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Minivan clan vs. SUV warriors

Published Sep. 27, 2005

Automakers' research says minivan drivers are oriented toward family, friends and communities, while SUV buyers focus more on themselves.

Of all the mysteries facing automakers in recent years, few have been so engrossing as how families choose between minivans and sport utility vehicles.

To look at them by median income, age, occupation, family size or location, people who buy minivans and people who buy sport utilities look fairly similar, the automakers' research has found. The typical minivan or sport utility purchaser is most often a fairly affluent married couple in their 40s with children. And while minivans are sometimes labeled "mom-mobiles," the principal drivers of minivans, like sport utility vehicles, are actually a little more likely to be men than women.

Yet a growing body of research by automakers is finding that buyers of these two kinds of vehicles are very different psychologically. Sport utility buyers tend to be more restless, more fond of luxury, less social; they are "self-oriented," to use the automakers' words, and have strong conscious or subconscious fears of crime. Minivan buyers tend to be more self-confident and more "other-oriented": more involved with family, friends and their communities.

Automakers have spent lavishly over the past several years to examine these customers' deeper urges. The automakers find the research persuasive enough that it is affecting the way automobiles are designed and advertised.

While the psychological research is closely guarded by the automakers, executives are willing to discuss some details. For example, minivan buyers tend to be more comfortable than sport utility buyers with being married; sport utility buyers are more commonly concerned with still feeling sexy and like the idea that they could use their vehicles to start dating again, said David P. Bostwick, DaimlerChrysler's director of market research.

"We have a basic resistance in our society to admitting that we are parents and no longer able to go out and find another mate," Bostwick said. "If you have a sport utility, you can have the smoked windows, put the children in the back and pretend you're still single."

Minivan buyers are also less likely than sport utility buyers to have reservations about being parents. "Sport utility people say, "I already have two kids, I don't need 20,' " Bostwick said. "Then we talk to the people who have minivans and they say, "I don't have two kids, I have 20 _ all the kids in the neighborhood.' "

Such psychological factors play a bigger role in the dividing line between minivan and sport utility customers than in the division between any other segments of the auto market, he added.

Since last autumn, General Motors has held seminars with customers, some lasting as long as two days, and reached many of the same conclusions as DaimlerChrysler, said Fred J. Schaafsma, a top GM vehicle development engineer. Both groups of buyers say they want to be "in control" in a vehicle, yet mean completely different things by that, the research found.

"Minivan people want to be in control in terms of safety, being able to park and maneuver in traffic, being able to get elderly people in and out," Schaafsma said. "SUV owners want to be more like, "I'm in control of the people around me.' " This is an important reason why seats are mounted higher in sport utilities than in minivans, he said.

Sport utility buyers are much more concerned with their vehicles' external appearance, while minivan buyers are more interested in the vehicles' interiors and practicality, said Thomas Elliott, Honda's executive vice president for North American auto operations. "The people who buy SUVs are in many cases buying the outside first and then the inside," he said.

Strategic Vision, a market research company in San Diego that does a lot of work for the auto industry, has found that a greater percentage of minivan buyers than sport utility buyers are involved in their communities and families. Minivan buyers are more likely than buyers of any other kind of vehicle to attend religious services and to do volunteer work, while sport utility buyers rank with pickup truck buyers and sports car buyers as the least likely to do either, the company found in a survey this spring of 19,600 recent buyers, including 5,400 minivan and sport utility buyers.

Auto Pacific Inc., an auto market research company in Santa Ana, Calif., found in another large survey this spring that sport utility buyers placed a lower value than minivan buyers on showing courtesy on the road. Sport utility buyers were more likely to agree with the statement, "I'm a great driver," and to say that they drove faster than the average motorist.

Bostwick said that while some sport utility buyers mention that the vehicles look safe, safety during accidents tends not to be the real reason they buy a vehicle. "It's not safety as the issue, it's aggressiveness, it's the ability to go off the road," he said.

The industry's research on buyer psychology has already influenced the designs of minivans and sport utilities. DaimlerChrysler has chosen high-riding designs even for the two-wheel-drive versions of its sport utilities, even though they are unlikely to be driven over rough terrain and are therefore unlikely to need to ride higher, said David C. McKinnon, DaimlerChrysler's director of vehicle exterior design.

For the minivan, he said, the goal was an attractive interior that would make buyers feel as if they were once again "in the womb."

The market research is also reflected in advertising. Ford currently has television and print ads showing a dozen mothers with their children arranged around a Windstar minivan. The ads explain that the mothers, all Ford employees, worked together on a recent redesign of the vehicle.

By contrast, a recent television ad for the Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited showed a driver who had to scale a pile of rocks that had blocked the driveway to his house, in a scene intended to show that a sport utility owner can overcome a threat. Similar themes have been found in ads for the Lincoln Navigator, promoting it as an "Urban Assault Luxury Vehicle" or urging customers to "Ditch the Joneses."

David Bostwick of DaimlerChrysler and other auto market researchers said they had been greatly influenced by Dr. Clotaire Rapaille, a French-born medical anthropologist who has worked as a consultant to DaimlerChrysler, Ford and General Motors.

Rapaille looks at the intellectual, emotional and "reptilian," or instinctual, reasons why people buy consumer products. He said sport utilities are designed to be masculine and assertive, often with vertical metal slats across the grilles to give the appearance of a jungle cat's teeth and flared wheel wells and fenders that suggest the bulging muscles in a clenched jaw.

SUVs are designed to appeal to Americans' deepest fears of violence and crime, Rapaille said. People's earliest associations with sport utilities are wartime Jeeps with machine guns mounted on the back, he explained. Sport utilities are "weapons" and "armored cars for the battlefield," he said.

Detroit advertising agencies have looked at buying the rights to make television commercials from the Mad Max series of movies, and inserting footage of sport utilities into movie scenes showing combat in the Australian desert by bloodthirsty, leather-clad biker gangs in masks, Rapaille said.

"The big, powerful SUVs with a message of "don't mess with me' are going to be around for some time, because American culture is not going to change," he said. "The reptilian always wins."

Who does what


Conversations with friends


SUV: 45

Family gatherings


SUV: 40



SUV: 40

Church functions


SUV: 28

Doing volunteer work


SUV: 16

Dining at fine restaurants


SUV: 46

Going to sporting events


SUV: 38

Working out


SUV: 32



SUV: 16

Mountain biking


SUV: 12

Going out to nightclubs


SUV: 11

(Source: Survey of 5,400 minivan and SuV buyers by Strategic Vision)