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A minivan is a personal-use van with unibody construction sharing an automobile platform in a one-box or two-box configuration — often featuring sliding doors for passenger access and configurable, stowable or removable seating. Taller than a sedan, hatchback, or a station wagon, the minivan features a shared interior volume that can flexibly reconfigure to prioritize either seating or cargo volume, with rear cargo access via a liftgate or tailgate.
The bodystyle is also marketed as the multi-purpose vehicle (MPV), people-carrier, people-mover, or multi-utility vehicle (MUV).
Antecedents for the minivan include the 1936 Stout Scarab, which featured a removable table and second row seats that turn 180 degrees to face the rear – a feature that Chrysler marketed as Swivel 'n Go.
The DKW Schnellaster, manufactured from 1949 to 1962 was a small monospace (or one-box) design featuring its front wheels set forward of the passenger cabin, a short, sloping aerodynamic hood, front-wheel drive, transverse engine, flat load floor throughout with flexible seating and cargo accommodations – the key design ingredients that describe the modern minivan configuration popularized in such notable examples as the Renault Espace and Chrysler Voyager/Caravan minivans.
Other predecessors include compact vans. In 1950, the Volkswagen Type 2 adapted a bus-shaped body to the compact Volkswagen Beetle. It placed the driver above the front wheels, sitting behind a flat nose, with the engine mounted at the rear. This approach to the driver being placed on top of the front axle is known as a "cab over". The two hinged side doors were opposite to the driver's side, with optional doors on the driver's side. Fiat built a similar vehicle, the 1956 Multipla based on the Fiat 600 with the same "cab over" engine and door layout. Japanese and American manufacturers responded with compact vans since the 1960s. Usually based on front-engined compact cars with a FMR layout, the engine was mounted behind or under the front seat with a flat, vertical nose. Examples include the Ford Econoline, Chevrolet Van, Suzuki Carry, Toyota Hiace, and Subaru Sambar. When Volkswagen introduced a sliding side door on their van in 1968, it then had all the features that would later come to define a minivan: compact length, three rows of forward-facing seats, station wagon-style top-hinged tailgate/liftgate, sliding side door, passenger car base.
As the U.S. vehicles such as the Econoline evolved into larger full-sized vans, the term minivan came to use in North America, when Toyota and Chrysler launched their respective smaller minivan products for the 1984 model year. The Toyota Van and Dodge Caravan / Plymouth Voyager featured very different structural designs: the Dodge Caravan / Plymouth Voyager had a FF layout and unibody construction, while the Toyota Van Wagon had a FMR layout and was built on a body-on-frame chassis. The Chevrolet Astro / GMC Safari and Ford Aerostar were introduced for the 1985 model year with FR layout.
A European minivan design was conceived in the late 1970s by the Rootes Group in partnership with the French automaker Matra (which was also affiliated with Simca, the former French subsidiary of the Chrysler Corporation, sold in 1977 to the PSA Group). The Matra design was originally intended to be sold as a Talbot and be a replacement for the Talbot-Matra Rancho. Early prototypes were designed to use Simca parts and a grille like the Simca 1307. Matra took their idea to Peugeot who thought it too expensive and risky so the project was then presented to Renault, becoming the Renault Espace introduced in 1984. The Renault had traditional hinged car doors on both sides. Chrysler had also been developing a minivan based on the Chrysler K platform, releasing the Dodge Caravan / Plymouth Voyager earlier than the Espace, in 1983.
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MPVs are usually between 1.6–1.8 metres (5 ft 3 in–5 ft 11 in) tall, which is around 20 cm (8 in) taller than a sedan, hatchback, or station wagon. The engine is mounted very close to the front edge of the van, and its elements are grouped higher than in other vehicle types to minimize front overhang length. The rear overhang may be short as in a hatchback or long like in station wagons, changing the cargo area vs seat balance – the first option is more common in smaller minivans and the second in large minivans.
Seats are located higher than in lower cars with a higher H-point, giving passengers a more upright posture and providing more legroom.
Larger MPVs usually feature three rows of seats, with two or three seats each: 2-3-2, 2-2-3 or 2-3-3 (front to rear) are the most common seating configurations. According to Consumer Reports, the most common large size configuration for the 2011 model year was 7 passenger seating. Smaller minivans tend to have two rows of seats, with a traditional 2-3 configuration. There are some exceptions, like the Honda FR-V, Suzuki Ertiga, Fiat Multipla, Mercedes-Benz R-Class, and the Mazda5 which are six seaters (3-3 in the first two cases and 2-2-2 in the last three). On U.S. models, Chrysler copied the short bench, long bench format of their full-size vans for most of their minivan models. Other U.S. manufacturers followed suit. This setup allowed easy access to the rear from the right side (these vans were initially all 3-door models). However, it led to tight seating in the second row. Captain's chairs (the format typically used on U.S. conversion vans) soon began to gain popularity, beginning with top trim models and working its way down. Today, with 4-door models completely replacing 3-doors, the Captain chair setup has become the standard format, with many models no longer offering two bench seats.
