The Chariot of the Suburbs

For this first full installment, we’re starting off on a lighter note with the minivan. The once ubiquitous chariot of the suburbs and icon of middle-class family life is disappearing, but don’t write it off entirely just yet. 

With Summer in full swing, it’s Road Trip Season for many Americans. This spring, I stopped by the New York International Auto Show to see the latest offerings from the world’s manufacturers. I was struck by the wide array of new Crossover and Three-Row SUVs that look less like Wranglers or Broncos and more like Windstars or Caravans.

I shared this observation with Tyson Jominy, a VP with the auto-rating firm JD Power and a self-described minivan aficionado. 

“SUVs are just minivans with battle armor on them,” he said, “so they do in many ways very closely resemble minivans. For whatever reason it has that stigma. I owned one for about 10 years and up until the day when my kids said you will not drop me off in front of my school with a minivan. The segment is falling. It’s kind of a distant 9th or 10th largest segment. It’s really far down and going the wrong way.”

Jominy is partly right. Sales volumes have certainly fallen far from their late-90’s peak, but they’ve lately stabilized at a steady 5% of the U.S. market. Like the minivan itself, that small slice compensates for a lack of excitement with reliable, steady performance for the automakers who remain committed to the segment. 

Fiat-Chrysler is the undisputed market leader, selling more than half of U.S. minivans with the Pacifica and Dodge Caravan. Away from the glitz and sparkle of the Auto Show’s main floor, a fleet of Pacificas was tucked into a quiet corner. Chrysler representative Claire Carroll joined me in a red special edition 35th Anniversary Chrysler Pacifica to talk about Detroit’s commitment to the original utility vehicle.

“In 1984, we actually invented the minivan segment,” she said. “And you know, we’ve been a leader ever since innovating with all of our generation. So this is kind of the latest iteration.”

I asked her about minivans’ declining popularity.

“I mean personally, I think our minivan is the best one and its people love it,” Carroll said. “We’re very proud of this minivan, and we still maintain about 56 percent of market share. It kind of is this unique vehicle where if you have aging parents – if you’re in the sandwich generation you have kids – it’s an all-around great family car… there’s really no better product to move people or things and that’s kind of where we’re going with the future of Chrysler. We’re the people mover brand of FCA, so it’s a natural fit.”

In the early days of the SUV craze, most models were basically pickup trucks, with a rough ride and mushy handling. Little by little the push to offer gentler handling, more safety features, cargo space, better fuel economy, and third-row seating is resulting in a line of vehicles that increasingly try to emulate – but fall short of – the minivan’s extraordinary safety and practicality. The gap between what consumers SAY they want and what they actually BUY highlights a conundrum that is as old as marketing itself. 

I asked Toyota’s John Stemberg to compare the advantages of the Japanese company’s minivan against its three-row SUV.

“The Sequoia is built on our Tundra platform, so it’s a body-on-frame truck platform. Seats eight, so it’s a bigger heavier vehicle. And the Sienna is a unibody, so built on the Camry car platform,” he said.

“I tell people the Sienna rides like a Lexus and they laugh at me, but you have to drive it. It rides like a Lexus!” he continued. “And in our entire line of over 20 vehicles, the most interior room of any of the vehicles is a Sienna. A hundred and ninety-nine point five cubic feet. Seats 8 comfortably. I’m a tall guy, I’m 6’5”, I can fit comfortably in the third row of the Sienna.”

I asked him about the gut reaction that some folks have about the term “minivan” and how he would rebrand it for better marketing. 

“A lot of parents are like, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I want a minivan, but they’re so practical,’” he said. “Well, we have a Sport Edition with 19-inch alloy wheels and smoke dark headlights and a spoiler that we call the Swagger Wagon. It’s the coolest of all minivans.”

But the SE Seinna isn’t only about looks.

