Key to Hybrid Minivans: Getting Small

When will we ever get a hybrid gas-electric minivan? That’s been the most frequent question over the years from hopeful (but frustrated) hybrid shoppers. After all, they say, Japan has had hybrid minivans for about a decade. The explanation that Japan’s minivans are much smaller than US models—and therefore better suited for Toyota and Honda gas-electric drivetrains—offers little solace. But help might be on the way, in the form of pint-sized three-row family haulers coming to America.

According to Automotive News, a growing segment of compact minivans—in the style of the Mazda5 and Kia Rondo—are in the works. Ford is planning to make compact US vehicles with minivan and wagon characteristics: three rows of seats, fuel-efficient four-cylinder engines and sticker prices several thousand dollars lower than those of minivans. The seven-seat Ford C-Max—only a little bigger than a Ford Focus—is scheduled to go on sale in the US with a sticker price of about $20,000. Ford showed the new 2010 C-Max at the recent Frankfurt Auto Show. The vehicle will introduce a host of new fuel-efficient technologies, including an all-new 1.6-litre Ford EcoBoost direct injection petrol engine.

General Motors will offer the similarly small Chevy Orlando also in 2011. Both vehicles were developed in Europe but will be built in the US. The Chevy Orlando will be built on the same platform as the upcoming Chevy Cruze and Chevy Volt. GM’s Bob Lutz fueled speculation that the Orlando could one day be offered as family-friendly plug-in hybrid when he said, “We are actually studying the adaptation of Volt technology to the upcoming Orlando.”

Toyota Wish

Toyota Wish

Downsizing alone would improve the fuel efficiency of these minivans. But will they sell? “We definitely think there is a market for these kinds of vehicles,” Klaus-Peter Martin, group manager of Chevrolet communications, told Automotive News. If that proves true, then Honda and Toyota could bring its small minivans, the Honda Stream and Toyota Wish, to American roads. The 1.8-liter Toyota Wish earned a fuel economy rating of about 38 mpg on the Japanese test cycle. A hybrid version could break 40-mpg for US consumers, while providing seating for seven passengers.

The key question is if the waiting list for a hybrid minivan would evaporate if it came in the form of a mini-minivan. Small vans have been successful in Europe and Asia, but surveys find that some US consumers are critical of the vehicles’ lack of power, cargo space and legroom in a tight third row.

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  • Charles

    I want one. I have wanted one for a long time. It is the best replacement for my Focus Wagon. I just hope my Focus (110,000 miles and going strong) can hang in until a hybrid Mazda5 like wagon goes on sale in the US.

  • Dave – Phoenix

    Now we have hit the hammer on the head…..Vans are too big to be hybrids.

    The issue is that auto manufacturers took the “MINI” out of minivans. If you look at mini vans when they first came out in the 1980’s, they were small vans that had smaller, fuel efficient engines. Today’s mini vans are as big as full size vans from the 1980’s. Many have V-8 engines, and can tow a 50 foot yacht.

    We need to get back to MINI vans. At that point we can add hybrid technology and significantly increase their fuel efficiency.

    The same goes for trucks. Why are 100% of today’s trucks big, with V-8 engines, 4 doors, 4-wheel drive, and need a step ladder just to gain entry.

    The key to hybrid truck technology, is to make smaller trucks, based on smaller engine packages.

    I think smaller vans and trucks, with hybrid technology have a place in America. Not just for the soccer moms, but for small busineses as well…..

  • JJenks

    Agreed. I love the design of the Mazda 5. I’m a big Mazda fan, actually, I just wish they would jump on the hybrid train (or improve the gas mileage of all their vehicles, for that matter.)


  • simon@syd

    I dont really see what it is about a hybrid drive train that makes it ill suited to a larger and heavier car. After all, hybrids naturally carry a weight penalty anyhow (they have two engines after all) – with a larger car, the extra weight would be less noticed, wouldnt it?

