Automakers Up The 'Cool Factor' For Minivans

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Chrysler invented the minivan 27 years ago. But after being wildly popular for years, the segment has lost customers — first to SUVs and then to crossovers. Now minivans are getting a makeover. They're more practical and convenient than ever before, and companies are trying to boost the minivan's sex appeal.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

After Chrysler introduced the minivan 27 years ago, that new vehicles stayed wildly popular and for years. Then, along came SUVS and crossovers and the minivan lost its luster. This year, minivans are getting a makeover.

Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton reports.

TRACY SAMILTON: Pity the poor minivan. It hauls the family on vacations, never complaining. Schleps the kids to school and soccer practice. Ever ready for a spontaneous trip to the hardware store. But does it get any respect? It gets called names. Like loser cruiser. Road slug.

Well, if you make minivans, you can get mad. Or like Toyota, you can embrace the situation with a tongue-in-cheek rap, "The Swagger Wagon" sung by an unhip white yuppie suburban couple.

(Soundbite of song, "The Swagger Wagon")

Unidentified People: (Rapping) We rock the SE not an SUV and it's true if I were you I'd be jealous of me, in my swagger wagon. Yeah, the swagger wagon. It's the swagger wagon.

SAMILTON: The people who design minivans are the first to admit they're fighting an image problem. And they're doing something about it. Chrysler has an optional all-black leather interior it nicknamed the Man Van. All four of the biggest players - Honda, Chrysler, Toyota and Nissan rolled out new designs this year. There's more sculpting, more chrome, more creased sheet metal. Even jaunty little fins.

Sage Marie is with Honda.

Mr. SAGE MARIE (Spokesman, Honda): If you think of what makes a sports car compelling, it's that it's low and wide, right; it's what makes it emotionally exciting. So from a styling standpoint we tried to do that with the Odyssey.

(Soundbite of minivan commercial)

Unidentified People: (Singing) Hey little minivan we're going to the grocery store.

SAMILTON: Well, upping the cool factor may help. But people really buy minivans for comfort, convenience, and practicality; the sliding doors, all that space, and the seats. Minivan designers take fierce pride in their seating configurations. Honda's minivan has a second row middle seat you can slide really close to the front seat. That puts the baby within arm's reach of a parent.

For Chrysler's Ben Winter, the bragging point is their Stow and Go seats.

Mr. BEN WINTER (Vehicle line executive, Chrysler): You can take this seat and just fold it into the floor...

(Soundbite of seat folding)

Mr. WINTER: ...and away it goes, and it just disappears.

SAMILTON: Fold all the seats down and there's enough room for a refrigerator or two. But one company thinks some customers could be willing to downsize a little, especially as gas hovers around four dollars a gallon. Ford Motor Company's new small people-mover, the C-Max, will seat seven, it will have sliding doors. But Ford's Paul Anderson says it will get car-like fuel economy. Just don't call it a minivan.

Mr. PAUL ANDERSON (Marketing Manager, Ford): It's a multi-activity vehicle.

SAMILTON: But other companies think that lots of people will still want all that room. Back at Chrysler, Ben Winter says, in the end, people who want a minivan will buy it, no matter what it's called. Because nothing out there can better meet the needs of a family, needs as it goes from small to large to empty nest.

Mr. WINTER: That's why minivans continue to remain popular despite many people predicting for many years that, aw, the segment's dying, the segment's dying. It's not.

SAMILTON: And with Gen X and Gen Y starting families, many could find themselves doing something once unthinkable, driving a minivan just like their parents did.

For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton, in Ann Arbor.

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