Well, now it looks like it's happening. The Japanese Nikkei newspaper is saying that Toyota will bring out a minivan variant of the Prius, with three rows of seats and very good fuel economy, in 2011. The new vehicle could be Toyota's first hybrid to use lithium-ion batteries (as seen in the Mercedes S400).
Toyota, which has enough battles on its hands these days, will have to fight against anti-minivan bigotry. Here's a typical attitude, expressed by Alana on the "Circle of Moms" twins forum:
"Taking into consideration the space needed for two infant seats, two parents, any other possible passengers, plus the ever-present stroller and massive diaper bag....which vehicle do you think is best? SUV or minivan? I've got an SUV, but find it somewhat difficult getting in and out with the car seats. My hubby wants to go to a minivan, but I'm not sure I want to venture into the 'clichÃ©' yet."The poor woman seems willing to sacrifice her comfort because she's afraid of a clichÃ©.
A writer named Amanda, on the same forum, admits that it's a lot easier to load the kids into the family's minivan than the honkin' Suburban they also own. But she still can't shake the image thing: "It sure is nice to be able to jump in an SUV when I don't want to be a soccer mom anymore."
Well, Amanda, if that's the way you feel, so be it. But what's wrong with being a soccer mom anyway? They seem like selfless citizens to me, ferrying the kids around, putting others first. Don't they deserve to do it in a car that's easy to get in and out of? That's actually designed for them? The minivan fits the bill.
I'm not just making it up when I say that minivans are better family choices than SUVs. Cars.com tested the 2009 Honda Odyssey LX minivan against the same company's Honda Pilot LX, and the minivan (about $1,000 cheaper) scored better in front legroom, third-row legroom, passenger volume and luggage volume. A second test, 2009 Toyota Sienna CE against the 2009 Mazda CX-9 SUV again found the cheaper minivan ahead in most categories that matter. "Minivans still get the advantage as the quintessential family hauler," Cars.com concluded.
This leads me to the Kelley Blue Book "Top 10 Green Cars" list, released today. At #10 is, astonishingly, the 2010 Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid, which gets a measly 21 mpg in the city and 22 on the highway. Jack Nerad, executive editorial director of Kelley Blue Book, told me the company included the Tahoe Hybrid because of its towing ability. But you can tow a boat with a minivan.
The 2010 Sienna minivan, without a hybrid drive, gets 23 mpg on the highway, better than the Tahoe Hybrid. It also starts at $24,260, compared to an outrageous $50,720 for the Tahoe Hybrid. The Sienna will carry more stuff, and is far more accessible for loading and unloading.
Nerad admitted that there is "stigma" attached to minivans, and "the SUVs and crossovers are perceived as cooler and not as cliched." Take a look at this Sienna commercial, which uses the word "cool" about eight times:
I'm testing a Tahoe Hybrid next week, and I'll report back on how my wife and daughters respond to it. Oddly, my kids never complain about riding in a minivan, but they do say they'd never buy one. And for exactly the same reason as mother-of-twins Alana.
Photo: Flickr/Katie and Joe