Someone once said, "Minivans are mundane motoring for middle-class moms". Auto manufacturers see minivans not as mundane, but as major money makers.
Minivans have an image problem: they are distinctly un-sexy. Along the way, they have gained the reputation as being primarily designed for mothers to chauffeur their children to soccer practice.
The director of North American forecasting for the global marketing research company, J.D. Power and Associates, Jeff Schuster, says it's tough to overcome that impression.
"It unfortunately grabbed that image of 'this is a soccer mom vehicle,'" he said. "And when that took place, even those who would label themselves soccer moms didn't want to purchase that vehicle as a result."
But the fact remains that few, if any, vehicles are better designed to haul passengers and/or cargo efficiently and comfortably than the minivan. So, despite the rise of the new "crossover" wagons and the continued popularity of sport utility vehicles, Jeff Schuster says the minivan is not dead yet.
"This is a segment that has maintained [sales of] over a million units [annually] of the market, certainly, since it took off [in the 1980s]," said Jeff Schuster. "So, it is not a segment that has completely died nor do we see it dying."
Toyota, for example, has re-designed its Sienna minivan for 2004. Frank Gomi of the company's Vehicle Operations Group says Toyota's chief engineer did extensive and personal market research.
"He came to the U.S. on numerous occasions over the last two years before the launch of the vehicle," said Frank Gomi. "And he drove over 50,000 miles (80,470 kilometers) through every state. And he actually stopped and he talked to a lot of people. He interviewed people at rest stops, like you know at Yosemite [National Park] or Arizona or wherever he actually was. And he would ask people, 'What do you do on road trips, what kinds of things would you like to see in your van?'. And he translated that information into the vehicle."
That information translates, says Mr. Gomi, into a Sienna that is more powerful, longer, wider, with more passenger and cargo room.
"It's more versatile and we also have eight-passenger seating," he said. "We also are more functional. We have power second-row windows in the sliding doors. We have a power rear hatch. We have tri-zone air conditioning. And we also have all-wheel drive availability."
And, perhaps best of all, the base price of just over $23,000 is lower than last year.
"On the CE grade [van], we were able to save almost $1,000 off last year's MSRP [manufacturers suggested retail price]," he said. "And that was predominantly due to production efficiencies and the way they designed the vehicle."
Toyota is not alone in catering to the minivan market. There will be re-designed minivan entries over the next two years from Nissan, Ford, Honda, Chevrolet and Pontiac, as well as new entries from Volkswagen and Mercury.