  • FamilyGuy

    Yay for the mini-minivan. I’ve been eyeing the Mazda5 for a while now that I have two kids. Anytime anyone else wants to come along, it’s an entire second car now. Something seating six that isn’t a monster on the road is just what I want. I don’t need to bring the entire soccer team, just my family of four and the kids’ grandparents.

    I’m okay with the tight 3rd row and the lack of “cargo space”. If that third row folds down, then when it’s just the four of us, there should be plenty of room. When there’s more then four of us, the kids go in the 3rd, they don’t require a lot of legroom.

  • William

    The car I first learned to drive on was my parent’s 1983 Toyota minivan. Limited power, but it got around and it was reliable. Its nice to start hearing of a possible return to a smaller minivan. I know that we’d mostly use it for hauling around kids and the occasional grandparent.

    Bring it on!

  • Ryan

    There has never been a mini-van in the US with a V-8 engine, may want to check your facts before you spew out non-truths.

    I think the current size of mini-vans is ideal for many people. It gets larger families, or families with teens out of Suburbans and large SUV’s and into something much more efficient. I currently have a family of 7, and my 2003 Chevrolet van moves around town at 18mpg and over the highway at 27mpg. There is not another type of vehicle out there that can do this efficiently. I would love to have a hybrid, even a mild one in the current mini-vans.


  • Charles

    How about we have both mini-vans and mini-mini-vans (micro-vans). Micro-vans for people like me, and mini-vans for larger families. And make them all available as hybrids.

    No reason for an exclusive or here.

  • vgtech

    I have to agree with Ryan. Improving the mileage of current minivans is paramount. I also like the smaller minivan idea, but it would have to have cargo area, as opposed to volume, to get me interested. Just look at Rondo, Mazda 5, and the pictures of Orlando and you see vehicles with no length behind the second seat. My Escort has the same (31cubic feet) volume as many suv’s and crossovers, but it is much more useable because it has more length with less height. For this same reason I wish Ford would bring back the Focus wagon, as is still available in Europe. They should study why it was so sucessful in the province of Quebec, where it vastly outsold the sedan version, and apply that to their marketing of the vehicle, and the C-Max, in the rest of North America.

  • Roger

    I don’t know where you shop for vehicles but there is not one minivan that is powered by a V8. As far as pickup trucks out there, that are mid-sized, powered by 6, 5 and even 4 cylinders (Toyota Tacoma). Most of them are available in 2wd too.

    Getting back to minivans, I wish they made a hybrid one the size of my Entourage (Hyundai). Not everyone can perform circus act to get into the back seat of a vehicle. I’m 6’2″ and weight 230 pounds. Heck my sons, age 10 and 12, are already over 5 foot tall. Give them a couple of years and they won’t fit in the back of anything smaller than a mid-size.

  • Scott Z

    I agree that the current mini vans are too large. Lets face it how often do we need that much space? I have an Odyssey because some times I do need that much space. I can’t decide which would be better. Having one good fuel economic car(prius) and one mini van. Both which get used ever day or get a third car and save the mini van for times that the space is needed?

    I like the look of the Mazda 5. The size is just about perfect but guess what. It gets 22/28 MPG. I can get that with my much larger Odyssey. It has a v6 that shuts down 3 cylinders when cruising. The newest model does a 6/4/2 shutdown.

    Before I purchased the Odyssey I was shopping around for an importer that would bring over one of Toyota’s smaller hybrid mini vans. The only one I could get was the Lexus version which was 40K. That is too much to spend on a car to me so I passed. Get me a minivan with 40 MPG and I am there. Just keep it under 30k.

  • Mr. Fusion

    Dave – Phoenix: Some people need big trucks to move big things. My truck has only 2 doors…and no step ladder for access. 4×4 helps me go when others can’t in the snow. Please don’t immediately dismiss large vehicles as being wasteful. Large vehicles bring you goods to the stores and build your home.

    We will have advanced as a civilization the day when vehicle size is irrelevant due to the efficiency of of the power train.

