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Electric Vehicles

An Electric Minivan Might Be the Perfect Car

The future of automotive design looks awfully familiar.

An electric minivan.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

If you survey Americans who are considering an electric vehicle, some of their opinions are perfectly predictable. New polling released last week by the car publication Edmunds found that U.S. car shoppers want more range, they want more affordable options, and they want lots of SUVs and crossovers. Few respondents were excited about electric pickup trucks. Hardly anybody — just 5% — wanted a minivan EV.

Poor, poor pitiful minivan. Even as its bigger sibling undergoes a renaissance as the road-tripping influencer’s ride of choice, few people are out there posting thirsty #MinivanLife pics of a Chrysler Town & Country. People are importing vintage Japanese microvans and embracing other oddball shapes to stand out against a world full of Toyota RAV4s. Yet, despite ongoing rumblings about a comeback, the true minivan remains mired in tired stereotypes: It is the dorky dadmobile that appears in your driveway the day you buy a white pair of New Balance sneakers.

The thing is, a minivan is exactly what people want. And in the EV age, it could get even better.

Heatmap’s Shift Key podcast recently compared the biological concept of carcinization — the way everything wants to become a crab — to the convergent evolution of cars. In Robinson Meyer’s metaphor, automotive designs keep coming back to the minivan. After all, it has the primary features most families seek, namely three-row seating and lots of cargo space for kid stuff. But because the minivan is a loathed emblem of domesticity, carmakers continue to disguise its function in other forms.

This has been going on for generations. The bulbous station wagon, effectively a shorter minivan, was once the country’s de facto family car. Its parental uncoolness led to the rise of the minivan — which then became loaded with its own “soccer mom” cultural baggage and fell out of favor. In the 1990s, parents in search of a hipper, rugged alternative embraced the squared-off SUV instead. Three decades later, those boxes on wheels have mostly morphed into the rounded crossovers that dominate the roads today — vehicles that are, fundamentally, just minivans stretched into a shape that shouts, “I am anything but.”

Tastes change, of course. And if Americans are going to switch to electric cars, then it’s imperative the car companies electrify the vehicles they want. The problem with the never-ending SUV-crossover craze is that minivans are objectively better for the lives we actually lead.

A minivan handles better because it generally has a lower center of gravity than high-riding SUVs, which were built as if their owners were going to ford a riverbed on the way to their middle child’s xylophone recital. This is one reason car journalists have continued to praise the minivan over the years even as car buyers have spurned them.

Minivans have a variety of other features that make them better family cars than crossovers are. They’re roomy. They’re easy to get into and out of, especially when you’re loading or unloading children or car seats. The sliding doors prevent your offspring from dinging the next car over in the parking lot.

But because minivans have only a cult following these days and don’t sell big numbers, the electrified options are few. Online discussions about the best EV family car often come back to the plug-in hybrid Chrysler Pacifica because three-row EV crossovers are still rare and the all-electric Volkswagen ID.Buzz, a revival of the old VW bus that would be America’s first mainstream minivan EV, hasn’t arrived yet.

The Volkswagen ID.Buzz.Volkswagen

There are cool concepts like Mercedes-Benz’s and interesting international options like the Volvo EM90, touted as a “living room on wheels” made with a signature clean Scandinavian aesthetic. They are aimed at the Chinese market because of America’s minivan disdain.

The Mercedes EQT.Mercedes-Benz

Sadly, it’s looking less and less likely that the startup Canoo’s space-pod people-conveyors, which one would call “vans” for lack of a better term, will ever come to fruition. No fully electric EV minivan is on sale here so far. Google “EV minivan” and you might get sponsored ads for Tesla, Rivian, and Subaru — whose electric offerings are decidedly not vans — as well as Reddit threads that ask why we don’t have more electrified minivan options yet.

A Canoo.Canoo

It’s too bad, because vans are great and could get even better via electrification. A long, heavy battery slung along the bottom of a van will add to its low center of gravity while providing a large number of kilowatt-hours. The voluminous cargo space inside EV minivans (and full-size vans like the electric Sprinter) will give small businesses a way to decarbonize. A fun bonus of EV life is being able to use the battery’s electricity to power the climate control and other accessories without having to run a combustion engine the whole time. That makes it easier to keep the whole family happy even if you’re waiting in the parking lot, and it will make the cabin an enjoyable place to kill time once AI starts doing all the driving. (There is one big problem still to be solved: making a minivan’s fold-flat seats, a game-changing feature, work when there’s a big battery down there.)

As we recently noted, the family-car-sized hole in the EV market is starting to be filled in. The Kia EV9 has introduced a true three-row crossover EV to the U.S., and more like it will soon follow. It stands to reason that, eventually, today’s minivan standards like the Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey will electrify alongside everything else, creating a battery-powered offering for the small but growing niche populated by van people.

Still, the minivan deserves better. Perhaps when its EV version finally arrives, drivers will get bored of the conformist crossover and realize that the electric van can.

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Andrew Moseman profile image

Andrew Moseman

Andrew Moseman has covered science, technology, and transportation for publications such as The Atlantic, Inverse, Insider, Outside, and MIT Technology Review. He was previously digital director of Popular Mechanics and now serves as online communications editor at Caltech. He is based in Los Angeles.

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