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Back to the '70s: GM hot on custom vans

Now that SUVs are getting less popular, maybe we'll all love vans again.

November 11, 2005; Posted: 10:53 a.m. EST (1553 GMT)

By Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNN/Money staff writer

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NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Remember when vans were cool? No, not minivans. Those were never cool. I mean custom vans. You know, wheel-to-wheel carpeting. Wood trim. Lots of stereo speakers.

If you're old enough, you remember some other things that were cool around that time, too. Disco music. "Keep on truckin'" T-shirts. Big hair.

Well get ready, because the folks at General Motors are betting that we might be ready for a bit of a comeback. Not the hair, this time. Just the vans.

GM is investing a fair amount of time, money and effort in a bid to convince Americans that custom vans are, indeed, still cool (though this time they're to be called "conversion vans.")

The real killer blow to custom vans was one GM dealt largely to itself: SUVs. While we were all turning onto SUVs and dropping out of vans, we just forgot all they have to offer.

But large SUVs are now declining in popularity. Meanwhile, one major competitor in the market, Dodge, has stopped making its Ram vans. That leaves just GM and Ford making the bare-bones "plumber's vans" that are the elemental core of custom vans.

So, given that vans are extremely profitable, GM got together a group of 23 van "upfitters," the small companies that do the work of making a van a "conversion van," and formed the "Conversion Van Marketing Association." The 23 upfitters do the conversion work and GM sells the basic vans and does marketing for them. The resultant custom vans are sold, as always, at GM dealers.

So far, with all the marketing support and a significant reduction in competition, conversion sales have not gone up. But they have at least stopped declining, which GM sees as a good thing.

The market for conversion vans, under the best of circumstances, is not huge. GM expects to sell half of the 23,000 to 24,000 custom vans sold in 2005.

What for?

To understand why anyone would buy a conversion van, you have to understand that most custom van shoppers are considering the purchase as an alternative to an SUV. They want a truck, but one with lots of room inside.

If you compare a custom to a minivan for day-to-day use, even the most ardent fan of big vans -- that would be Ross Hendrix , GM's marketing director for commercial truck and van fleet sales -- will admit that a custom van comes up short.

The big conversion van drives, as you might expect, like a big van. GM pitches the custom van as a "living room on wheels," and, if you can imagine driving your living room, that pretty much sums up the experience.

Inside, the seats are big and comfy, but they don't fold flat like they do in minivans, making for a little less versatility of use. The thirst for fuel is super-sized, too. The rather small-ish van I was given to test drive got about 14 miles per gallon in the city and 18 on the highway. And that was prior to all the additions.

Conversion vans offer a lot of the same benefits as a big SUV -- serious towing capacity and 40 percent of those sold have four-wheel-drive -- but with more room inside for leg-stretching and for hooking up entertainment systems that rival what many people have in their homes. And the downsides -- fuel consumption and driving dynamics -- are the same ones you'd have to deal with in a big SUV but they may be actually be a little bit worse.

"They're in the same price class," said Hendrix, "but a little less utilitarian, a little more luxury driven."

Custom vans tend to be weekend vehicles or taken on vacation trips, he said. So, when Friday comes some people drive sports cars, others drive sports bars.

Since they are custom, after all, prices can vary a lot, but the average buyer spends about $65,000 Hendrix said. At those prices, the cost of gas isn't a big issue for buyers.

When I got into a GMC custom van recently for a few days of driving, I have to admit I was a bit baffled by its appeal.

The custom Savana van I had cost about $53,000 total. For that I got to stand up straight thanks to an extra-tall roof and I got two separate stereo systems and captain's chairs and a sofa-like bench seat in the very back for passengers.

If I'd wanted to sleep in it, a set of switches in the back folded the rear sofa seat flat.

It wasn't until the last night I had the van that I finally understood its appeal, though. During dinner, my young son begged to go outside to watch a video in the van.

So we did. I grabbed a DVD of "Dora the Explorer" and the key to the "fancy van." We didn't go anywhere. We just sat on the big sofa in the back and watched Dora and Boots and their friend the talking backpack. I can't tell you how irritating I find Dora and that talking backpack, but my son was about as happy as I've ever seen him.

Finally, it made some kind of sense. That's not something I would ever have done in a minivan. But this was a room. It was like a rolling addition to our home. We could have been watching the Jets pre-game show in the Meadowlands parking lot.

I'm still not sure if potential custom van buyers will be continue to be unswayed by the poor fuel economy of these vehicles, though. But compared to a mobile home, a mobile room might just be a bargain.

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