Meet the New Family-Friendly ‘People Movers’ (Don’t Call Them Minivans!)

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The latest vehicles that are being pumped up as ideal for families include hybrid gas sippers, tiny SUVs, redesigned work vans, and even pickup trucks. You’ll often see them described as “people movers” and “family haulers.” What they won’t be called—not officially anyway—are “minivans.”

As minivan sales fall, and as the old-fashioned minivan’s “cool factor” falls even further, automakers are trying to reinvent what it means for a vehicle to be family-friendly. A couple decades ago, the station wagon gave way to the minivan as the premier family hauler in America. What’s next? Here are a few possibilities.

The Not-Minivans
Ford has been making a small commercial van called the Transit Connect for years. Plans are in the works for a family-friendly passenger version to hit the market for the 2014 model year, and despite that it’s literally a small van, Ford does not want it described as a “minivan.” Ford seems to think that the word just comes with too much baggage: Minivans are thought of as big, expensive, old-fashioned, and not especially fuel efficient.

(MORE: Death of a Minivan: Sign of the Impending Doom of All Minivans?)

They’re also associated with the childhoods of the 20- and 30-something market Ford is targeting with the model. The kids who grew up being driven to school and soccer practice in the ’90s in the back of a minivan don’t seem to want to follow in their parent’s footsteps, so Ford is marketing the car as the Transit Connect Wagon. It looks like a mini- (as in: small) van, and it’ll compete for buyers attention against minivans like the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna, but the Transit Connect will be a little smaller and less expensive than true minivans.

Similarly, just as Ford hopes to reinvent the minivan—starting by getting rid of the word—the hot “crossover” category of SUV has successfully been differentiating itself from traditional SUVs, which are likely viewed lately as boxy, bulky, outdated gas-guzzlers. Every automaker seems to have a new crossover and/or one or more on the way to the market. Automotive News recently highlighted that Volkswagen’s new three-row CrossBlue concept vehicle is clearly “meant as a family-hauler, not an off-road monster,” and that it should be both cheaper than the automaker’s SUV (Touareg) and more tempting to drivers than its minivan (Routan).

Smaller, Greener Family Cars
To be useful as an American family hauler, it’s been assumed that a vehicle must be large. And it’s been assumed that any large vehicle gets poor fuel economy. Neither is necessarily the case today. Two of the greenest cars on the market—the Ford C-Max and Toyota Prius V—are marketing themselves as ideal for families, according to the Wall Street Journal:

Families are very much a target audience for these vehicles. A recent Prius V ad showcases the car on various fun family outings against a candy-colored storybook backdrop.

(MORE: At Under $19K for a Nissan Leaf, Does the Math on Electric Cars Finally Add Up?)

The two hybrid vehicles both cars have space for five passengers and boast terrific MPG ratings, though there is some doubt whether they live up to their advertised fuel economies. Independent testing showed that the C-Max gets around 37 MPG, not 47 MPG as Ford claims. Still, considering that if a SUV or minivan is considered fuel efficient if it gets mileage in the 20s, the C-Max and Prius V are certainly among the best family vehicles in terms of fuel economy.

The Family Pickup Truck?
While some see that the “family hauler” should be getting smaller (see above), others think just the opposite. Auto executives told WardsAuto reported that families are increasingly interesting in pickup trucks, especially if the family has teenagers—who like the extra space in extended-cab pickups, and who’d much rather borrow the keys to a truck rather than a lame mom-mobile minivan:

“We’re seeing some movement from people who use trucks as their primary family vehicle,” [Ram brand President and CEO Fred] Diaz says. “We’re also seeing more and more women buying trucks, just like we’re seeing families.”

(MORE: Upscale Pickups? The Blurring Line Between Cheap and Luxury Cars)

We know that families come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes today, right? So it makes sense that the latest family-hauling automobiles do as well.