We like minivans. We like their safety, fuel economy, utility, and ability to transform themselves from school bus to work van within minutes. And despite the fact that they have virtually indistinguishable exteriors and starting prices around $25,000 they are quite distinctive in real world use. Thus more than any other vehicle it is important to test-drive a minivan with the family onboard and that is what we did.
With that in mind we came up with some startlingly differences between otherwise similar minivans. For example, if you have infants and young children the Chrysler Town and Country and Dodge Caravan with the Stow and Go option is your best bet. If you like a bargain and a long warranty the Kia Sedona is unbeatable and if you like something a bit fancier in the same format the Hyundai Entourage is a terrific buy. If you like handling the Honda Odyssey is the winner. If you need a lot of room and zoom and an optional stereo that is the best we have ever heard in a vehicle the Nissan Quest is your answer. If you like all wheel drive capabilities with reasonable fuel mileage the Toyota Sienna is your choice. And, if you want the biggest bargain check out the handy and economical Kia Rondo priced under $19,000 and full of frisk.
Here are some recommendations to consider before shopping for your van. First, make sure you separate your needs from wants. It is nice to have an expensive leather interior in a van, but a dog or cat’s nails can make short work of them. Likewise, an expensive entertainment center might be a great way to pacify the children, but is that what you really want for them? In addition, the loss of those remote headsets isn’t inexpensive and they aren’t tethered to anything making misplacing them a reality.
What we do highly recommend are power side doors and rear hatch if you have children. It makes the van easier to load and, if properly used, safer. It is a must that you test the power doors to make sure they stop when they close after contacting an obstacle. Stand next to the minivan with a small piece of wood and hit the close button. As the door slides you should be able to stop it at any point with just slight pressure from the wood. The next thing to check is the height of your garage’s ceiling and the tailgate’s height when open. Using the remote to open the rear hatch while it is the garage when there is a possibility of hitting the ceiling doesn’t bode well for either. Finally, sit in the third row of seats and check the ease of which the seatbelts fit and if there are head rests to help resist whiplash.
Because keeping the correct tire pressure is absolutely vital to minivans to protect against rollovers and reduced fuel mileage an optional air pressure monitoring devise is worthwhile.
Since rollovers are one of the leading causes of injury in SUVs and minivans it is important to consider the government ratings. According to www.safercar.gov for 2005 models (the latest available) all of the vans we tested were classified as “no tip.” Based on statistical data the percentage of possibility of rollovers for the vans was 12 percent for the Nissan Quest; 14 percent for the Honda; 15 percent for the Kia and Sienna; and 17 percent for the Town and Country. To give you an idea of how much safer these vans are than most SUVs here are some rollover percentages for some popular sports utility models: Ford Explorer Sport Trac, 34 percent; Chevrolet Tahoe, 28 percent, Jeep Liberty, 24 percent, Cadillac Escalade, 24 percent, Hyundai Santa Fe, 20 percent; Honda CRV, 19 percent. Almost without exception a minivan is safer than a SUV.
Once on the road there are four tests you need to perform. First, see how well you can park it in a tight space such as at a shopping center. Next, what can you see when backing up? If you have a large blind spot consider the optional rear camera offered on some models. Thirdly, check to make sure it accelerates well enough for you with the family onboard. These vans can be spunky with a light load, but they’re engines are down on torque and so when loaded they tend to waddle. Finally, see how well they stop. Do you like the feel of the brake pedal? Does the van stop straight?
Finally, make sure that the adults in the family are capable of removing and/or folding the rear seats should it be required. The second row seats can be very heavy and difficult to take out and the reach to fold the back seat into the floor may be too much for some. Vehicles like the Town and Country make this procedure easier than others, but all of them require more strength than expected due to the fact that the seats have to be pulled up and out of the van. Some of these weigh well over 30 pounds.
We weighed our findings more heavily toward price, real world fuel mileage, interior usability, maneuverability in tight parking situations, safety, and stopping and handling. As such the surprise winner was the Kia Sedona, which not only has a superior warranty than the competition, but does everything as well or nearly as well as the more costly competition. As for close, the Hyundai Entourage was next. It is a twin sister of the Kia, but with more chrome and substance. Although the male dominated magazines and websites select the faster and better handling Honda Odyssey, that model costs considerable more and offers little the Kia does not, although you could save $200 a year on fuel for the average driver in the Odyssey due to its sophisticated valve technology.
