Feb. 9, 2011 -- 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."
The loss of personal style is a hard pill to swallow and some men may feel boxed in by the minivan's traditional shape and style. On DadLabs, one father attempts to take paternity back and salvage hotness by adding magnetic flames to his minivan.
But it was cool once.
For years the minivan ruled the roost.
"You had the station wagon but it wasn't cool, then the minivan came out and didn't have a stigma attached to it," automotive Web site Edmunds.com senior analyst Karl Brauer said.
But the minivan began to lose its image as the newest cool family vehicle on the block when the sports utility vehicle came on the scene.
With overwhelming popularity came negative connotations that transformed minivans into a stodgy vehicle that defined your life by little boxes -- albeit, moving boxes.
The less functional SUVs had appeal because there was no frumpy and domesticized association with the vehicle Bauer said. But even SUVs eventually began to lose ground to crossover vehicles that had high market appear without the sliding doors of minivans.
In the last five years, sales of minivans have dropped by one-half, moving from 1,110,907 in 2005 to 503,242 in 2010, according to Edmunds.com.
Last year, the Chrysler Town and Country sold 112,275 to become the top-selling minivan. The model was followed by the Honda Odyssey (108,182), the Grand Caravan (103,323), the Sienna (98,337) and trailed by the Ford Transit Connect (27,405).
The minivan market has shrunk from 6.6 percent of the overall automotive market in 2005 to 4.4 percent in 2010.
The minivan stigma that men feel about driving them has been "one of the toughest nuts to crack over the last 10 years," Bauer said.
The Nissan Quest "Moms Have Changed" commercial from years ago morphed in 2010 into dad preparing for triplets by watching his sports car turn to a minivan -- an act that appeared much more frightening than triplets.
"I don't have any issue driving a minivan," said Brauer, a family man. "I know they are the most functional vehicles for towing people around. There's no better option than the natural advantages of a boxed space for space efficiency."
For Sarah and Matt Barrand, that was their now 13-year-old Dodge Caravan -- a minivan Matt began calling a "man van" long before 2011.
"There's a dedicated minvan demographic who doesn't care about the image but loves the functionality," Brauer said.
The audience the Caravan must reach to break new ground is people who aren't adverse to the minivan market. The minivan already appeals to nonfamilies -- more than half the owners don't have children.
"I think women will find it appealing as much as men do," says Gilles.
But, can you win them all in the world of man van versus mom van?
"You have a spectrum of guys and customers -- there are plenty of women that wouldn't be caught dead in a minivan -- who are never, ever going to buy a minivan no matter how it's marketed," Brauer said.