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Comfortably Uncool

I am a guy who loves minivans, and I am not ashamed to say so.

My nest may be empty, but I intend to always have at least one of those so-called mom-mobiles around. Next week, I will pile five or six of my firm’s managers into the “Magic School Bus” — my daughters’ affectionate name for the 2000 Toyota Sienna they grew up in, now retired to Florida — and treat them to dinner and a movie after a day of tax workshops. The reliable, comfortable Sienna will get all of us where we need to go.

Granted, the MSB will never be a chick magnet (though it works well as a soot and mud magnet), but what would I do with a chick magnet? I am a 53-year-old married CPA who is spending next week at an estate planners’ convention in Orlando. The folks at People magazine are not about to put me on their list of the Sexiest Men Alive.

I’m fine with that. I am not cool. I know this without having to ask my children.

For me, a car is not about somehow turning me into someone else — someone cool. It is about accomplishing a mission. Choice of car boils down to the age-old consumer dilemma: stylish versus practical. Looking at shoes tells me that either factor can win, depending on the circumstances. The minivan proves the same point.

Despite being the punch line of a variety of “soccer mom” jokes, the practicality of the minivan has ensured that it never really disappeared from the market. And in recent years, automakers have made a concerted effort to remove the barrier of uncoolness that has traditionally made image-conscious shoppers hesitate. Using rock and roll or romance to sell minivans, as Honda is doing, may be thinking outside the box. But the truth is that a minivan is a very useful box.

Part of the recent comeback of the minivan has probably just been the slow comeback of motor vehicles as a whole. According to The Wall Street Journal, minivan sales were up 14 percent in November 2010 from November 2009; not quite as strong as the rest of the “light truck” class, which also includes pickups and SUVs, but well ahead of 7 percent for cars. The New York Times, however, reports that minivan sales peaked in 2000 at 1.37 million, compared to just 450,000 last year. “Comeback” is relative.

This makes some sense, both because of the recession and because the late 1990s were the echo of the baby boom, when boomers were hauling kids of their own. It will be interesting to see if there is another minivan resurgence in a few years when those same kids, now adults, choose vehicles to transport their own growing families.

I think the minivan is here to stay. I suspect there is a lot of residual goodwill for the comfort and convenience minivans offer. Protected by airbags, entertained by video, hydrated by cup holders and plugged in to outlets that powered their ever-growing array of gadgets, baby boomers’ kids have reason to be nostalgic where the minivan is concerned. Why should anybody hate them?

My own kids are grown, but our old minivans — we have one in the north and one in the south — are still useful. If my wife and I see a set of patio chairs we like, it’s as easy as folding a seat down to get them home. And, as I mentioned, it is nice to be able to give so many people a lift, if needed. Minivans have convenience to offer far beyond getting kids to ballet lessons or little league practice.

I have seen young and not-so-young CPAs driving sports cars. Maybe they see some value in a tiny rear seat. Maybe they like chatting with highway patrol officers who delight in targeting flashy rides. Maybe being cool is important to some people, and maybe a car can make some people cool. I sincerely wish them happiness in their convertibles and coupes.

As for me, I’m hanging on to my minivan. I will never be cool, but I’ll always be comfortable.

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