans are enjoying a comeback that may foreshadow something bigger. It even goes so far as to suggest that the body style is poised for a serious comeback. While that may be a little optimistic at this juncture, there is some supportive data that they’re making some headway.
Some of this was anecdotal. The outlet noted that Kim Kardashian purchased a custom $400,000 Maybach minivan for a television program and that there’s been an increase in pro-van groups on social media. We’ve also spent the last several years seeing van culture redefined online (#VanLife) with young adults attempting to frame the body type as a way to escape the trappings of a mundane existence. They’re showcasing vans as adventure vehicles. However, the preferred options are often larger utility models that have been converted into a mobile living unit.
Harder evidence of the culture evolving was provided thanks to some numerical data. The Wall Street Journal suggested most of the online groups were growing their userbase despite Americans using social media less often. Sales data also seemed to support minivans’ return to grace.
The average price of minivans as a category was up 43 percent nationally in the first quarter of 2022 — though that was staged against the same period in 2017 because the last few years have been kind of insane. This represents the single largest percentage gain of any vehicle category during a period where just about everything has gotten substantially more expensive. Meanwhile, North America’s preferred minivan — the Toyota Sienna — saw its U.S. deliveries surge from a paltry 42,885 units in 2020 to a whopping 107,990 in 2021. Again, the last few years have been outliers due to the pandemic. But they’ve also helped to reshape the industry in strange and interesting ways.
Toyota says sales of its Sienna — the nation’s bestselling minivan in 2021, according to Edmunds — more than doubled last year from 2020.
Doug Eroh, president of Longo Toyota in El Monte, Calif., says the dealership has stopped taking Sienna orders, with a wait list of 1,500 hopeful buyers he says will likely take more than a year to satisfy.
But not all minivans have seen similar bumps in volume. The Honda Odyssey saw sales decline by 9 percent in 2021, despite the model owning nearly a quarter of the entire segment. Still, minivan sales were up by 16 percent (year over year) as a whole. Meanwhile, commercial vans (e.g. Ford Transit, Mercedes-Benz Metris) saw an 8 percent drop against 2020, with Ram ProMaster (often viewed as the bargain option) variants being one of the only models to see a meaningful increase in sales volume.
My take? People simply cannot afford to be as choosy anymore. It’s the same reason you’re seeing fewer sporting vehicles targeting middle-class consumers. Baby boomers are aging out and the younger generations simply don’t have the same purchasing power, so they’re opting back into affordable alternatives (e.g. motorcycles) for recreation and viewing automobiles in terms of how many boxes they can check. Minivans are ideal here a jack of all trades, even if they don’t mark any singular category with the same gusto as a more-focused vehicle might.
But it’s honestly still difficult to see a future where they suddenly supplant crossovers as North America’s dominant form of transportation. As a former minivan owner and lifelong advocate, I’ll be the first one to blindly suggest it’s the superior platform in most instances. However, most families can make do without one, especially if they’re on the smaller side and do-it-yourself projects aren’t part of anybody’s weekly routine. Minivans have also had a few historic blind spots (e.g. NVH) that the industry has addressed without solving the problem for the entire segment due to the way the vehicles are designed.
Despite vans seemingly having gained some ground of late, these victories have still left them with an incredibly small share of the overall market. For 2021, they only managed to outsell large sedans — another wonderful segment that’s been almost completely abandoned by the industry — resulting in their holding just a total U.S. market share of just 4.5 percent. While that has come at the expense of utility vans, there’s some cautious optimism that minivans might be poised for a resurgence in popularity. Though manufacturers will ultimately need to start producing and marketing them in earnest and just hope it coincides with consumer tastes if we’re expecting to see them on the road in truly great numbers.
[Images: Toyota; Stellantis; Honda]
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