Outsider’s Perspective: Why are Compact MPV’s a no-sale in America?

2015-VW-Touran-rear (Copy)
The Volkwagen Touran that you see above has just started sales in Europe. If you’ve looked at it and noticed it pretty much looks like a Golf wearing a top hat you’d be absolutely right. You get no points though, because most everything Volkswagen makes is a Golf. However, it did got me thinking, if Volkswagen decided to try and release it stateside it would flop.

The segment itself is not one completely unexplored in the U.S, Ford has sold the C-Max, direct competition to the Touran, in hybrid and electric form in the united states since 2012 and Wikipedia claims that the earliest concept of this Compact MPV’s was a 1977 concept by AMC called the “Concept 80 AM Van.” Sadly it didn’t catch on for reasons that should be immediately apparent when you see the image below.
The same page lists the Dodge Journey as a member of the compact MPV class but it’s a good foot and a half longer than a Touran and so I find it hard to group in the same class. The Mazda5 is a minivan so it doesn’t count either. Kia did sell the Rondo in the U.S for a while but it seems the Soul and the Sportage were doing well enough to make the Rondo unnecessary in the lineup.
2009_Dodge_Journey_SXT (Copy)
The C-Max is not taking over the hearts and minds of buyers, it sold 27,595 units last year which doesn’t sound like much because…well, it isn’t. Even the Beetle manage to shift 4,000 more units despite the fact that it’s the absolute antithesis of what the Volkswagen Beetle and that the efforts made to stop it being a “girl’s car” (which, when you put a flower vase on a car does it really surprise that it gets labeled as that?) has succeeded but haven’t attracted any other demographic. But why, it’s a taller, roomier Focus, people should be making orderly queues to buy it, what’s wrong with it? To be brutally honest, it’s all about image.
renault-scenic-neues-modell-2015 (Copy)
The tall greenhouse and small size means a generous glass area so that the car is easy to drive (though according to some reviewers Renault has done the impossible and made the rear visibility poor in the Scenic) and that the cockpit is nice and airy which makes it feel bigger than it actually is. It also has the side effect that it makes its car look…functional above anything else and we can’t have that now can we. Plymouth learned it the hard way.
382256_14385337_1953_Plymouth_Cranbrook (Copy)
Back in the 1950’s when pesky things like safety, reliability and comfort played second fiddle to design. K.T. Keller, then the big cheese of Chrysler, declared: “the styling won’t knock your hat off, but neither will getting in one of our cars…We build cars to sit in, not to pee over.” The results are seen above. Turns out people would’ve rather taken their hats off if it meant that their car would look cooler so they went elsewhere. I’m guessing something similar happens with compact MPV’s in America. They just aren’t pretty enough to attract buyers.
2014-Kia-Soul-Redesign (Copy)
The Kia Soul and the Nissan Cube fly in the face of this logic, they’re conceptually similar but much shorter and just different-looking enough to actually be desirable. They have been vindicated by their funky design. So now we’re getting somewhere, what we need is a compact MPV that looks so different and interesting that nobody will be able to go by without a second glance. Over to you Citroen.
citroen-c4-picasso_2014 (Copy)
Behold, the only vehicle that would jumpstart the compact MPV segment in America. The Citroen C4 Picasso. It looks like the cars that people in the 1950’s told us we’d be driving today. Best of all underneath the Jetson looks there’s absolutely nothing revolutionary about the oily bits so it should be cheap to run. As cheap to run as a French car can be at least. Naturally, the chances of it getting stateside are about the same as the chances of snowfall in the Sahara

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  1. stigshift Avatar

    Because cheap gas…

  2. mve Avatar

    The simple answer is truck. If you want a car you can see out of, with plenty of headroom, you get a truck or an SUV.
    The Focus C-Max, to me, is a racket. You get barely more headroom than a regular Focus, and no extra seating, so why bother?

    1. duurtlang Avatar

      It’s taller, which is appealing to older people and people with kids so small they need special seats. Those two demographics, especially the older people, are the ones buying MPVs in Europe. At least, that’s the demographic that buys them where I live (the Netherlands).
      A truck or SUV will be more expensive to buy and run and, when considering a similar price bracket, won’t drive as well and won’t be as practical. An MPV is just like a CUV, but without the fake tough look.

      1. tonyola Avatar

        Trucks in the US can be had for relatively cheap if you go easy on the options and packages, plus the fuel economy has been improving on them. Also, vehicles in the USA are not really taxed according to size, engine displacement, or CO2 emissions (there are a few localities which tax business. How much does that Citroen Picasso cost?

        1. duurtlang Avatar

          In Germany the Citroën C4 Picasso costs about as much as a similarly equipped Ford Focus. The base price of the Citroën is higher, but it’s better equipped and has a more potent engine. When you spec the Ford in a similar way it’s rather comparable. If you compare the base Citroën to a base Kuga/Escape the Citroën costs less while offering better performance and fuel economy and an increased wheel base and interior volume. It’s closer in hight to the Escape crossover than the Focus car. Pre-tax base price of the C4 Picasso in Germany: €18.5k ($20.6k US). Note that identical cars tend to be cheaper in the US than in Germany.

      2. neight428 Avatar

        Agree with tonyola. Old folks that favor function end up with Toyota Highlanders and RAV 4’s and the occasional Venza. The quirkier ones snapped up Scion Xb’s and Honda Elements too before they morphed in to Mitsubishis and disappeared entirely, respectively. We have more room in our cities and on our roads such that the size difference over an MPV scale vehicle is not a hindrance. When you price them out, I’d bet that they land fairly similar on the scale of the respective target demographics’ income % too. When you peel back the onions, our FWD CUV’s are just bigger MPV’s with a lift kit.

