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Sunday, September 11, 2016
The Minivan Is Back, and It’s Kind of Cool
Mom-jeans are stylish again, Pokémon is ubiquitous, and the minivan is having a major moment. As the old saying goes: Those who fail to learn from the 1990s are doomed to repeat them.
Minivan sales in the U.S. are up 21 percent so far this year, outmatching every class of vehicle except the midsize pickup. And though the bloated kid-carrier has yet to match its heyday, U.S. drivers are on pace to buy more than 600,000 of them this year for the first time in almost a decade. If the current pace holds, more people will purchase these soccer practice-pods than subcompact cars such as the Honda Fit or such entry-level luxury cars as the BMW 3 series.
Its renaissance was hard to see coming. Until recently, the minivan looked as though it were headed for the historical scrap heap, along with the pickup car and the Volkswagen diesel.
The antagonist? An army of SUVs. Minivan sales in the U.S. peaked in 2000 at approximately 1.4 million vehicles. Two years later, Americans bought more than 3 million SUVs for the first time. These vehicles were big, tall, and infinitely cooler. Nowadays there are roughly 100 SUVs to choose from in the U.S.—from a$20,000 version that looks like a swollen sedan to a $100,000 land yacht with a few longhorns-worth of leather stitched inside. Meanwhile, there are six minivans. The ratio isn’t a coincidence: When it comes to style, SUVs are considered the vehicular equivalent of a leather jacket, while minivans are a pair of cargo-shorts.
“It got this reputation for being very uncool,” said Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst at AutoTrader. “It was the whole soccer-mom thing.”
The sacrifice with SUVs, of course, is convenience. They generally aren’t as low as minivans, so toddlers have to clamber into them like tree-forts. The doors swing, rather than slide. And while many of these big rigs have three rows of seats, they come at the expense of space. Even the massive Cadillac Escalade has only 94 cubic feet of open real estate in the back, about one-third less than a contemporary minivan.
“There’s really nothing else like it cargowise,” Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Kevin Tynan said of the humble minivan. “Once the number of children equals or surpasses the number of parents, even a large SUV becomes a pain in the neck.”
And children, it turns out, are a larger consideration in car-buying these days. Although birth rates in the U.S. have been declining, the total number of babies has stayed relatively high thanks to overall population growth. The number of newborns in the U.S. peaked in 2007, so right about now, those kids are approaching their 10th birthday. Not only are they going to soccer practice, but many of them have siblings, too.
Because of all those children (and a few grandparents living in the spare bedroom), the number of U.S. households with at least four people is at an all-time high. Throw in a family dog, and even that Escalade begins to look compact. At this point, convenience overwhelms cool—if you’re skeptical, ask a parent wrangling two kids and a stroller in the supermarket parking lot if they care how stylish their ride looks.
Another major force is luring customers back to the minivan, and it’s a really good one: In April, the all-new Chrysler Pacifica coasted into the market on a tide of gushing reviews1. “They did an extremely good job with this vehicle,” said Krebs. “I don't think the segment will ever be what it used to be, but this certainly breathed new life into it."
You may have noticed the Pacifica on television being pitched by comedian Jim Gaffigan. In a series of skits, he wryly points out the vehicle’s attributes. There are two sliding doors that can be opened with a wave of the foot (parents loaded down with groceries), two 10-inch screens for passengers to watch TV (keep the kids zoned out), a massive tri-pane sunroof (for looking up at the sky in frustration), and the pièce de résistance, a vacuum integrated into the trunk (Cheerios).
These are the things that sell the car, and Chrysler knows it. “I call it my swagger wagon,” said Becky Branch, a photographer who recently got her hands on a Pacifica to review for her blog, The Java Mama. In an 11-minute Facebook video, Branch, 35, and her son pan a smartphone camera around the inside of the vehicle, gushing about its tech and appointments. They didn’t bother showing viewers what it looked like on the outside. The content, as the saying goes, was king.
“I never pictured myself as a minivan-type person,” Branch confessed in an interview. “I feel like people look at you and think, ‘that’s a mom-mobile.’ But, I tell you what, I miss that Pacifica.”
After driving it for a few days, what’s most refreshing is that Chrysler didn’t try to make the vehicle something it’s not. Namely, it didn’t juice it up or jack it up. The engine—a 3.6-liter V-6—is totally adequate but not aggressive. It’s quiet and comes with a smooth transmission, while the body is tighter and the suspension firmer than one expects in a minivan. Without the list of a tugboat and the listlessness of a bread-truck, the 4,330-pound vehicle is fairly fun to drive.
Still, you shouldn’t try going off road with the Pacifica. It rests just five inches off the ground—a soccer ball won’t roll under it. The low ride, however, allows for the vehicle’s most impressive feature: The second and third row of seats don’t just fold flat but rather tuck under the floor entirely. It’s a ticklish feat of engineering, perfect for hauling a stack of 4x8-foot plywood or a herd of Newfoundlands, or hosting a very low-maintenance sleepover.
I was able to turn the cabin into a cargo cave with a four-month-old baby strapped to my chest. Not a tear was shed (from either of us). All told, the Pacifica boasts 140 cubic feet of cargo space. In volume, that equates to almost six hot-tubs.
When Chrysler started working on the Pacifica, building a great minivan was probably the last thing on the to-do list. At the time, virtually every brand in the business was designing a new SUV, many for the first time. But where others saw a dying breed, Chrysler saw opportunity. “It just made sense,” said Chrysler brand director Bruce Velisek. “In 2000, there were 17 players in the segment; now there are six nameplates, and two of those are ours.2”
That kind of white space, coupled with demographic data pointing to a surge in larger families, was one of the main reasons the company gave it a green light and sank $2 billion into the program, according to Velisek. After a few months of sales, the investment appears to be a smart one. Chrysler had 21 percent of the minivan market last month and is singlehandedly expanding the category. More impressive is that many of the buyers are trading in SUVs as they pick up the keys to a Pacifica.
“I think the stigma is completely overblown,” Velisek said. “These people are proud of the decision they made.”
What’s more, most of the customers are paying up for the van’s most opulent trim levels. They want the screens, the living-room sound system, and, of course, the vacuum. With a fully stocked Pacifica running around $50,000, the vehicle is sure to haul a tidy pile of profits back to Fiat-Chrysler headquarters.
The Pacifica is a lot of things: a great pickup truck, TV room, team bus, tent, and a savvy corporate strategy. It’s also arguably the best minivan ever made—a hollow superlative if there ever was one.