“You know, it’s super-duper practical, so it definitely has its own niche for folks who don’t want an SUV and need something bigger,” he said. “Fold down the third row take out the second row you have over eight feet in the back of a Sienna. You can put in sheets of plywood and close the hatch… you’re able to have all your amenities: heated seats, memory seeds, panoramic moonroof… I mean you can get all that and it’s going to look good, and you’ve got your Swagger on. So if you don’t want to call them minivans, just call it the Swagger Wagon.”

If the minivan does make a comeback as the Swagger Wagon or otherwise, you can bet on a big marketing campaign. After all, if you ask some auto analysts about the growth of SUVs, they say it’s driven largely corporate marketing over consumer demand. Trucks and Crossovers tend to fetch higher profit margins than Sedans or Vans, and buyers seem to be less price sensitive when they’re getting a better coolness factor. 

That could change though. According to Kelly Blue Book, the shift to SUVs pushed the average new car cost to more than 37 thousand dollars, which is slightly above the minivan average. How much longer will customers pay more for less utility? 

Overseas, the segment is more than twice as popular with the ever-practical Austrians, Belgians, and Germans. In China sales in the Multi-Purpose Vehicles segment have quadrupled since 2011. It would seem there’s a baseline demand for the minivan by those who need to move people and stuff and who aren’t affected by the product’s social stigma. 

Just ask Mr. Jominy: “you know the truthfully one day our kids will have that same stigma for SUVs… I think they’re going to think about those vehicles the same way that our generation kind of thinks about minivans and what’s associated with driving one of those.”

For now, SUVs have a pretty dominant lead over just about every other car, so it’s hard to see any imminent drastic shifts in favor of the minivan. But the appearance of Volkswagen’s microbus-inspired electric vehicle in more TV ads and trade shows – carefully avoiding the term minivan, of course – could signal that an attitude shift is coming. Call it what you will, the minivan has a lot to offer to middle class families that need to schlep kids and their teammates to soccer practice, or load a stack of plywood for a treehouse, or provide accessibility options for disabled or aging relatives. 

With the current tri-opoly of Chrysler, Toyota and Honda, there aren’t many options for would-be MPV buyers, and that leaves a gap in the auto market between budget-priced compact vehicles and expensive larger crossovers. I wonder what possibilities could result from taking some of the engineering brilliance that transformed the SUV into a grocery-getter and applying it to the reimagination of the minivan.

Introducing the Missing Middle

Welcome to the Missing Middle, a new podcast that explores the changing economics of the American Dream, and how those changes affect the nation’s Middle Class.
This project will feature ideas, experiences, and trends that are transforming how we define the American Dream. The economy may be strong, but for a lot of people the Dream remains out of reach.
We will cover many of the things people associate with Middle Class life — stuff like jobs, education, housing, transportation — just about anything that hardworking folks use their time, talent, and treasure to secure for themselves and for their families. We’ll explore where people live and what they need to do to live there.
We will also talk about fairness, about opportunity, about access to the promised benefits of the American Dream. Many Americans have historically been denied those benefits because of their race, wealth, gender, sexual identity, or physical ability… And many still are.
Living costs are rising faster than wages, causing all sorts of people to find themselves in increasingly precarious circumstances. The resulting economic inequality is eroding the once-robust Middle Class that is the pillar of the American Dream.
The phrase “Missing Middle” is primarily used by Urban Planners to refer to the availability of local housing options for mid-income households. Cities with a missing middle see their growth compromised, and residents of all stripes experience a diminished quality of life. America – sometimes called the city on a hill – is facing a similar challenge.
In this podcast, the Middle Class and the American Dream are fundamentally interdependent: where one goes, the other will soon follow. But it’s not all doom-and-gloom! Each of these challenges has talented and energetic people striving toward a brighter future, and opportunities for new growth are multiplying. The traditional definition of the American Dream may be going away, but a new one is forming to take its place.
If all this sounds interesting to you, please get in touch by emailing here. Tell me: how do YOU define the American Dream? Write a note or record a voice memo to be included in a future episode. And thanks for reading. Tell me: how do YOU define the American Dream? Write a note or record a voice memo to be included in a future episode. And thanks for reading.