The Man Van: A Gender Neutral Minivan for Men?

PHOTO: A minivan, the vehicle long associated with car-pools, soccer practice, and unpleasant rode trips is being rebranded as a step-sibling to the sports car.

Can a "man van" make the minivan -- a vehicle long associated with carpools, soccer practice and unpleasant road trips -- cool again?

Chrysler is trying to do just that with its new Dodge Grand Caravan RT, unveiled today at the Chicago Auto Show.

Dodge says the minivan drives like a sports car thanks to its suspension, 283 horsepower engine and wider tires that ride a half-inch lower to the ground.

But can it shed the minivan's mommy label?

"We consider ourselves to be the inventors of minivans and feel we can change the conversation on minivans," says Ralph Gilles, chief designer and president and CEO of Dodge Brands.

Over the years, the minivan has been seen as a mommy-mobile able to provide easy access and shuttle children to ballet and swim lessons while surviving numerous types of spills.

But with the new Grand Caravan RT, Dodge has given the vehicle a makeover on everything from functionality to interior and earned itself the hip nickname "man van" because of the all-black leather interior that resembles a man cave.

Between the expected high performance and the more man-friendly design, Dodge is rebranding the Grand Caravan RT as a vehicle that can be used for tailgate parties and weekend warrior projects.

Gilles said a good friend of his who has a go-cart store and runs a dog rescue operation on the side helped inspire the design.

The "man van" takes aim at mommy mobiles and the "Swagger Wagon," the Toyota Sienna, marketed in ads featuring a hipster family rapping about the streets of the cul-de-sac in minivan.

But, the man van isn't just a marketing campaign to get daddies driving minivans.

Many elements of the Grand Caravan have changed, including the stylish look that some may find dark and claustrophobic but could serve as a vehicular sanctuary for some men.

"For so many guys the thought of a minivan is it's just not cool," says Sarah Barrand, who blogs at A Thrifty Mom. "Guys going through the dating process want that souped up sports car and then life changes, then it's not so fun lugging those car seats in a sports car."

The sportier new look of the Caravan could move dad from the the back seat into the driver's side.

That's what happened with Barrand's family of six. Before purchasing the couple's minivan, she said she looked at the amount of seats and air circulation.

"My husband looked at the exterior, the tires, the shape of the mirrors, and to see if it had a sporty body and then he wanted to see how the interior coordinated," she said. "[He looked for] a chrome or wood looking dash and was into the carpet and if it matched the upholstery.

"I was more worried about price and he was worried about the look and how cool he was going to look in this van," Barrand said.

Although some state marketing strategies aren't gender based, she said, there is a social stigma surrounding owning a minivan for men.

"I think a salesman in general knows a woman is a little easier to sell a minivan," Barrand said. "I come in saying I would like a minivan and we're going to try to sell my husband on style."

"We don't necessarily encourage any selling or marketing to any particular gender. We just want to sell vehicles," said Dave Coleman, a new car sales manager at Phillips Chrysler Jeep Dodge in Ocala, Fla. "The vast majority of the decisions are made by females. Whether by themselves or as a family, 60 percent of the time the decision is made by the feminine gender."

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