At the risk of inducing minivan overload, I'm going to tackle that subject once again today. The minivan segment is, as I've been predicting for a while, undergoing a resurgence, and interest in the segment has been boosted significantly by the all-new Toyota Sienna and the soon-to-debut next-generation Honda Odyssey, both of which are specifically aiming to pick up more male customers. Now we're getting word that the Chrysler Group is preparing a special variant of the Dodge Grand Caravan that will bring another shot of testosterone to the party: The "man van."
That little nugget comes courtesy of a recent "Wall Street Journal" story, which hinted that such a product "may borrow heavily from the Grand Caravan R/T," a Dodge concept vehicle that was shown'”with the requisite hood scoop, 20-inch wheels and body kit'”back at the 2008 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
The concept of a minivan for enthusiasts isn't exactly new, though. There's a certain species of gearhead that believes adding a V-8 to anything makes it better, and that's been the case with minivans almost from the day they started rolling off the assembly lines. Alternatively, leveraging the turbocharged Caravans of 1989-1990, some enthusiasts have dialed up the boost for the same effect. And in general, the industry as a whole has often used high-performance variants as a means of goosing sales and kicking up a little extra excitement, even when that means the creation of such oxymoronic niche vehicles as the hi-po pickup or the super-fast SUV.
So it would be no surprise if the two trends finally converged as automakers sought new ways to sell minivans. After all, when you really break things down, there are just a couple of basic directions in which an automaker can work in any segment, and adding "performance" is one of them.
But think about it: A Sienna SE with a sport-tuned suspension? Really? Maybe instead of working on the SE, Toyota engineers could have put more effort into ensuring the four-cylinder Sienna achieved its promised 26 mpg on the highway, instead of ending up with a 24 mpg mark once it was actually tested by the EPA.
That brings up another important differentiator nowadays: Fuel efficiency. Remember, the new Odyssey easily tops the Sienna's numbers, and with a V6 to boot. Pushing its fuel efficiency up from 17 mpg city/25 mpg to an expected 19/28 is a key part of the new Odyssey's story, and better mileage could be a strong customer attractor in this segment. Minivans have often gotten a bit of a free pass when it comes to fuel efficiency, but 19/28 is approaching mid-size sedan territory and would provide some nice bragging rights.
An additional way to overhaul a given product is via design, and Honda also brings distinct new styling cues to the segment, yet without departing from tradition quite as far as the third-generation Nissan Quest did. The Odyssey's "lightning bolt" beltline, which takes a dramatic dip beneath the third-row windows, strongly differentiates the minivans exterior from that of its rivals. Unfortunately, so does the massive track for its sliding rear side doors.
At this stage in the game, the track is unforgivably huge and noticeable, making the minivan appear unfinished. The track then creates a line that is visually carried over across the Odyssey's tailgate, and that's combined with a distinctive separation between the back of the sliding doors and the rear third of the vehicle. The result looks like Honda took three separate products and hastily welded them together.
Which brings us back to the next Grand Caravan. Not only has the sporty route already been taken by Toyota, but it's a very, very difficult feat to pull off credibly in this segment. Fuel efficiency gains are nice (and necessary), but with the price of gas still so low, EPA ratings just aren't going to sell many vehicles. Breakthrough styling always runs the risk of alienating customers, and, again, it seems especially hard to succeed with in the minivan segment.
Here's a wacky idea though: How about developing a minivan that would be, literally, a miniature van. Those with short memories might not recall this, but there was a time when vans were as male-skewing as pickups or body-on-frame SUVs. Even today, note that, although the new "A-Team" movie was mostly forgettable, no one forgot to give the TV series' iconic GMC Vandura a cameo.
With the division already seeing success from the reborn Dodge Challenger and Dodge Charger, bringing back the classic Dodge A100 on a Grand Caravan platform would be my idea of a modern-day "man van"'”and I bet a lot of customers would agree.
Select photos by Todd A. Jensen