By KATHLEEN HOERSTEN QUIRK
Special to ADAMM
Anthony Weide says his wife swore she’d never drive a minivan.
“She was forever the person who said /I’ll never get into a minivan.’ We have two young children – and two months ago she magically wanted a minivan,” he says.
Weide, who is Kia sales manager at ROSEN Nissan Kia, says families like his are giving minivans another look as new designs, safety features and amenities become available. “The minivan isn’t exactly the boxy squared off vehicle anymore. They’re starting to make them more attractive so they can attract some of those people who’ve shied away from the minivan,” he says.
When minivans first hit the market in the 1980s, they were an instant hit with families who were seeking space for both cargo and children. However, the minivans lost some traction over the years. That was partially because of the very “soccer mom” image that made them so practical in the first place, and partly because auto makers began offering an array of other types of vehicles that appealed to the same market – crossovers and SUVs of all sizes.
A few manufacturers, like Ford and GM even pulled out of the minivan market, steering customers to those other options.
Now minivans, which never really went away, are attracting new customers. Of the remaining group of minivans on the market, which include the Dodge Grand Caravan, Chrysler Town & Country and Pacifica, Kia Sedona, Toyota Sienna, Honda Odyssey and Nissan Quest, most reported sales increases last year – some of them substantial, according to Automotive News, which estimated in a May article that the U.S. minivan market grew 28% in the first half of 2016.
“I’d estimate that 30% of my sales over my career are minivans,” says Eric Bitter, a sales rep at 5 CORNERS Dodge Chrysler Jeep Ram, who has worked at the Cedarburg dealership for 19 years.
The addition of new features over the past 5 to 10 years is one factor, according to local dealers.
Safety features like backup and blind spot monitors, which have been added to minivans as well as other models, are attractive to safety conscious buyers, says Terry Schwieso, new car sales manager at WILDE Toyota Scion.
“Features like the rear cross-traffic alert are helpful,” he adds. If you’re backing out of a parking spot at the mall and another vehicle is coming down the aisle, he explains, you get a visual and audible alert.
“If you peeled back the outside of the new Pacifica, it would look like you’re surrounded by pillows,” says Roman Weninger, general manager/dealer principal at 5 CORNERS Dodge Chrysler Jeep Ram of the 2017 minivan’s air bag system.
“With the Pacifica, they have re-engineered the van from top to bottom, with an array of safety features, says Tony Franklin, general manager of SCHMIT BROTHERS Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram.
New styling and design also are factors as minivans move to a sleeker, more stylish look. “Kia has really tailored and ramped up the Sedona and made an effort to get in the minivan market big time,” says Weide.
Then there are the amenities – everything but the kitchen sink it seems. Like the Honda Odyssey, the new 2017 Pacifica even has an optional vacuum cleaner built in, says Franklin So the 2-year-old who spills crackers or French fries in the back seat won’t get into quite as much trouble.
A number of the vans have a hands-free keying system that can help a mom with her arms full of groceries and toddlers clinging to her legs open the doors or back tail gate by just standing there with a key in her pocket. Another nifty feature of the Sedona is a built-in flashlight that can be detached if needed for camping or roadside repairs.
The Toyota Sienna’s Driver Easy Speak has a built-in microphone up front picks up a parent’s voice from the front and transmits it through the rear speakers.
Like other models, the minivans have upped their game in offering all kinds of electronics and connections to keep passengers out of mischief – from USB ports, to chargers to power outlets to Bluetooth for hands-free phone use or streaming music to DVD players. The 2017 Pacifica has fold-down DVD players in the head rests, allowing everyone in the vehicle to watch their own favorite show.
Other improvements are increased engine power and better gasoline mileage — no more wondering if that engine has enough horsepower to get you up the freeway ramp. Features like power sliding doors and power lift gates make it easy to get children and stuff in and out of the vehicle.
Most of the minivans offer fold-up seating options – Stow ‘n Go for example — to turn seating into cargo and storage space without much fuss.
And, while the minivans have been stereotyped as vehicles for young families, they’re not the only ones buying. The 50-plus market is very good for their dealership, says Franklin. “It’s not just families; it’s older adults who’ve grown up with the Caravan or Town & Country. We get a lot of repeat and referral business.”
Weide said his dealership recently took a trade-in from an 80-plus year-old man who traded in his Hyundai Entourage. “I just love the fact it’s easy to get in and out of,” the buyer told Weide. “It’s easy to drive; and it’s good in the snow.” Older buyers also mention the great visibility minivans offer.
This is a good time for buyers interested in minivans, say the dealer reps. End of the model year sales are going on, plus Dodge and Chrysler are currently offering significant incentives and rebates on the 2016 Caravan and the Town & Country as they introduce the Pacifica.
“They’re offering very good incentives on the old body style so those vans are moving quite briskly,” says Franklin. “Those Dodge Grand Caravans are going fast,” agrees Bitter. “We’re rapidly running out of those because the deals are so great.”