Hybrid Minivans: the road not taken

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If you have a big family with a few kids, live in the suburbs, and like to go to big box stores, chances are you either own or have considered owning a minivan. This staple of American society since the eighties has carried many a child to soccer practice and many a bag of grocery.

Essentially using the same platform as the SUV or small truck, there has been little progress on this vehicle's powertrain.

Usually the van has a 6 or 8 cylinder gas engine and relatively poor fuel efficiency. But why? After all, minivans are not used to tow nor does anyone drive them for performance.

A family wishing to have the utility of a minivan and the fuel efficiency of a hybrid is completely out of luck. No automaker has one available. Just try cramming two parents, three kids,and a grandma in a Prius.

One might imagine that Toyota, being the hybrid leader as it is, would build a hybrid minivan. It turns out they have, but only for the Japanese market. The Toyota Estima, as its known, has been in production there since 2001 and redesigned in 2006. On the Japanese cycle it is rated at close to 70 MPG. Despite intense interest and even an online petition to bring the car to the US, Toyota has declined.

According to Toyota spokesperson Bill Kwong, "currently, there are no plans to bring a hybrid minivan to the U.S." Toyota had previously announced they were considering a line of Priuses which could include a larger people mover. The conclusion?

"We are still studying it," says Kwong. "We have nothing to announce at this time."

OK so Toyota seems uninterested. How about Honda? They, after all, have announced it is their intention to focus on hybrid drivetrains across all their vehicle lines.

"Honda has not announced any plans to build a hybrid minivan," says Honda spokesperson Chris Martin. "Beyond that, we don't comment on future product, real or potential."

Hmmm... that sounds like they might be looking at the idea, we will have to wait and see. But there's nothing on the horizon, especially in light of the new Insight's somewhat weak opening act. They probably have to improve that car first.

Well, maybe we should just skip the Japanese and look toward the newly-funded freshly-emerged-from-bankruptcy Chrysler, they after all invented the minivan.

"As the inventor of the minivan, Chrysler has obviously considered hybrid versions," said Chrysler spokesperson Nick Cappa. "In select programs, like the DOE initiative, we plan to build a small test fleet of plug-in hybrid minivans."

Nick is referring to extended range electric minivans Chrysler will be testing in the USPO. They drive 40 miles on electricity and have a gas generator for driving beyond that. Sure that would be cool, but considering the very massive size of the lithium-ion batteries needed to propel the heavy and very non-aerodynamic van, costs will be extremely high, I'd suspect far greater than $100,000 per unit. I wouldn't hold my breath to see those in the mass market.

Finally lets turn to GM. They and Ford both used to make minivans but discontinued them due to poor sales. However, GM has already launched its new 2-mode hybrid drivetrain which is being used in their large SUVs and seems like an ideal mate for a minivan.

"Nothing to announce at this time about a hybrid minivan," says GM spokesperson Brian Corbett. "But that is a vehicle application our 2-mode hybrid system is capable of handling, so I wouldn't rule it out."

Well that's sounds the most encouraging. Maybe the new GM will surprise us with a 40 MPG+ minivan. Meanwhile, time to pack the family into the Prius again, and wait.

And for those who like conspiracy theories like in the movie "Who Killed the Electric Car?" it may be time to ask "Who Aborted the Hybrid Minivan?"

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