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.”
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.