MPVs may have seats, either benches or individual seats, that are designed to be relocated, removed, folded partially (on-floor) or folded completely under-floor – allowing variable seating capacity and cargo room.
Chassis and drivetrain
In contrast to vans, sport utility vehicles (SUV), and many crossover SUVs, most current MPVs are front-wheel drive. This configuration allows a flat inner floor, due to the absence of the driveshaft hump. With rear seats removed, the cargo area in large minivans can hold a 4x8 ft sheet of drywall or plywood flat. Four-wheel drive was also introduced to minivans in North America with the Toyota Van Wagon 4WD and the Volkswagen Vanagon Syncro. Full-time all-wheel drive was introduced to North American minivans in 1990 with the Ford Aerostar's E-4WD option, followed in 1991 by the Toyota Previa's All-Trac, and in 1992 on models made by Chrysler.
Most modern MPVs feature unibody architecture, which offers superior crashworthiness and a more comfortable ride than a body-on-frame chassis, and is typically lighter. The discontinued Chevrolet Astro / GMC Safari were the last subframe-mounted rear-wheel drive minivans.
In the United States, in order to be governed by more lenient safety and emissions regulations, minivans are classified as light trucks. Unlike their European counterparts, manual transmissions have disappeared due to lack of demand; 1995 was the last year for a manual transmission in the Ford Aerostar and Chrysler minivans while GM had previously discontinued the manual transmission in the Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari. Although the Mazda 5 which can be considered a smaller version of a minivan is available with a 5-speed manual transmission.
Door configuration for MPVs are highly variable. Access to the rear interior may be through one or two sliding or out-swing rear side doors. Early minivans featured one rear side sliding door on the passenger's side, similar to full-sized passenger vans in the early 1980s. Many current minivans feature rear sliding doors on both sides; swinging doors are the norm for European and Japanese minivans, while most American models feature sliding doors. Some models feature power sliding doors.
Minivans by market
Chrysler popularized the contemporary minivan in the North American market with the 1984 introduction of its minivans, which soon displaced station wagons and became the car of choice for traveling "baby-boomers". Within one year the automaker was not able to build enough Voyager/Caravans to meet the market demand, while competitors rushed to introduce their own models.
Shortly after their introduction, Chrysler met competition from the Chevrolet Astro/GMC Safari and Ford Aerostar; both slightly larger than the Chrysler vans, they used a traditional front-engine with rear-wheel-drive layout and borrowed many mechanical components from their respective compact-truck lineups. Utilizing the transverse-mounted engine, front-wheel drive, monocoque (unibody) construction and "one-box" design, the Chrysler minivans offered better traction, size, and driving characteristics. AMC was going to import the front-wheel-drive Renault Espace beginning in 1986. The minivan was exhibited at the 1985 Chicago Auto Show with the pricing still being negotiated with Matra, which did "much of the work on the van for Renault." Plans for the Espace to be marketed in the U.S. ended with the purchase of AMC by Chrysler.
Nissan and Mitsubishi also introduced minivans to North America during the mid-1980s. In a fashion similar to the Toyota Van Wagon, they had poor rear drive traction and a bouncy ride due to their short wheelbase. By 1990, all three would be withdrawn from the North American market. In 1989, Mazda introduced the first front-engined Japanese-brand minivan with the MPV. Based on the Mazda 929, the MPV featured a swing-out door and optional four-wheel drive.
General Motors introduced the Chevrolet Lumina APV, Oldsmobile Silhouette, and Pontiac Trans Sport in 1990. These minivans were GM's first front-wheel drive minivans; built on a reworked version of GM's 1980s A-platform – with composite plastic body panels, a cab-forward nose, steeply raked windshields, and deep dashboards.
That same year, Toyota introduced the Previa. The Toyota Previa had a four-cylinder engine located under the floor of the vehicle, mounted nearly flat on its side, rather than straight up and down like in its predecessor.
