Visitors to the 2013 New York International Auto Show check...

Visitors to the 2013 New York International Auto Show check out a 2014 Chevrolet Impala. (March 29, 2013) Credit: Nancy Borowick

Don’t be alarmed as you notice SpongeBob SquarePants and built-in vehicle vacuums taking precedence over engine cylinders and transmissions at the New York Auto Show. It’s all part of car manufacturers’ renewed focus on the family car buyer.

Toyota, Honda, BMW, Chrysler Group and General Motors all took the 2013 New York International Auto Show as a chance to appeal to family-oriented consumers in the nation’s largest auto market. Yes, the exposition is known better for its high-end and sporty displays, but it’s also “an extraordinarily great marketing event” for local dealers, according to Greater New York Automobile Dealers Association Pesident Mark Schienberg, and as the recession retreats into the industry’s rearview mirror, automakers are competing to capture the driver in need of a larger, more practical, family-friendly vehicle.

Toyota brought a redesigned Highlander for the 2014 model year to the New York Auto Show, showing it to the world for the first time. The redesign adds three inches in length and a half an inch of length to the vehicle and ups the seating capacity to eight.

“Current owners told us that Highlander .?.?. could use some extra space,” Bill Fay, Toyota’s U.S. group vice president and general manager, said during the unveiling. “So, we increased passenger seating capacity and cargo capacity through structural changes and a close attention to interior packaging.”

In a further nod to families, Toyota simultaneously announced a partnership with Nickelodeon and SpongeBob SquarePants when it premiered the Highlander.

Not to be outdone by its fellow Japanese brand, Honda used the New York Auto Show to debut a brand new Honda Odyssey minivan. The most buzz-worthy new feature of the redesign was HondaVAC, a built in vacuum developed in partnership with Shop-Vac that explicitly targets parents who need a vehicle to haul around younger children.

"Honda has made the modern family hauler even better," Michael Accavitti, vice president of marketing operations at American Honda, said in a statement. "Honda is once again showcasing its reputation for innovation with HondaVAC, and its ability to provide true value to our customers."

Among domestic brands, Chrysler’s Dodge brand premiered a redesigned Dodge Durango, which it markets as a three-row family performance SUV. While the redesign brought little change to the size or specifications of the vehicle, the pomp and circumstance surrounding the refresh hinted at Dodge’s desire to stay before the competition for family consumers. “For 2014, we’re upping the ante by making it our most technologically advanced, fuel efficient and dramatically styled Durango ever,” Dodge chief Reid Bigland said in a statement.

Meanwhile, over the last quarter, General Motors has brought well-publicized redesigns to its large Chevrolet, Cadillac and Buick sedans.

The trend toward delivering to families has not escaped the luxury brand. BMW introduced a 3-Series Gran Turismo to U.S. audiences for the first time that brings more size and cargo room to its most popular line of vehicles. Honda’s luxury Acura brand also used the auto show as an opportunity to brings its MDX sport-utility vehicle from the conceptual stage to a production one. Throughout the auto show news conference Jeff Conrad, Acura’s vice president and general manager, continued to harp on the renewed importance of the family buyer.

“With Gen X and Gen Y beginning to reach the family stage, the family population in America is booming and rapidly becoming the biggest driver of luxury vehicle sales,” he said. “The all-new MDX was created to take advantage of this trend.”  

Click here for photos of the latest redesigned family vehicles.

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