    Charles: Wouldn’t a mini-mini-van be a hatchback? ; )

  • Mr.Bear

    Since I bought my Prius, I’ve been puzzled that Toyota hasn’t attempted to put the hybrid system in either the Scion xB or xD. It’s not a “mini van” I don’t think it’s even classified as a van even though that is more-or-less than what it is. It’s not a three-row. But I think is “light enough” to work well.

  • TDD

    Dave – A bust can be a hybrid, but vans are too big to be hybrid?

  • Mark1977

    “Many have V-8 engines, and can tow a 50 foot yacht.” Sarcasm at its best here. Give me a few of your “many” mini vans that can come with a V-8, And give me one that can tow a yacht. Come on get real V-6 yes V-8’s no.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    There is clearly no reason that hybrid technology can’t actually carry things. It just means that Honda and Toyota can’t just milk their Civic and Prius drivetrains but will have to actually make something new with a larger electric portion of the drivetrain in order to handle the additional weight.
    Hello Ford and Chrysler, are you listening? (I already know GM isn’t listening) Here’s a great opportunity to leapfrog your foreign competition by serving an unfilled market.
    Ford should be able to merge their FEH drivetrain into a mini-van with little trouble. Get going!

  • Dave – Phoenix

    I stand corrected. Minivans don’t have V-8’s. They have 4.0 liter V-6 engines that get less than 20mpg, city.

    Family of 7? That is not a minivan family. That’s a van family.

    I agree there should be a van for families of 7. But, why not also make a minivan for all those families of 4? After all 4 is the average family size in the US. Why make them pay the extra money and burn extra gasoline because they only make minivans fit for a family of 7?

    What about small buinesses? Why can’t they have a van or truck that gets good gas mileage, saving their company money?

  • Dave – Phoenix

    The issue is the amount of energy needed to accelerate a heavy vehicle vs. the amount of kenetic energy that can be recovered during braking and stored back into the batteries.

    You can not recover enough kinetic energy from braking to charge the batteries enough so that you have sufficient energy to accelerate all of that weight.

    Even if you recover more energy, you will need more batteries, adding more weight, and more cost.

    In the end, mathematically, its a losing battle for heavier vehicles. That’s why GM’s large hybrid trucks only get 21 mpg city……

    With a lighter vehicle, it takes less energy to accelerate, less batteries, and costs less.

    As far as the weight of two engines? The internal combustion engine in a hybrid is much smaller than in a normal vehicle, offsetting the extra weight of the electric motor.

  • Dave – Phoenix

    I’m not knocking large trucks or vans. These vehicles are great and can do some wonderful things.

    I’m upset about a lack of small trucks and vans.

    We have no choice.

    I own a truck. But it is an older one, that is used only when I need the cargo and storage. I drive my truck less than 3000 miles per year. For my commute I drive a hybrid, which I use for about 12,000 miles per year.

    I had a small pickup and a small minivan for business back in the 1980’s. Both of these vehicles got great mileage and were perfect for small businesses. Today, such a vehicle cannot be purchased because we only have mid-size and large trucks.

    In the last couple years the dealers stopped offering the 2 door trucks. My friend went to buy a Toyota Tacoma last year. His last two trucks were Tacomas. His kids have grown up and he doesn’t need 4 doors. He was shocked at how much bigger the Tacoma had become. Plus every single Tacoma on the lot had 4 doors. He asked the dealer about a smaller 2 door truck, and dealer said he would have “special order” one…..

    There is a reason that the US consumes 25% of the world’s produced oil every day. Because our vehicles are so large, whether we need them to be or not……

  • Old Man Crowder

    I don’t buy the argument that vans are too big to be hybridized. If they can do it in a Durango, Silverado, Tahoe and Escalade, why can’t they do it to a Caravan, Odyssey or Quest?

  • Mr.Bear

    Need a van fir the family of 4. Again let me introduce you to the Scipn xB and xD. They start about $16k. The difference between the two is cargo space. V4 engine is not at all underpowered. Mileage for the xB is 28mpg. My wife usually gets in the low 30s. The xD is 1 to 2 feet shorter and gets 2-4mpg better than the xB.

