A red 2020 Dodge Grand Caravan is shown driving on a highway.

The Rise, Fall, and (Possible) Return of the Minivan

Remember when the minivan was the symbol of family life? Starting a family and trading in that sporty sedan or performance car for a safe, spacious Honda Odyssey or a Chrysler Town and Country was only natural. They offered extensive seating, safety features, and all the room you could want for additional passengers, sports gear, school supplies, the family dog… You name it, you could fit it in the minivan.

So what happened? This practical family hauler was once the ultimate solution for all your suburban family adventures, even if that meant just a quick trip to the grocery store across town. But in the last decade or two, the minivan seems to have fallen out of favor. In the same way that video killed the radio star, the SUV killed the minivan. But is that meant to be?

The Family Car

For a while, the minivan was the gold standard for growing families requiring flexibility and plenty of wiggle room. However, like all things, the market started to change. The automotive landscape has evolved and newer, more attractive options have led to the downward trend of minivan sales. Even though the SUV takeover didn’t happen overnight, it certainly seemed like it swooped in all at once when most automakers began to phase out the minivan in favor of SUVs and crossovers.

In the mid-80s through the early aughts, we saw many popular minivans come and go. Possibly one of the most popular models was the Dodge Grand Caravan, which was manufactured from 1984 until it was discontinued in 2020. In its 36 year reign, over 14.6 million models were sold worldwide. That was not the only popular option though. The Chrysler Town & Country, manufactured by the same company who built the Grand Caravan, lasted from 1990 to 2016. Some may even remember when Chevy had its own minivan: the Chevrolet Venture. This model was on the market for only eight years before being discontinued (1997-2008).

Dead as a Doornail: The Minivan Falls Out of Favor

What was so special about the modern SUV that led to the overall demise of the minivan? To start, minivans were known for being underpowered, they were gas guzzlers, too big/clunky, and they were not as adaptable as the SUV. The rise of SUV popularity really started with the 1990s craze for rugged adventure vehicles. But when automakers like Chevy and Ford started to gear models like the Suburban and the Explorer towards large active families, it was clear the minivan’s popularity was only living on borrowed time.

SUVs exude a rugged and adventurous spirit that minivans lack. Suddenly, trading in the Mustang for a minivan wasn’t the next logical step, but a step drivers took because they had no choice. Then, along came the family-oriented yet fun SUV, and things started to get exciting again.

Modern couples thinking of growing their brood began navigating toward these versatile vehicles. With their powerful engines, four-wheel drive capabilities, and modern styling, these vehicles were much cooler than the practical minivan, which suddenly seemed like something your parents would have owned.

With the addition of new technology and styling cues taken from luxury vehicles, the SUV was very appealing to large and small families looking for an alternative to the old clunky minivan. Ironically, this is exactly what happened in the 1980s when the new, exciting minivan replaced the old clunky station wagon.

A blue 2024 Kia Carnival MVP is shown driving on a highway.

The Minivan Becomes a Social Faux Pas

The change in societal preferences definitely played a large part in the fall of the minivan, which was soon viewed as outdated and odious. People still desired large, convenient vehicles, but they also wanted them to be able to tackle towing jobs and head off-road for camping, all while looking awesome. They didn’t want the stigma associated with the minivan.

Replacing the boxy, minimalist design of the minivan, the SUV could be had in a variety of sizes ranging from compact to midsize to full size. The minivan seemed to imply you’ve settled, while an SUV gave the impression you were embracing life with vigor.

What are the most popular SUVs these days? To start, there is the Toyota RAV4. This best selling five-seater is popular among small families and young adults. It’s stylish, well appointed, fuel efficient, and can handle just about anything. Now, the RAV4 isn’t the only popular SUV on the market. Some drivers prefer the open air and adventure, which is where models like the Jeep Wrangler or Ford Bronco come in. These highly adaptable vehicles can be used for just getting around the city and off-roading on the weekends.

If you are thinking about other more famous models, the aspirational image of the Cadillac Escalade is the ideal status symbol for those looking to climb the economic ladder. Everyone knows you’ve made it when you’re cruising in an Escalade. Let’s face it: the minivan will never be featured in any rap or pop music videos in a positive way. It couldn’t compete with the SUV when it came to the coolness factor.

The SUV, big and small, overshadowed the practical and understated minivan, and automakers took notice. Choosing to go with the times and give the market what it demands, it was only natural that many brands would pull the plug on the minivan in favor of SUVs and crossovers.

Set for a Comeback?

Will the minivan live to see another decade, or will it struggle on for a bit and eventually fade into obscurity? Despite the roaring success of the SUV market, there is still a place for a purpose-built family vehicle, and the minivan has managed to hold on despite a downward trend in sales. As of 2021, only a few automakers like Kia, Honda, Toyota, and Chrysler continued to produce the minivan for the US market. These new takes on the classic minivan include major facelifts in the overall design and tech.

The minivan has often gotten a bad rap over the years, but automakers hope to turn things around with new mindful detailing and cushy interiors. Today’s minivans are not your parents’ vehicle. To increase their appeal, automakers are giving classic names a modern glam-up to ensure they stay current for drivers in today’s market.

A gray 2024 Chrysler Pacifica is shown driving on a highway near a mountain.

Improved Designs and Features

Let’s start with Kia. Kia took the old minivan design, turned it around, and came up with the Kia Carnival MPV. They have rebranded the minivan as a “multi-purpose vehicle.” The Kia Carnival has seating for eight, an available hybrid powertrain, a large 24-inch panoramic display, and even footrests for passenger seats. It is absolutely not your parent’s minivan.

The Chrysler Pacifica has become a well respected and well-loved staple for American families. With multiple powertrain options, including a plug-in hybrid option, drivers can now have a fuel efficient large family vehicle for getting around their home city or for road trips.

Is the Minivan a Phoenix or a Doornail?

Smart and thoughtful designs ensure no one gets stuck in the dreaded middle seat. Plush, spacious seating coupled with ample legroom gives minivans an edge over smaller models like three-row midsize SUVs, whose third row might not always be friendly for adult passengers. The technology and driver assist features make the modern minivan easier to navigate than in previous decades, thanks to the addition of multiple camera angles, a large infotainment screen, and alerts to keep you updated on what’s happening around you. An increase in fuel efficiency technology means that minivans are gas guzzlers of the past and now possess the ability to get as good mileage as SUVs of similar sizes.

If manufacturers continue to revamp the minivan and listen to the needs of the modern American family, we’ll continue to see the rise of the minivan. So far, the modern minivan does a great job when it comes to checking all the boxes for what a family vehicle should be. They are safe, efficient, spacious, and comfortable. If you’ve been wondering about a minivan, it might be time to give one a look.