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Van go

The rise and fall and rise of the minivan

Kathy Hight of Shrewsbury and her four girls pose in the family's fifth minivan, a Town and Country tricked out with power sliding doors and an entertainment system. (Barry Chin / Globe Staff Photo) Kathy Hight of Shrewsbury and her four girls pose
in the family's fifth minivan, a Town and Country tricked out with
power sliding doors and an entertainment system. (Barry Chin / Globe Staff Photo)
By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / November 2, 2010

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If obituaries were written for vehicles, the minivan’s might read like this: Beloved for its seating capacity, easy access, and sliding rear doors, the minivan died recently of natural causes: It bored people to death.

But despite accounting for just 4.1 percent of the domestic market (and even less in New England), there are still 12.6 million of them on the road, meaning the minivan isn’t so much dead as suffering from a weak pulse. To expand the market beyond soccer moms, Honda, like other minivan makers, is targeting the “hesitators’’ — drivers who could be lured into purchasing one, if only they weren’t so, well, soccer mom-ish.

Hesitate is what Simon Goodall, 31, of Reading did for months. But with a third child on the way, a few weeks ago he finally moved, and did what he never thought he would. He bought a 2011 Honda Odyssey touring model, equipped with DVD player, navigation system, and “cool box’’ refrigerator tucked under the center console. Plenty of room for soccer balls, too.

“It was really the stigma of it being a big box on wheels,’’ Goodall, a travel industry executive, says of why he struggled with the decision. “There wasn’t any fun or driving emotion attached.’’

His words could have been lifted right from the Wikipedia entry about the family vehicle that took suburban America by storm in the 1980s, but has since been passed by sport utility vehicles and more recently the crossovers. Minivan sales are down from a high of about 1.4 million in 2000 to less than one-third of that total last year.

Now, however, Toyota and Honda have both rolled out aggressive campaigns directed not only at moms but dads, too, posting YouTube rap videos about “Swagger Wagons’’ and advertising in, of all places, Sports Illustrated, describing the minivan as “vanlier’’ than ever.

A marketing gimmick? Perhaps. But the timing has a purpose.

As the generation known as “Millennials’’ age into their own family-raising years, their sheer numbers (67 million) “change the industry,’’ as one top Ford executive recently put it in announcing plans for his company to introduce a 2012 compact minivan model.

Ford’s announcement alone signals a shift. Minivan models have been disappearing by the truckload, and Ford and General Motors have temporarily abandoned the category to focus on SUVs and crossover models.

“People buy what they want to be seen in,’’ says Scott Oldham, editor in chief of the auto website Edmunds Inside Line, who theorizes that the minivan’s fading popularity is at least partly a generational phenomenon. What was true for the family station wagon in the ’70s and ’80s holds true for the minivan today, he says. Owning the same car mom once piloted to the mall? Uh, no thanks. “My wife is a Gen Xer, and she won’t drive one,’’ admits Oldham.

But the generational wheel turns in more than one direction, it seems. After all, as long as dads and moms raise families, there will be hockey games, birthday parties, and band practices to drive to, sometimes all in the same afternoon.

In these days of viral marketing, changing an industry’s perception in the public’s eye could be as simple as the right video ad on YouTube. The new campaign for the Toyota Sienna is at once a desperate ploy — a “Hail Mary pass,’’ as one auto industry analyst puts it — and an inspired attempt to revamp the minivan’s image by satirizing the postmodern suburban family and its cloying, child-centric narcissism.

However successful at selling cars — and the early results look promising — the Sienna campaign is getting an awful lot of attention from both auto buffs and YouTube fans, giving the minivan’s get-no-respect image a badly needed overhaul.

“Parenthood is awesome, and we’re awesome parents!’’ chirp a young couple right out of a “Modern Family’’ sitcom episode. They rap about their “Swagger Wagon,’’ boast about riding with their “posse,’’ and, in clips with deadpan titles like “Daddy Like Space’’ and “Mommy Like Rest,’’ lampoon every soccer-mom stereotype that ever drove a car buyer screaming from the showroom.

“The Sienna ads are spectacular, but it’s all fantasy,’’ says automotive writer Phil Berg. “The message may be that the minivan’s cool, but the reality is, it’s always been that evil necessity. There’s nothing sexy to sell there.’’

Not that car manufacturers like Toyota aren’t laboring overtime to generate sparks around a vehicle that’s defined who many of us are, for better or worse, for a quarter-century.

Dodge is marketing a specially outfitted version of its 2011 Grand Caravan as a “man van’’ that guys can feel cool driving, too. Nissan is rolling out a sleeker version of its Quest model, while Toyota boasts that its new Sienna appeals to “both young Gen X and Millennial (Gen Y) families, as well as boomers who are taking a second look at the minivan,’’ according to Toyota spokesman Greg Thome. Men are falling for it, too, not just suburban moms, he says, citing sales figures up 20 percent over last year.

Honda, the market leader, is loading its fourth-generation Odyssey with features like “lightning bolt’’ molding and split rear-seat, HD-capable video screens. Not only are these newer models more comfortable to drive than their predecessors, car makers claim, but they’re packed with accessories (iPod connectivity, Bluetooth wireless technology) not available in your parents’ minivan — the one that carried you to soccer practice 20 years ago.

Meanwhile, Honda has also identified what it calls minivan “rejectors’’ and “adopters.’’

Boston public relations executive Nicole Russo, who lives in West Roxbury with her husband and two young children, has been shopping for a new family car. It won’t be a minivan, though, notwithstanding the fact that both her kids play soccer. “You’d never get me in one of them, I don’t want the stigma attached,’’ says Russo dismissively.

But then there is Shrewsbury mom Kathy Hight. She’s driving her family’s fifth minivan, a 2009 Chrysler Town and Country. “My husband and I got our first when our oldest daughter was born, and another with each new girl,’’ says Hight, 40, whose four daughters range from 10 to 4. “We practically live in our car now, too.’’

It helps, she says, to have satellite TV (Disney Channel, Nickelodeon) and a pair of screens mounted in back. “I wouldn’t not want to have one.’’

Can swagger overcome stigma? Dodge’s “man van’’ campaign, getting into full swing later this year, is a gamble, concedes Dodge CEO Ralph Gilles. The specially accessorized Grand Caravan R/T model boasts an all-black interior, reconfigured instrument panel, and other touches designed almost exclusively for the testosterone-fueled driver. Ads for the van will depict guys hauling around their surfboards and other sports equipment. Infant seats? Probably not.

“We have great name recognition, and we’d be foolish to let that wither’’ in a market segment still selling almost half a million units per year, says Gilles. Besides, he adds, Toyota has “opened up the conversation’’ with its Sienna campaign.

The Goodalls held another kind of conversation after Simon signed the papers to buy their Odyssey. They can’t wait to drive it, he says, but when he came home that day, he greeted his wife with “Hi, minivan mom!’’ She didn’t exactly crack up.

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.

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