  3. hubba Avatar

    Same reason that small trucks are a fraction of the big truck market in the US. If you’re buying a new vehicle to carry a crowd or carry cargo, it isn’t prohibitively expensive or inconvenient to buy and own a larger vehicle. The most powerful incentive to go small is image, not cost.

  4. LEROOOY Avatar

    As much as it gives me painful, angry gas to say it…we’ll never get funky French cars again due to the “Freedom Fries” effect.

  5. Fuhrman16 Avatar

    Part of the problem with the C Max is that it’s kind of expensive, starting at 24 grand. An entry level Focus starts at 17. And despite it’s size, the C Max has less cargo room than a Focus, due to it’s hybrid powertrain.

    1. Maymar Avatar

      I think the bigger problem is the $23k Escape sitting next to the C-Max on the lot (even if no one actually buys a $23k Escape, and the C-Max would make up the price difference in less than two years of fuel savings).

      1. Vairship Avatar

        There’s also the problem that the small wheeled, hunchbacked C-Max has an undeniable Eeyore look to it. Even the Transit Connect looks happier and sportier.

  6. mseoul Avatar

    I hate to be negative but it is also because most American drivers have low sensitivity to a vehicle’s dynamics, through lack of experience with anything else I suspect. Its why VW and even Hyundai feel emboldened to use special (cheaper) US/China market beam rear suspensions on car models that get IRS in other markets. So, why not drive a truck? I know people who have bought that aforementioned different-looking enough Kia Soul and find it a revelation compared to years of US make vehicles that they had before. I rented a new Soul lately and it is surprising even when only compared with the original Soul; very quiet and smooth. Feels worth more than the price and its manu-matic even refuses auto kickdowns just like an AMG in sport mode!

  7. Sjalabais Avatar

    Fantastic Plymouth-quote above!
    You make a valid argument and you found a good ambassador. The whole C4 series is pretty wide, something that raises attention in Europe, but would be just perfect in the US. Citroën/PSA is not in bed with any Americans, but they work with Toyota. I could see this car branded as a Toyota making good sales in the US. Just leave off the whale mouth, please.
    Personally, I found myself buying one of the smallest MPV’s there is, a Honda Stream. Based on the Civic, it seats seven, has just enough space for people to actually sit in these seats (just!), gets great mileage (32mpg with constant flogging), has very tight and responsive steering – “the most sporty van”, according to some English publication – and it is very reliable. Obviously. I was a sceptic at first, but after 2.5 years in this vehicle, I appreciate its frugal robustness and the versatility that seven seats offer you.
    Needless to say, when the house council decided: “We need a seven seater”, my initial choice was vetoed within seconds:

  8. PotbellyJoe★★★★★ Avatar

    Cheap gas, cheap food, cheap trucks. Laws/Taxes/EPA are set-up in a way that encourages auto manufacturers to make “Light Trucks” over wagons. The different stigmas in Europe about owning larger cars (“Who does he think he is?” vs. no real stigma in the US)
    It’s like the Illuminati designed it that way.

    1. Sjalabais Avatar

      I’m sure with American pricing, European roads would look more American, too.

    2. CapitalistRoader Avatar

      The US doesn’t have a monopoly on fat people. And even in countries with low numbers, in the big cities—Beijing or Seoul, for example—there are a lot of really fat kids. Cheap, tasty carbs:

      1. PotbellyJoe★★★★★ Avatar

        I didn’t say they did, but I know that our average size has made car companies keep their MPVs elsewhere, including Chevy with their Orlando even being available in Canada, but not here.

    3. Monkey10is Avatar

      It is not just a perceived stigma that keeps us Yoor-pee-ans in our small cars: Try driving in any tight urban centre where lanes are narrow, turns are tight and all the spaces involve parallel parking. The most popular form-factors (superminis, C-segment hatches, compact MPVs and CUVs) all sell themselves in that setting.
      In a way the ‘larger car’ does represent either an aspired or achieved social status: It is a real pain to live with unless you have risen up to the suburban lifestyle where roads are wider, corners designed for cars and your parking is in a garage or driveway. Some will choose to struggle daily with a large sedan or full-size SUV in the city just for the sake of image, but you will see far greater take up of these cars once you head out of the urban areas, through suburbia and into the countryside.

  9. SlowJoeCrow Avatar

    A combination of “bigger is better” mentality and no significant cost penalty for buying a minivan, plus the more macho looking crossovers take most of the potential market in the US. The only credible small MPV in the US was the Mazda5 which like many Mazdas sold to a small loyal market while the mainstream ignored it.

    1. Vairship Avatar

      Plus there is the cultural aspect that American men are more worried about their masculinity than European men. Hence more oversized trucks, fewer compact cars.

  10. Tanshanomi Avatar

    “Sadly it didn’t catch on for reasons that should be immediately apparent when you see the image below.”

  11. Joe Avatar

    Would the now discontinued Dodge/Plymouth Colt Vista-Eagle Summit and Nissan Axxess and Prairie count in this category?

  12. Tanshanomi Avatar

    I think the Picasso looks fantastic! In other words, it would be a tremendous flop.

  13. failboat Avatar

    VW probably wouldnt sell here as I am guessing it would end up being priced near the cost of a big minivan.
    I would argue the Mazda5 is a compact mpv, or at least a compact minivan. what kicks it out of this mpv group, the sliding doors? it is nowhere near the size of a caravan or odyssey and its underpinnings are from a compact car.
    ford offers the grand c-max in europe, non hybrid, and more the size of a mazda 5.

  14. Citric Avatar

    But would the Touran sell in Canada? We buy enough Rondos that we got the new one when America didn’t, and the Chevy Orlando was sold here until they stopped making them.

  15. ReallyReallyBigMan Avatar

    I love MPVs. I wish there were more options in the US.