Ford and Nissan introduced models in 1993 with front-wheel drive, the Mercury Villager and Nissan Quest respectively. These minivans featured car-based platforms and V6 engines. Ford introduced a slightly larger front-wheel drive minivan (based on a reworked version of the 1980s Taurus platform) called the Windstar in 1994.
According to Autodata in 2006 Chrysler, Honda, and Toyota comprised 72% of the United States minivan market. General Motors and Ford made up 17%, Kia Sedona and Hyundai Entourage sales made up 5%, and the Nissan Quest was 3%. By 2008, most North American minivans had adopted the size and configuration of the long-wheelbase Chrysler vans, with Chrysler dropping their shorter models as well. In 2008, only the Kia Sedona and Chevrolet Uplander offered both short and long-wheelbase configurations. Kia dropped the short-wheelbase version in 2010, and the Chevrolet Uplander has been discontinued due to poor sales. In 2008, Volkswagen debuted the Routan, a rebadged variant of the Chrysler RT platform minivans. In 2012, Volkswagen stopped production of the Routan.
The Chrysler Minivans and the Renault Espace did not have any direct rival during the 1980s. Automakers began to develop multi-purpose vehicles for the 1990s. PSA Peugeot Citroën and the Fiat Group formed a joint-venture, Sevel, and released in 1994 the siblings Citroën Evasion, Peugeot 806, Fiat Ulysse, and Lancia Zeta. The Ford and the Volkswagen Group JV Auto-Europa similarly co-developed models on a common chassis and built them in a shared-plant in Palmela, Portugal. While the VW/SEAT/Ford model had a length of 4.6 m (15.1 ft), the Espace and the Eurovan were around 20 cm (7.9 in) shorter and would be considered today as compact MPVs. All of them were available as seven-seaters and the seats could be folded and removed. These models would be later called "large MPVs".
The trend towards compact MPVs began in 1996 with the launch of the Renault Scénic and Opel Zafira. Compact MPVs were cars with tall bodies but based on the chassis and engines of a small family car (in the case of the Scénic, the Renault Mégane). The success of the Scénic saw the car spawn a multitude of similar vehicles, like the Opel Zafira, Peugeot 5008, Citroën Xsara Picasso, Volkswagen Touran, SEAT Altea/XL, Ford C-Max, and Nissan Almera Tino. By mid-2000, virtually all mainstream automakers in Europe had a compact MPV in their range. Citroën's Xsara Picasso was followed up with the C4 Picasso range with 5- and 7-seat variants, a line-up that helped Citroën and Volkswagen to become Europe's largest MPV manufacturer.
Also in the mid-2000, automakers began to use MPV-style designs on supermini-based chassis. Examples of mini MPVs them are the Citroën C3 Picasso, based on the C3, and the Fiat Idea, based on the Punto platform.
In 2000, the Auto-Europa triplets (Galaxy, Sharan and Alhambra) were face-lifted. Ford later withdrew from the Auto-Europa joint venture to build its own Galaxy sharing many parts with the Ford S-Max, another MPV. The Auto-Europa production continued with assembly of VW and SEAT models.
In 2010, the second-generation Volkswagen Sharan and SEAT Alhambra were introduced using Volkswagen MQB platform. Like their predecessors, they were almost identical with the exception of the front fascias, rear ends, and some minor details. Production continued in the Auto-Europa factory in Portugal.
In the ASEAN nations, China and India, multi-utility vehicles tend to be smaller than North American minivans and European MPVs. Compact MUVs are more popular than models of other sizes. There are also a large number of models of microvans, some of which fit into the kei car regulations in Japan.
One of the first large MPV's to emerge from Japan was the 1983 Mitsubishi Chariot, offering seating up to seven, with conventional doors for front and rear passengers, a second row bench seat that would slide forward, providing access to the third row, and seats that could either be folded flat to accommodate cargo. The Chariot was also offered in four-wheel-drive configuration, and an optional turbocharged engine was also available.
They also differ in that they need to cope with uneven terrain as opposed to paved highways. Models from local manufacturers are usually based on Japanese designs from Suzuki, Daihatsu and Toyota. Popular models include Toyota Picnic, Toyota Previa, Mazda 8, and Honda StepWGN.
MUVs vary widely in configuration. While some MUVs might be replicas of European MPVs (such as the European Ford Fusion) or American-style minivans (like the Toyota Innova), in some cases MUVs are similar to SUVs (such as the Chevrolet Tavera). Other examples of MUVs are the Maruti Versa, Suzuki APV, Isuzu Panther, Mahindra Xylo, Toyota Alphard, Toyota Avanza, and Toyota Kijang.
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