The rise of the $50,000 minivan

2015 Chrysler Town & Country
Courtesy of FCA

The news was little noticed outside Detroit, but it marks a shift in the future of a certain kind of vehicle – one that became established as suitable for one class of buyers but is morphing into something else entirely.

On Valentine’s Day, Chrysler (FCA) began a 14-week shutdown of the Windsor, Ontario plant where it builds all its minivans. The plant is being retooled to build an all-new version of the upscale Chrysler Town and Country van, which goes on sale next year as a 2017 model. But it will no longer be assembling the popular-priced sibling, the Dodge Grand Caravan, which will be discontinued after the 2015 model year.

The demise of the Caravan, which follows the cancellation of the Plymouth Grand Voyager in 2000, represents the effective end of a vehicle style that endeared itself to Americans for three decades: the economical family hauler. Asian automakers may some day fill the gap, but earlier decisions by Ford (F) and General Motors (GM) to abandon the category mean that no Detroit manufacturer will be making a mass-marketed minivan.

But the van is not going away. In fact, it is moving upscale to richer price points. The Grand Caravan stickers at $21,395; while the 2015 Town & Country starts more than $8,000 higher, at $29,995. The two vans are nearly identical mechanically, but the Chrysler has more standard equipment and higher quality finishes. The bargain-priced minivan is dead; long live the luxury minivan.

The move upmarket comes as no surprise to industry analysts, who say that Chrysler is simply responding to customer trends. Says Jessica Caldwell, senior analyst at car shopping website “Just like the buyers of full-size pickup trucks, consumers buy minivans for a specific purpose and choose their vehicles very carefully. In each case, the vehicle segment has a dedicated audience and a willingness to pay more to get desired amenities. I wouldn’t expect a huge number of customers to demand pricey fully-contented minivans, but a market does exist.”

As Chrysler explains, it is discontinuing the Grand Caravan because it wasn’t making enough money, especially since two-thirds of them were going to fleet sales. “The reality is that [this] is a very difficult price point to get if you’re going to build the technology, the content, the vehicle, the platform that we want to build — and none of the competition can do it either,” Chrysler brand head Al Gardner told Automotive News. “At some point, those customers are wonderful customers for us, and we would love to be able to sell them something, but it may not be a Town and Country.”

The emergence of the upscale minivan represents a rare sea change in public perception. What was once avoided is now prized, even though it has become more expensive. Minivan sales peaked in the early 2000s, and market share has shrunk. The segment generated only 3.4% of the U.S. auto industry’s new vehicle volume in 2014, down from 5.2% in 2007. Demand fell after demographic shifts meant the creation of fewer and smaller families. Meantime, the growing popularity of crossover SUVs, especially those with three rows of seats, gave consumers a more fashionable alternative.

Equally significant was the social stigma that became attached to minivans early on. They were labeled as the vehicle of choice for the clichéd soccer mom, whose driving day consisted of car pools, shopping trips, and personal errands. Even when Americans were buying one million vans a year, the vehicles were shunned by car reviewers and enthusiast publications who risked offending their readership of hot rodders and boy racers.

That attitude seems to be changing. A reviewer for the popular Jalopnik website recently took note of the convenience of sliding doors, individual captain’s chairs, and flexible packaging, and concluded: “A minivan is not a prison sentence. It always amuses me when I hear men disparage minivans as though they are to be driven only by women.They are not going to handle like a Lotus, nor lay down rubber like a Challenger Hellcat [but] minivans don’t have to suck.”

Those manufacturers still in the minivan business (besides Chrysler, they include Honda, Toyota, and Kia) have discovered this too, and begun optioning up their vans to appeal to their selective customers. Timothy Cain at The Truth About Cars website, discovered that his borrowed Toyota Sienna Limited Premium AWD van carried a sticker price of $47,495. Upon taking a closer look, he made a list of the amenities, and discovered it included HID headlights, blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, front and rear park assist sonar, power liftgate, dual sunroofs, rain-sensing wipers, navigation, driver easy speak, dual-view rear-seat entertainment, leather seating, proximity access, and heated steering wheel. Cain concluded: “There can be little argument that these versatile, capable, expansive minivans (or should we say maxivans?) offer more vehicle per dollar than any other type of modern automobile.”

Automakers agree. And despite the sharp drop in sales over the past few years, they view the segment as settled now. “We wouldn’t invest if we didn’t completely understand the segment and recognize it’s very stable,” Chrysler CEO Gardner was quoted as saying in told WardsAuto. “It’s stable for a reason. Sliding doors and flexibility on the interior is vital to the customer.”

It seems that makers of premium and luxury brands have gotten the mrssage, too. At the Geneva auto show in March, BMW will show the 2 Series Gran Tourer, which features all the characteristics of a minivan except for the sliding rear doors. The car did not find much favor with enthusiasts (one called it “a rolling abomination that represents everything wrong with the ‘new’ BMW going forward”). BMW expects the Gran Tourer to bring more family-oriented buyers to the spinning propeller BMW brand.

The 2 Series Gran Tourer follows by one year the introduction in Europe of the Mercedes-Benz V-class van. Being derived from a commercial van, it is larger than most and is designed for efficiency rather than style. Still, Car and Driver reported that “when fitted with the big aluminum wheels and the optional full-LED headlights, a segment first, it manages an upscale appearance.” It sells in Europe for $58,000—upscale indeed!—but there are no plans to bring it to the U.S.

Finally, alert spy photographers have spotted what looks like a premium Acura version of the Honda Odyssey minivan, distinguishable from its mass-market counterpart with a higher level of standard equipment, along with the Acura shield grill and jewel headlights. Honda knows minivans; it sold 122,738 Odysseys last year – the number three best-seller behind the two Chrysler vans.

In the 1995 movie Get Shorty, Chili Palmer, played by John Travolta, goes to a rental lot to pick up the Cadillac he reserved and finds instead an Oldsmobile Silhouette “dustbuster” minivan. “I ordered a Cadillac,” he complains to the rental car attendant. “Oh, well,” the attendant replies, “You got the Cadillac of minivans.”

The line got a big laugh when the movie came out—the plastic-bodied Silhouette was a bust—but, going forward, Chili Palmer may in fact be able to rent a Cadillac minivan—or its Japanese or German equivalent.

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