Friday, September 12, 2008

Minivan as a Corporate Symbol

I recently helped a friend search for a new vehicle to carry his growing family of soon-to-be three kids… all in baby seats or boosters at the same time. We concluded (and he later purchased one) that a new Honda minivan met his needs the best. A van’s balance of roominess, ease of entry and exit, cargo loading ease, comfort, and relative fuel efficiency won the comparison.

This week, while traveling on business I found myself behind the wheel of a Chevrolet Uplander minivan. The brain trust at Chevrolet, however, seem somewhat embarrassed to just call it like it is and suggest that this should be called a “crossover sport van.” Forget that the only thing “crossover” about this vehicle compared to their previous effort is an added on ungainly snout and a slightly raised ride height. And the only thing even remotely sporty about it… well I give up.

My thoughts throughout my two-day drive kept coming back to the same thing: that General Motors wasn’t even trying hard when they designed this car. Were the people behind this project just so bummed at being reduced to working on a mere minivan rather than a new Hummer SUX6000 that they just phoned in the details? Was an assignment to the minivan design team the automotive equivalent of graduating from the police academy only to get assigned to traffic control at the local airport?

I always try to look at the positive side of every vehicle and this does have a few decent details. The dashboard materials appear to be high quality and are sufficiently elegant in appearance, the engine and road noise are muffled, and even though it matches nothing else on the car, the upper door panels have real (!) stitching on the faux leather that actually looks nicely finished.

But then you turn to the details that make other minivans so endearing to millions of American families and you just have to wonder what happened:

Fuel Economy… I averaged only about 15 mpg during my brief time with the car… vs. EPA ratings of 16/23 city/hwy which themselves are nearly identical to the ratings for the larger and heavier 2009 Traverse SUV that claims 24 mpg on the highway. What’s the point of driving an “unhip” minivan if you can’t even rationalize that you are saving money on gas?

Comfort… the front seats were fine, if nothing to write home a about, and the standard cloth upholstery was pleasant and looks durable. However, the middle seats were tiny… seemingly undersized for the car. I suppose that this lets them claim more legroom that actually exists. The rearmost seats were larger… a split bench, but again, compared to the multi-adjustable units in vans from competitors weren’t even a decent effort. The middle row seats were crammed all the way over to the sides near the doors which left them feeling cramped but did allow, I suppose, for a larger space in the middle to walk-through to the rearmost seats.

Flexibility… those rearmost seats again, unlike nearly every other van on the market, neither fold flat into the floor when not needed nor do any other neat tricks like turn into a rear facing bench. To utilize the full cargo capacity one needs to remove the heavy seats and find a place to leave them for the duration. The ONLY storage space for storing odds and ends like baby wipes, cell phones, and other detritus that usually fill up the family truckster was a Pep-Boys style bungee net strung between the front seats. There was no convenient enclosed storage areas for anything. The only place I found to rest my cell phone was inside the cupholder that extended from the dashboard. Seriously? You’ve had 25 years to try to copy features from nearly every family hauler on the market and you missed the most basic needs of families with small children? I won’t even go into the fact that nearly every other van out there also has second-row seats that slide, fold, retract, and will probably milk a cow.

I can’t imagine anyone in the market for a minivan test driving models from multiple manufacturers and deciding to buy an Uplander

So I end with the thought that GM’s half-hearted effort, if you can even call it that, at competing in this segment is a symbol of why the company is struggling so much. In the hypercompetitive vehicle business if you don’t even enter the game aiming for best-in-class you might as well just give up and go home.

Fortunately for GM, I believe that much has changed at the company and newer vehicles like the new Traverse, the Malibu, and some others represent more competitive offerings. I just hope that the attitudes that permitted a car like the Uplander from seeing the light of a dealer showroom have been exorcised as well.

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