minivans

Pity the poor minivan. 

It hauls the family on vacations, never complaining.  

Carries the kids to school and soccer practice.  

Ever ready for a spontaneous trip to the hardware store, but does it get any respect? Nope. 

It gets called names. 

"Loser cruiser."

"Road slug."   

Well, if you make minivans, you can get mad.  Or like Toyota, you can embrace the situation with a tongue-in-cheek rap -- “The Swagger Wagon”  sung by an unhip, white, yuppie, suburban couple, with their two kids jammin' to the beat, next to a Sienna minivan.

"We rock the SE not the SUV, and it's true if I were you I'd be jealous of me, in the swagger wagon, yeah, the swagger wagon, I got the pride in my ride in the swagger wagon...."

Chrysler invented the minivan 27 years ago.  But after being wildly popular for years, the segment has lost customers, first to SUVS, then to crossovers. 

The people who design minivans are the first to admit they’re fighting an image problem.  And they’re doing something about it.  Chrysler has an optional all-black leather interior it nicknamed the “Man Van. “  All four of the biggest players – Honda, Chrysler, Toyota and Nissan – got minivan makeovers this year.  There’s more sculpting, more chrome, more creased sheet metal.  Even jaunty little fins.  Sage Marie is with Honda.    

"If you think of what makes a sports car compelling, it’s that its low and wide, that's what makes it emotionally exciting.  So from a styling standpoint we tried to do that with the Odyssey."

In your FACE, sports car owners.  And cue another tongue-in-cheek song about minivans, this time a Beach Boys-style parody by the Austin Lounge Lizards.

"Hey, little minivan, we're going to the grocery store!/She's got an automatic tranny with overdrive and the radio's tuned to Magic 95/ She gets 30 miles on a gallon of gas and  I can schlep all the girls to gymnastics class/Hey little minivan, we're goin' to the children's museum!"

Well, upping the cool factor may help.  But people really buy minivans for comfort,  convenience, and practicality.  The sliding doors, all that space.  And the seats. 

Minivan designers take fierce pride in their seating configurations.   Honda’s Odyssey has a second row middle seat you can slide really close to the front seat.  That puts the baby within arm’s reach of a parent.  For Chrysler, the bragging point is “Stow and Go seats,”  which, in a matter of a few seconds, can be neatly folded and pushed into a compartment in the floor.

Fold all the seats down and there’s enough room for a refrigerator or two.   But one company thinks some customers could be willing to downsize a little, especially as gas hovers around $4.00 a gallon.  Ford Motor Company’s new small people-mover, the C-Max, will seat seven.  It will have sliding doors.  But Ford’s Paul Anderson says it will get car-like fuel economy.  Just don’t call it a minivan.

Chrysler is recalling a quarter million crossovers and minivans for ignition switch problems that can cause stalling. 

The recall involves 2010 model year Dodge Journey crossovers and Grand Caravan minivans and Chrysler Town and Country minivans. 

The company says in some of the vehicles, ignition switches can slip out of the “run” position while the vehicle is being driven. That could shut off the engine. 

At least two rear-end collisions have been reported due to the defect.   

The Grand Caravan and Town and Country minivans are top-sellers for the company. 

The automaker is struggling to increase sales while many of its Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep brand vehicles remain at the bottom of many quality and reliability surveys.

There’s more than one kind of hybrid vehicle. But most people only know about electric hybrids that use batteries.

The U.S. Department of Energy has poured several billion dollars into helping companies develop advanced lithium-ion batteries.  But to hear Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne describe the effort, that's tantamount to picking a technology winner, before the race is finished.

The big problem with advanced batteries, says Marchionne, is they're really expensive. A big battery can increase the cost of a vehicle by a third.  

"And I don’t think we should prejudice the discussion by saying electrics are the answer," Marchionne said at a press event held at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory in Ann Arbor.  "They may be part of the answer."

Enter hydraulic hybrids. They tap into energy stored in high pressure canisters filled with fluid and nitrogen. They’re cheaper than electric hybrids, and already used in some big rigs and garbage trucks.

Now, using technology developed by the U.S. EPA., Chrysler will build and test a set of hydraulic hybrid minivans. The company hopes to see the same improvement in fuel efficiency as battery hybrids - about 30 to 35% -  but at a much lower cost.