My husband and I exchanged glances across the beige expanse of elephant-skin-textured dashboard, sharing a moment of disbelief. We were heading home from the Toyota dealership in a brand new minivan. Maybe it was just the off-gassing from the pristine interior, but it felt strangely dreamlike as we glided down the freeway, seeming to take up one-and-a-half lanes.
What the hell had we been thinking? Were we really a minivan family?
Apparently so because when I looked out the window the next morning, it was still there: Two tons of muddy-green steel, wedged between our neighbor’s organic garden box and our own – a supersized beast too wide for our small urban driveway. The kids stormed outside for their first viewing, giddy as I pushed a button and the doors slid open. “It’s like a playroom! With a dance floor!” our five-year-old erupted. For them, it was love at first sight. For me, it was time to get a grip.
The minivan was, surprisingly, my husband’s idea. To be fair, his first choice would have been no car at all. In the years I’d known him, the only vehicles he’d shown any interest in were his 1961 Ford Falcon and his 1976 BMW motorcycle, both sold reluctantly after the kids were born. He commutes by light rail and rarely drives. His attitude toward new cars swings between disinterest and hostility, and he reserves special contempt for bloated SUVs – in his mind, symbols of waste and overconsumption.
Yet our 10-year-old VW wagon had been flashing angry red warnings at me with increasing regularity. I’d had a close call in the desert of Joshua Tree National Park after a 12-hour solo road trip with the kids. As the family’s chief chauffeur, I’d begun having third-row fantasies, hoping for an end to squabbles over which one of the kids could bring a friend. Even so, minivans weren’t on my short list.
If Americans see their cars as extensions of their identities, few vehicles carry more baggage than the humble people mover. Since the first wood-paneled Dodge Caravans cruised into the cul de sac 25 years ago, minivans have become a running joke – the stodgy symbol of surrender to domestic ennui. Families have fled that image over the past decade, sending minivan sales tumbling by more than half from their 2000 peak of 1.37 million. The replacement? SUVs.
We live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where parents pride themselves on maintaining post-partum hipness and eco-chic. More people shop for hybrids here than anywhere else in the country, according to a recent survey by Cars.com. And yet many families we knew had opted for larger SUVs, now called “crossovers,” as their families got bigger.
I couldn’t fault them for giving hybrids a pass, since the only 7-seater on the market is the Toyota Highlander hybrid, with a base price of $35,000 and middle-of-the road fuel economy. But SUVs have their own gas-guzzling, rollover-prone rep, and as more and more of my friends reacted with shock or amusement when I told them we were considering a minivan, I began to agree with my husband. Why were these SUV-drivers so smug? It’s not like they were rocking rad rides. And isn’t it cooler to be anti-cool?
I wasn’t the first person to think along these lines. Toyota’s ad gurus, Saatchi and Saatchi, had fun with an ironic campaign featuring the “Sienna Family” – a painfully earnest white couple who rap about cruisin’ to their playdates, looking all slick in the Swagger Wagon – the sports edition of the fully redesigned 2011 Sienna.
Honda, meanwhile, gave its Odyssey minivan a major facelift for 2011, and Nissan is releasing a new Quest. All have been described as having a more “masculine” profile – reviewers call them “aggressive” and “broad-shouldered.” I don’t know whether this attempt to give minivan ownership some manly creds will dent SUV sales, but so far my van’s biggest admirers have been guys: several friends’ husbands have confided that it’s their dream vehicle. The appeal is how much stuff they’d be able to haul. With the seats folded down, the van could swallow bikes, tools, surfboards, sofas, super-sized TVs – a cross between a pickup truck and a living room on wheels. Packing for camping trips would no longer strain the frontal lobe: Just throw the stuff in, toss in a couple of kids, and go.
I’m still not quite in with the 86 percent of minivan owners who recently told the car-buying site Honk they are “in love” with their minivans (ours could be a bit smaller). But after an embarrassing adjustment period – including one failed attempt to park in the crowded lot at our local supermarket – I’ve developed some pride in my ride, which my daughter christened the Bullfrog. A few ground rules helped: I won’t drive it without at least three kids – our other car is a gas-sipping Scion – and seating disputes are subject to binding arbitration via roshambo.
So there’s no more caravanning during frequent visits from relatives, and with camp season in full swing, I’m in heavy carpool rotation. I roll into the pickup zone, pop the sliders, and wait for them to pile in – six can fit in rows two and three, with my neighbor’s 13-year-old riding shotgun. (She assured me the Bullfrog is rad, especialIy after I streamed Pandora from my iPhone through the stereo – set to Justin Bieber radio.) The gas mileage leaves much to be desired, but most all of my trips keep two – sometimes three or four – other cars off the road. And did I mention the sliding doors?
Ultimately, the key to my peace of mind was to stop thinking of it as a minivan. After all, there’s nothing mini about a car with 16 cup holders (I try to imagine scenarios where we’d fill them all: taking seven kids tadpole collecting?). It’s actually a van, a descendant of the green Dodge I fondly recall from my 1970s childhood, with the dad-built wooden platform in the back and decked in avocado shag. We once fit my entire preschool class in for a field trip – 10 of us, cross-legged in the back.
Mine’s a step up: My kids and their friends are happily boosted and buckled, heads cushioned on velour rests, surrounded by all kinds of safety features my generation survived without. We’re still hedging our bets, trying to keep melted popsicles off the beige upholstery in the hopes that the car industry will produce a highly efficient, high-occupancy vehicle by the time our three-year lease is up. There’s certainly demand. And if it looks like a minivan, I, for one, will be pleased.