  • Robert3232

    The hybrid minivan looks a bit more stylish than a regular minivan too. Shouldn’t hurt sales one bit unless the price is outrageous.

  • BoilerCivicHy

    First manufacturer to market for a hybrid mini-van that can seat 7 gets my money. The escape hybrid platform could easily support a van that would seat 7 and get 28-30 Mpg, stop making excuses for these car companies that don’t want to produce what consumers want, they produce what they want us to buy.

  • Anonymous

    I can see how current Toyota and Honda hybrid drive trains may not be suited for larger vehicles. However that is not an excuse for Ford, They have large SUV hybrids, they should be able to put a similar drive train in a minivan.

  • b3nbr9nch

    There needs to be something between the Mazda 5 and behemoths such as the Odyssey and Sienna. My 1996 short-wheelbase Plymouth Voyager (not Grand Voyager) has plenty of room, especially when 3rd and/or 2nd row seats are removed. And guess what, its 3.3L V-6 generates a modest 155 HP. Seemed like a lot of ooomph in 1996! Today’s Sienna/Odyssey are 15 to 18 inches longer, weigh hundreds of pounds more, and have 230 to 250 HP engines. Give me a hybrid with the same footprint as my Voyager and a combined HP of 180 or so (Camry hybrid!) and I’m a happy camper!

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    محمود أحمد عودة الله

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  • mahmoud odetallah

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    إذا كنت تعيش في الأردن وتريد أن تشتري سيارة هايبرد فاتصل بي , وستكون سعيدا بشراءك واحدة

    محمود أحمد عودة الله

    you are wellcome

  • Andy

    I have a 2005 Honda Oddysey with 255 HP, and it is a blast to drive. I get 20 mpg, in teh city and on the freeway. I always thought there is a market for a high performance minivan. It would be cool to take the new 380 horsepower twin turbo V6 motor Ford is putting in the Taurus SHO, and use it in a minivan. Too bad Ford quit making minivans in 2007, and it sucked.

    As for minivans being too heavy for Hybrid, any car can be a hybrid. GM makes a truck, Lexus makes SUV’s, they just are not as efficient as a Prius.

    Minivans are the perfect candidate for a plug in hybrid, since a majority of their miles are used in taking kids to school, shopping for groceries, and soccer shuttles.

    I am pushing for a diesel minivan myself. Hyundai has a nice diesel motor, and so does VW. They just need to put that combo together and I need to be convinced that the rest of car holds up to my standards, as far a quality of interior design is concerned.

  • Patrick

    It is interesting how builders and contractors all believe they need a huge pickup truck to haul themselves around in. How many home builders transport their own lumber, roofing tiles, insulation, concrete, etc in their own truck? And do I, as their customer, have to pay for all that gas? I like the European way of doing things – small vans (like the Ford Transit) or large vans (Mercedes / Dodge Sprinter) that get good mileage and can actually haul something in a useful way.

    Farmers driving a big truck – I sort of get that. Although when I grew up on the farm we used a tractor for most of that work, and a Chevy 2wd straight truck for everything else.

  • starlightmica

    What, no mention of the JDM Estima Hybrid? That vehicle is a size smaller than usual US market vans, but would probably do just fine.

    As for minivans getting too big – that’s what consumers wanted. The Mazda MPV and short-wheelbase Chrysler & GM vans are dead. The Honda Odyssey, Nissan Quest, and Toyota Sienna all grew up.

  • Bryn

    My 92 Olds Silhouette, at 200,000, is still rolling along.

    I’d like something around the same size but as a plug-in hybrid.

    I don’t care about 0-60 and I don’t expect 50+mpg.

    As long as it can haul about 1/2 a ton (live or dead weight) and gets around 25-30 highway I’d be satisfied (ecstatic even).

    The size is perfect and the van’s just too versatile. For economy travel we use our Prius. Now all we need is economy haulage.

    I’m seriously thinking of converting an electric van at this point.

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