Toyota’s Sienna is in need of a makeover. It is still a quality vehicle with a lot of positive attributes, but the interior is the most difficult to live with for those in the back seats and it simply does not excel in any one area except ease of parking. It has a goodly amount of cargo room, very good fuel mileage, and has an easy to operate third row seat. The ride is very luxury sedan like and comes with all wheel drive. Standard safety equipment does include front side-impact airbags and three-row head-protecting side curtain airbags. Lots of options from tire monitoring to ports for additional audio components. This is a good van that might be available for a good price now that it is near its model run. You also need to know that we didn’t test the new V6 engine in the Sienna which is considerable more powerful and responsive. However, it still does not solve the Sienna’s interior shortcomings. Overall, Toyota’s van won’t disappoint you and a safe choice.
Honda’s Odyssey is very expensive if you don’t watch your options. And, if you order the Touring model, you get run flat tires without a spare so beware of the cost of these tires if you want this feature. The Honda’s ride is the most sport sedan like of any minivan and the engine is both powerful and frugal on fuel due to the fact that the Variable Cylinder Management (VCM) system shuts down three of its six cylinders while cruising to increase fuel efficiency. In town the Honda is plenty spunky and quiet with an Active Noise Cancellation system that keeps the cabin subdued. There are a lot of positive things about the Honda such as standard curtain side airbags for all three rows of seats, room for eight, a fold down rear seat, antilock brakes, passenger airbag, head airbags, side airbags, stability control, and traction control. Crash test scores are excellent.
Thus the Odyssey is our second place choice based on the fact we couldn’t justify its extra cost over the Kia, which offers nearly the same interior space and utility. The Kia even gets nearly identical gas mileage and is even more powerful than Honda’s 3.5-liter V6 engine. Since resale of the Sedona has not been established we could not compare it to the excellent used prices the Honda brings, but we found that most families buy a minivan for a long period of time negating the importance of resale within the first three to five years that are normally used for comparisons of vehicles. With the longer Kia warranty The Car Family believes that resale might be much stronger than expected, especially if Kia can get people to test its van.
Chrysler Town and Country
We love the Stow and Go option that enables the middle two seats to easily fold into the floor. The sliding optional DVD entertainment center is also well designed, but expensive. The ride is soft and seldom ruffled by unpleasant pavement. The problem is that the van needs to be freshened in terms of the dash where most have the air-conditioning and stereo readouts are unreadable at night due to their small font. The rear seats fold into the floor, but require a long reach. The engine is down on power compared to the competition and the transmission is not as eager to please as the Kia’s and Odyssey’s. If you want to save money you might consider the Dodge Caravan, which is less expensive, but has a much-reduced content. We feel that the handiness of the Stow and Go option, the accommodating interior, and the good natured attitude of this Chrysler makes it a third place choice for real family use. Make sure you get stability control. Crash scores are good. A friendly vehicle for those not in a hurry. Well priced and well featured.
Kia Sedona/Hyundai Entourage
We found the Kia and Hyundai Entourage the most unremarkable minivans in appearance. If you purchase these in white or gray you have an invisible vehicle. If there were another Gumball Rally where people see how fast they can drive from New York to Los Angeles this would be our choice. No one looks at it twice. And, with its potent new 3.8 liter engine, this is plenty perky with 242 horsepower and 251 ft-lbs. @ 3500 rpm. This means the Kia/Hyundai makes more power sooner and it feels that way, especially when loaded. If you were blindfolded and riding in the Sedona you would think it was a Honda. However, the Honda does turn and stop better and has more responsive steering inputs.
The Kia has the best warranty that covers you up to five-year or 60,000 miles overall and ten-years or 100,000-miles on the powertrain. The third row seat folds into the floor, but is difficult to pull out and the second row seats are heavy to remove. The Kia and Hyundai have side airbags and ABS as well as traction control and stability control. In other words, this is a good van bargain priced, well warranted, with ample storage space.
When driving the Kia it feels much smaller than it is and it is only when you park the Sedona that its girth becomes apparent. The Hyundai feels a bit more sluggish and I bit more polished. If you want to save money stick with the Kia, although as the Hyundai, it has a much too large turning radius at nearly 40 feet. Overall, a great value with real life features and usability that makes it the equal of the competition. If you are daring enough to gamble on this recently redone model you might be the happiest minivan owner at the mall.
Smaller than the other vans, but still offering seating for seven and a price that the others can’t match coming in with a V6 around $20,000 and the quite adequate four cylinder a couple of grand less. The Rondo handles great, can be parked much easier than the other vans, and is very large on the inside. It is the best model Kia sells and worth a long ride. The reason it did not place higher was that most people buy a minivan for the room, and the Rondo just doesn’t have as much due to its smaller footprint. It would have won first place if it were our choice, but we were testing for the typical minivan buyer.
