When you have to move a lot of people, it’s hard to beat a minivan for practicality. They’re not as popular as they once were, but they’ve been with us for a while. Check out some of the highlights of how we’ve driven everyone around.
The Early Days
Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager
Pontiac Trans Sport
Nissan Quest/Mercury Villager
Toyota Passenger Van
- The Early Days
- Chevrolet Suburban
- DKW Schnellaster
- Volkswagen Bus
- Volkswagen Bulli
- Chrysler Minivans
- Volkswagen Routan
- Pontiac Trans Sport
- Chevrolet Venture
- Chevrolet Orlando
- Ford Aerostar
- Ford Flex
- Toyota Passenger Van
- Toyota Previa
- Toyota Sienna
- Honda Odyssey
- Honda Odyssey
- Kia Sedona
The earliest people-movers were truck chassis with seats attached, such as this 1918 Chevrolet half-ton. They were about as comfortable as they looked, but they got the job done. Long-distance travel was still primarily by rail, and hotels would send these vehicles to collect guests when they arrived, so the vehicles came to be known as “station wagons.”
Many of the early people-movers weren’t designed specifically as such, but were adapted from existing models. Chevrolet’s Suburban Carryall was initially created as an enclosed truck, but by adding two extra rows of seats, the company could also sell it as a passenger vehicle. Rear-row occupants got windows, but no extra doors for easier entry.
Possibly the earliest minivan, the Scarab was built in Detroit, starting in 1934, by aeronautical engineer William Stout. It had a rear-mounted Ford V8 engine and lightweight, aerodynamic body. The seats could be rearranged, including around a card table—an idea Chrysler would revisit almost eight decades later. Along with its quirky styling, the Scarab’s major roadblock was its $5,000 price tag, at a time when many cars sold for less than $600. It’s believed only nine were built, and at least five are known to still exist.
Groups of people have to move no matter where they are, and so virtually every auto-producing country has made something for that purpose. Germany’s DKW made the front-wheel drive Schnellaster, or “Rapid Transporter,” from 1949 to 1962. Like most of the earlier passenger vans, it was a spin-off of a work truck. Versions were also made under license in Spain, Finland, and Argentina.
(Photo via Wikipedia Commons)
Whether you call it a Microbus, Type 2 or Kombi, there’s no mistaking Volkswagen’s van. Introduced for 1950, it used the Beetle’s rear-mounted, air-cooled engine. While that made it about as powerful as you’d expect, the van quickly developed a small but extremely loyal following. It was made in numerous global locations, most of which retired it in 1979, but it lived on in a few markets, switching to liquid cooling in the 1990s. The last one was built in Brazil in December 2013 and shipped to Volkswagen’s museum in Hannover, Germany.
Okay, it really doesn’t count because it was only a concept, and probably won’t ever go into production, but we love the Bulli. Introduced at the 2011 Geneva Motor Show, the electrically-powered Bulli—the nickname Germans gave to the original bus, according to Volkswagen—had six seats and an infotainment system powered by an iPad. The company estimated it could go up to 300 km on a charge.
Whether or not it was the “first” minivan is open to debate, but that’s what Chrysler president Lee Iacocca called it at its media launch in 1983. The story goes that he’d floated the idea of a “garage-able van” when he was at Ford, but when it was shot down, he took it with him when he was fired. Chrysler was in dire straits, having received a $1.5 billion government loan to avoid bankruptcy. It paid off the loan seven years early on the strength of its compact K-Car and minivan sales.
Chrysler’s minivans have been consistent bestsellers, and have outlived many of their competitors. In 2005 the company introduced Stow’n Go, a popular feature where the second-row seats folded completely into the floor, unlike other vans where they had to be removed. It had far less success with 2008’s short-lived Swivel’n Go, where the non-folding second-row chairs could be turned around and a table inserted in the floor—shades of Scarab’s card table!
Volkswagen wanted a piece of the minivan market, but didn’t want the expense of preparing one of its European models to meet North American standards. Instead, it contracted to Chrysler. The 2009 Routan was a Chrysler Town & Country with unique front and rear styling and suspension tuning, but without the fold-down Stow’n Go seats. It was supposed to be built for five years, but slow sales forced production shut-downs in 2012, with only a few made for fleet sales after that.
For 1990, General Motors introduced three versions of its front-wheel-drive minivan: the Chevrolet Lumina APV, Oldsmobile Silhouette, and Pontiac Trans Sport. The company was already building the rear-wheel-drive Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari, but thought the new models could better compete with Chrysler’s minivans. The Trans Sport was based on a show car, but of course it lost several of the concept’s features along the way, including its gull-wing door and glass roof. The long nose led many to dub these vans “Dustbusters” after the similarly-shaped cordless vacuums.
The Trans Sport and Silhouette retained their names for a 1997 makeover, but the Lumina APV became the Chevrolet Venture. The Trans Sport would be renamed the Montana two years later, and would keep that moniker during a 2005 redesign that was also badged as the Chevrolet Uplander, Buick Terraza, and Saturn Relay. But the coolest of the bunch was the Chevy Venture Warner Bros. edition, featuring one of the first factory-installed DVD players and a badge with Bugs Bunny on it.
