Paddle shifters, refrigerators, captain’s chairs: automakers desperate to make minivans cool again

Amit Shah’s three children cheering him from the second row as his 2018 Honda Odyssey minivan accelerated down the Palisades Interstate Parkway. They were running late so Shah did what was needed: pedal to the metal.

“We overhauled a McLaren,” said Shah, a longtime fan of the minivan, with a laugh. “My kids were excited.”

Shah could not convince his wife to buy a minivan, even though the size of their family had grown. That all changed when he rented it on a trip to California a few years back.

“We thought it was so much easier to load and unload than my Durango [SUV],” he told ABC News. “The Durango is not as versatile as the minivan, which drives better. The Odyssey is also more comfortable.”

Minivans, like the once beloved station wagon, have seen a decline in their popularity since sport utility vehicles were introduced in the 1990s. Only four automakers – Toyota, Honda, Kia and Chrysler – currently produce minivans. These new “multi-purpose vehicles” come with captain’s chairs, refrigerators, paddle shifters, 20-inch wheels, the latest safety technology, spacious screens, muscular exterior styling and enough room to fit up to eight people.

In Englewood Cliffs, the town of Shah, New Jersey, parents drive their children to school in Range Rovers, Cadillac Escalades and giant SUVs. But when Shah arrives in his Odyssey, he is a local figure.

“Kids 10 and under love minivans,” he said. “It’s like I pulled into a Ferrari.”

It was Chrysler Pacific that convinced Cars and Drivers senior editor Ezra Dyer and his wife to ditch their Lincoln MKT crossover permanently for a minivan.

“My wife and I were like, ‘Why are we so good at this horrible level of convenience? Why are we denying ourselves this?'” he told ABC News. “I had a kid for 10 years before I even had a minivan. I wish I had this moment of wisdom sooner.”

The sporty looks and red interiors of the Pacific convinced Dior’s sister-in-law to buy a matching minivan a week later. The plug-in hybrid Pacifica gets 30 miles in full electric mode, Dyer said, which is perfect for ferrying your two kids and two dogs around town on a regular basis.

“Even dogs like the Pacific better,” he said. “It’s hard to appreciate a minivan until you’ve experienced one.”

And the lack of Pacifica in showrooms could be a sign that minivans are experiencing a comeback, Dyer said.

“Minivans undercover are cool,” he said. “There could be a bigger future for the minivan than it is now.”

Toyota last year relaunched the Sienna minivan, now in its fourth generation, with a hybrid powertrain and all-wheel-drive option. Sales have so far reached 75,000 units and Michael Tripp, vice president of vehicle marketing and communications at Toyota North America, expects that number to top 100,000 by December.

“We are very pleased with the launch of this fourth generation Sienna. Toyota never thought of dismantling it,” he told ABC News. “We strongly believe in this segment.”

Toyota’s designers were determined to make the Sienna attractive, sexy and provocative – even sports car-like – to boost sales. The Siena also got some ultra luxe sport utility vehicles to offer: captain’s chairs, second row seats with pop-up ottomans, a refrigerator, roof rack and tow hitch.

“We really learned with the third generation that if we have the right packaging and styling, people will be excited to drive it – not embarrassed or ashamed,” he said. “We had to get the styling right.”

Honda’s Odyssey reigns as the best-selling minivan of the last decade. The Japanese automaker has sold more than 510,000 units in the past five years and nearly 3 million since its debut 26 years ago – the Odyssey is Honda’s second best-selling light truck of all time. The owner of Odyssey is also the youngest in the brand; Only the Civic attracts the young buyer.

The 2022 Odyssey is powered by a 3.5-liter V6 engine that makes 280 horsepower and 262 lb.-ft. Why torque? Other highlights include LED lights, power-sliding rear doors, wireless charging, keyless entry, heated steering wheel, ventilated front seats and re-configurable and removable second-row seats.

Jalopnik editor-in-chief Rory Carroll was blown away by Odyssey after a week-long run with his family in Michigan. The minivan’s security system – including its child surveillance cameras – impressed him the most as a father.

“Honda has a camera that monitors [passengers] So that the driver does not need to take his eyes off the road. This feature alone will be a huge selling point for parents,” he told ABC News.

According to IHS Markit, sales of multi-passenger vehicles in the US market were up 1.9% in 2020. Carroll said he doesn’t understand why so few American families drive minivans. They are more spacious and practical than a ute and are much easier to enter and exit – especially for adults. Plus, today’s minivans hardly resemble the boxy vans of decades ago.

“The Pacific has an unexpectedly beautiful minivan shape … it’s shocking how cool and aerodynamic it is,” he said. “Kia’s Carnival clearly looks like an SUV that attracts crossover-buyers.”

He adds, “A minivan is no more friendly than your average crossover.”

Joseph Choi, product planner for the 2022 Kia Carnival, said millennials with families and childless couples are ushering in the new Carnival, which this year replaced the automaker’s Sedona minivan. He said the demand is so hot that dealers find it difficult to keep the minivans on the lot.

“Top trims are selling like gangbusters,” he told ABC News. “Many millennials are trying to break free from the social norms of the past. Carnival is suitable for so many needs and you don’t have to use all the utility all the time.”

To attract these key customers, Kia went technically heavy with the Carnival, which installed 360-degree cameras, dual 12.3-inch screens, a Bose stereo system and 12 driver assistance system features. The 3.5-liter V6 engine makes a healthy 290 hp and leather seats and a panoramic roof are also available in some trims. The minivan’s “VIP lounge seats,” with power controls and leg extension, are “unlike any experience,” Choi said, comparing the seats to a $161,000 Mercedes Maybach GLS SUV.

Choi said the Carnival’s upscale interior and bold, rugged look could help it steal sales from the competition, which he acknowledged was fierce for such a niche market.

“Everyone has upped their game,” he said. “It’s all about the execution.”

Car and Driver’s Dyer said he was shocked that his Pacifica gets so much outcry from strangers.

“I didn’t anticipate that anyone would notice and appreciate it. No one ever said anything about the Lincoln we had,” he said.

Just one small complaint.

“I wish it had 100 more horsepower,” he said. “From zero to 60 in 5 seconds? I’ll take that.”

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