The Nissan Quest is distinctive looking, has a great interior, an engine that provides a lot of propulsion, and a quirky interior layout that works well, but takes a while to master. The quickest of all minivans, the 3.5-liter V6 with its 240 horsepower works to make this the sports car of vans. The wide doors are the best of any and make loading and unloading very easy. The full-length glass roof takes a while to figure out and the view to the back is very limited. Check into Nissan’s excellent rear view camera with this model. The Quest is longer than the other vans and yet still feels nimble. As the Kia, the turning radius is large, 40 feet, which makes parking the Quest an acquired skill. Overall, this is a minivan for the iconoclastic who enjoys driving and loves the individuality that this Nissan offers. Regardless make sure you listen to the optional stereo system while driving the Quest. It is exceptional.
Mom’s view: I find driving a minivan a mixed blessing. Although it offers a lot of uses, the soccer mom image it sends is not one that is flattering. Perhaps that is the reason why so many otherwise practical families went over to SUVs despite their horrible gas mileage, tipsy ride, and garage filling girth. Anyway, the Toyota Sienna was my choice. It quickly made me forget I was driving a van, offered a ride that I felt comfortable with, and was easy to operate. The Kia and Honda were nearly identical in ease of use, but felt too large, as did the Quest. The Town and Country’s dash and lighting were sub par, although if I had children if would be my first choice due to the Stow and Go option. Give my vote to Toyota with Kia second and loved the Rondo.
Dad’s view: The Honda was terrific. It was fun to drive and the interior was both spacious and easy to use. The Kia was difficult to fault, although it might have helped if it had a personality. The Quest is big and felt that way. The engine was always ready, but the lack of side and rear visibility always made me a bit nervous. The Chrysler needs more grunt and the Sienna, which was once my favorite, has not kept up with the competition. Make my score for the fun to drive Odyssey (is that an oxymoron), the Kia, and the Town and Country in that order.
Working woman’s view: I am too young for a minivan, but the Kia almost made me forget that. It is such a bargain. Imagine a V6 minivan for the price of four cylinder Camry. The Chrysler had a nice looking interior, but lacked the sparkle. The Nissan’s appearance and interior put me off and it was just too big for me. I found the Honda quite easy to master, but I couldn’t see spending so much extra for nearly the same ingredients as the Kia. I wouldn’t say I felt this shoot-out was an eye opener, but I would say that it really opens your eyes when you see how similar these five vans are in daily use until there is a family onboard when their character changes dramatically. Whatever you do, check those options carefully. They can totally change the usability of these vans far more than a sedan or SUV, of which the latter is a curse on the earth unless you live where you must have the added ground clearance for winter driving or to reach abandoned calves on your ranch.
Young working male’s view: Give me a break. When does a single guy need a minivan? That was my thinking before the arrival of my rescued dog, my career as a budding rap artist and the realization that I had three hours to kill between classes after work and needed a place to work/sleep. With that in mind I wanted a lot of room and so the Nissan Quest was my favorite. It had big side doors, a terrific sound system, and a forceful power plant and there were plenty of good deals out there. The Kia was also a bargain and very useful. The Honda was fun to drive and economical to operate. The Town and Country just didn’t do much for me and the Sienna was boring. I did note that the Honda was the only van with room for eight people, and six airbags. It was pretty fast. The Kia felt fast, too. By the way, don’t even consider the Kia’s short wheelbase model that is shy on cargo space. The Quest is quite stylish, but still has the quirkiness I like. Toyota’s Sienna now has a larger engine, with 268 horsepower, that should make it much more responsive. However, we didn’t test this engine. Add that option to the all wheel drive system and you have a minivan for all weather conditions, however, the interior is still dated. The Town and Country needs the optional large engine and comes very well equipped. Give me the Quest and don’t tell my friends.
Family conference: If money is no object the Honda is a good van, but since being frugal is a virtue the Kia is the better deal with nearly identical features and performance. The other vans all have their strong points, but can’t match the performance and/or the versatility of these two.
Of note is that we didn’t test Mazda’s vans due to their smaller size and we didn’t test the very expensive Mercedes R because we doubt many families would be interested in this vehicle for daily transportation given its 16/21 fuel mileage rating and starting price well above $40,000. Ford’s product is slated for renewal next year and so we passed on the FreeStar/Mercury Monterey. The Ford Edge was not available for testing.
We have previously tested the Chevrolet Upland/Saturn Relay/Buick Terraza. They are a cross between a SUV and a minivan, but in this field they can really only offer a price advantage. The Car Family found them useful and well priced, but not as nifty or as powerful handy as the more traditional minivans. Check out our review here and government rollover rate information is located here.
We are not unlike you or most other people; we want to drive what we want to drive, go where we want to go and in the process not be unwitting cannon fodder for self-serving government programs, over-bearing police departments or greedy courts.
We have come to understand that we must join together to fight for our rights and protect our freedoms. The National Motorists Association is our chosen vehicle for this journey.