The Orlando was a three-row “mini-minivan” that was based on the compact Cruze sedan’s platform. While Cruze models for North American sales are built in Ohio, the Orlando came from Korea, and was only marketed north of the 49th parallel. It was never sold in the United States.
The Orlando was sent out to chase the Mazda5, which featured seating for six occupants and dual sliding doors. It was also expected to compete with Kia’s Rondo, a Canada-only model following its discontinuation in the U.S. back in 2010. The Orlando initially did well in its first year, but dropped by some 68 per cent in its second. When only 1,339 went out the door in 2014, GM Canada announced there wouldn’t be an Orlando for 2015.
Just as GM had done with its Astro, Ford built a small, rear-wheel-drive passenger van it called the Aerostar, starting with the 1986 model year. Its platform was pickup truck-based but with unibody construction, and the earliest models made only 100 horsepower. Eventually it would be available with more powerful engines and also with all-wheel drive. Ford added the front-wheel Windstar in 1995, but the Aerostar was still popular enough that it remained in production for another two years.
But before it got to the Windstar, Ford was already making a minivan. From 1993 to 2002, it worked with Nissan, which also wanted a slice of the pie, to produce a van that was sold as both the Nissan Quest and the Mercury Villager. Nissan designed and engineered it, while Ford made both versions at its plant in Ohio.
The Windstar was based on a platform that would also underpin the Taurus, and was longer and lower than the rear-drive Aerostar. It was completely separate from the Villager, and when its partnership with Nissan ended, Mercury would get a version of Ford’s van, called the Monterey—not to be confused with the Monterey car that Mercury last built in the 1970s. The name change from Windstar to Freestar was the result of a 2004 decision that Ford car names, save for Mustang and Taurus, should all start with “F.”
The Freestar was retired in 2007, and officially, Ford was out of the minivan business. But people still had to be moved, and so in 2008, the company brought out the Flex. It wasn’t really a minivan, wasn’t really an SUV, and wasn’t really a station wagon, but somehow combined the best of all of them. It’s never been a huge seller, but critics love it and it has a hard-core group of loyal fans, and so Ford continues to offer it.
Yes, that’s exactly what it was called, and that’s exactly what it was. Introduced for 1984, the Toyota Van was a box on wheels that could be ordered in cargo or passenger configuration. It had a 2.0-litre engine and rear-wheel drive, with seating for up to seven. Later models could be ordered with all-wheel drive, rear-seat air conditioning, and, in some markets, a little refrigerator that could make ice.
The Passenger Van was replaced in 1991 by the Previa, which was based on a Camry chassis. The new van was also rear-wheel or all-wheel drive, and unlike the previous version, the Previa had foldable rear seats and removable second-row chairs. Perhaps its highest point was 1995, when you could order this one shown with a supercharger that gave it 161 horsepower. Available options included power locks, windows and mirrors, along with leather upholstery.
The Previa was replaced with the Sienna in 1998, which was also based on the Camry’s platform. While the Previa was built in Japan, the Sienna was produced in the U.S. It took direct aim at Chrysler’s vans, and while it couldn’t overtake them, it stole away more than a few customers. It’s now in its third generation and is currently the only minivan available with optional all-wheel drive.
Honda wanted a roomy vehicle for the U.S. market back in 1990, and plans were laid for a both a minivan and a plant in which to build it. The first-generation Odyssey was built in Japan starting in 1994, while the larger, second-generation model rolled off the assembly line at the company’s new plant in Alabama starting in 1998. It hadn’t been an easy birth, and the Japanese project was cancelled at least once by upper management, who thought it impossible to make a van both functional and stylish.
Like many vehicles, the Odyssey got bigger as it got older. That first-generation minivan was only a hand’s width longer than the current Honda Civic sedan. Over the years, it introduced such features as variable cylinder deactivation and an on-board vacuum, the HondaVac, created in conjunction with Shop-Vac. (We will resist the temptation to say that the Odyssey sucks.)
The Sedona was introduced to global markets in 1998, known in most of them as the Carnival, and available in gasoline or diesel. It arrived in North America in 2002, powered by a V6 engine. It was redesigned for 2006, and a year later, a version of it was sold by Hyundai as the Entourage. That model stuck around only for a couple of years, but the Sedona lives on.
Not quite a minivan or an SUV, the R-Class was introduced for 2006, built in Alabama alongside the M-Class. Its three rows of seats luxuriously coddled its passengers, and the second and third rows could be folded down for carrying cargo. It didn’t sell all that well and was discontinued in the U.S. in 2012, lasting a little longer in Canada. But it still tallied respectable numbers in China, and so to keep it going while freeing up space in its own plant, Mercedes-Benz farmed its production out to Humvee manufacturer AM General.
Minivans have often been converted into wheelchair vehicles, but the MV-1 is made for that from the ground up. Production started in 2011, built at AM General’s plant in Indiana, but its parent company failed in 2013 and the lines stopped. AM General took it over in 2014 and began building it again. It uses a Ford V8 engine and can be ordered with manual or power wheelchair ramps. After all, people movers have to be able to move just about everyone.