I Hauled My Kid Around In Five Different Minivans: Here’s What I Learned

I Hauled My Kid Around In Five Different Minivans: Here’s What I Learned
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People either love to hate minivans, or have completely forgotten about them, even though they’re the most practical, comfortable form of transportation a family of four or more can get their grubby, peanut butter-smeared hands on.

(Full Disclosure: Various automakers loaned me their vans, fully fuelled, for family road-testing purposes.)

My guess is that minivan haters are afraid of growing up, which is to say, they fear death. The 30-somethings I’ve seen trundling around Brooklyn on skateboards–along with the horde of 50-somethings who dress like they’re still in high school–certainly support this hypothesis.

But regardless of people’s motives for minivan aversion, sales have declined over the past 20 years as the current generation of parents has glommed onto the less-practical three-row crossover as its apex family hauler.

However, the minivan still lives and despite its faded popularity, still stands as the best way to cart around a bunch of children and all the crap they and their parents like to bring with them.

There are still a handful on the market, but the winnowing away of the bevy of minivans available 20 years ago has knocked out all but the strongest performers. Consider, for example, how many crossovers there are on the market right now as automakers try frantically to find that sales “sweet spot.” They, like the host of minivans available years ago, won’t all last. At any rate, all vehicles are a compromise of some sort, and minivans are no exception.

But they seem to be less of a compromise than three-row crossovers–most of which I’ve driven. What I’m getting at here is that if you’re going to drive something big that doesn’t handle as nicely as a small car, why make sacrifices in interior space and comfort? After all, when you have a brood of screaming, grubby-fingered hellions to contend with, convenience is everything.

Keep in mind, fellow parents, that nobody but you cares how “cool” you are. Your little ones will love your minivan until they’re in high school (and based upon my read of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” as well as several of my own life experiences with an Astro van, a van should never be offered to a teenager as a first car).

At that point, a sleek car isn’t likely to improve your stature in their eyes, and those who judge you based upon the quality of your mode of transportation probably aren’t worth knowing. Besides, when you can stuff lumber, car parts and other junk in the same space you use to carry around your children and a bunch of their friends, you’ll realise how much more versatile a small van is than, say, a giant pickup truck. Especially when it comes time to pay for gas.

So here they are, in alphabetical order–all the minivans still available in the US market. (Note: I’ve left out the Ford Transit Connect, because although its sliding doors give it minivan status, it’s more of a crossover in terms of size.)

Chrysler Pacifica

Photo: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles

The Pacifica was an unlikely debutante for an auto show held in 2016, but when it appeared in Detroit that year, I recall thinking how fresh it looked. It still looks fresh, thanks to smooth, pleasant styling and a relatively low roofline.

Its looks are carlike, and it has the handling and fuel economy to match–a boon to anyone who has been disappointed by a crossover’s less-than-stellar gas mileage or top-heavy handling. The bottom line is that it’s a smooth-riding, nice-looking vehicle with tons of interior space that ought to appeal to those whose insistence on “cool” hasn’t completely faded. When I showed up in a grocery store parking lot behind the wheel of a Pacifica with the windows down, panoramic sunroof wide open, Led Zeppelin blaring from its lovely stereo system, I felt cool. In any case, I felt much less self-conscious than I did in a $US150,000 ($222,335) Mercedes-Benz convertible.

Pros: The Pacifica has seating for seven or eight passengers (depending upon whether you spring for the available captain’s chairs) and more than 32 cubic feet of cargo space behind the third-row seats. Part of that is a deep well used to store the seats when you want to fold them flat. This makes for easy, secure grocery loading.

With the third row folded down, cargo space expands to more than 87 cubic feet, and with the centre seats removed, more than 140 cubic feet, all with a flat load floor. The seats are comfortable and the ride and handling are superb. It feels luxurious. The plug-in hybrid model allows you to drive 53 miles on an electric charge and turns in superb fuel economy numbers in hybrid mode. I was able to drive from the middle of Long Island to Virginia Beach (a 640km journey) on $US35 ($52) worth of gasoline in a packed-to-the-gills-with-summer-vacation-crap van. Both the gas and the hybrid powertrains are smooth and torquey.

Cons: Like so many vehicles offered by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, reliability can be a problem area. Consumer Reports gave the 2019 Pacifica a pretty dim predicted reliability rating, based in part upon three NHTSA recalls just in 2019. Also, the most attractive model–the plug-in hybrid–is pricey, ranging from just under $US40,000 ($59,289) for the bottom end Touring trim to more than $US50,000 ($74,112) for a fully-loaded top-of-the-line Limited trim version.

Price Range: $US33,745 ($50,018) – $US51,065 ($75,690)

Average EPA Fuel Economy: 22 mpg (conventional); 30 mpg, gasoline-only/82 MPGe, plug-in (hybrid)

Safety: Active safety features optional. IIHS Top Safety Pick; 5-star (out of five) U.S. federal crash safety rating.

Dodge Grand Caravan

Photo: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles

Remember when the Dodge Caravan came out in 1984? I do, but barely. I was six years old. What I do remember is its impact upon the family car landscape as I was growing up. Everyone (except my family, which limited itself to inexpensive four-cylinder, four-door hatchbacks) seemed to have one. The Grand Caravan is more or less a continuation of the original car-based transportation box dreamed up by Lee Iacocca and his team back when families still drove station wagons. Some would say it hasn’t aged well, but I disagree.

The Grand Caravan–relegated mostly to fleet vehicle status by now–is a staple for production crews and families on distant vacations all over America. And despite the presence of more attractively-styled minivans in the US market, it’s still a compelling option for anyone in need of a practical family car. Also, it did pretty well in Road & Track’s Performance Van of the Year Lineup, so there’s that.

Pros: It shares the same basic layout as the Pacifica: Fold-flat rear seats and a removable middle row. But it is slightly larger. The cargo area is also an inch taller, which could make a difference to the crap haulers among us. The ride and handling are inoffensive and the interior is plenty comfortable. The 3.6-litre engine offers good torque and reasonable acceleration. Starting at about $US27,000 ($40,020), the Grand Caravan is relatively inexpensive. In short, it’s a classic minivan with all the capabilities that come with that designation.

Cons: Unfortunately, the slightly tweaked GT version is no longer available, and the only transmission option is an older 6-speed automatic (the conventional Pacifica has a much nicer 9-speed ZF unit). Since it’s been sidelined as a fleet car, interior and exterior styling have fallen behind. Also, along with its legacy status comes subpar safety ratings and no available active safety features.

Price Range: $US27,040 ($40,080) – $US37,360 ($55,376)

Average EPA Fuel Economy: 20 mpg

Safety: No active safety features; IIHS gave it a “Poor” rating in the driver-side small overlap front collision test; 4 out of 5 stars from the federal government.

Honda Odyssey

Photo: Honda North America

Although not a metric that most family chauffeurs have in mind, the Honda Odyssey can lay claim to the highest top speed among US market minivans.

Other than that, it has the same capabilities as any other minivan, but with its own quirky Honda look. I drove my family to and from North Carolina in one over the summer and it got us there without incident with a stack of surfboards strapped to the roof.

When a buddy of mine informed me that the pile of car parts and junk I had stored in his garage needed–at long last–to go, the Odyssey swallowed it all with ease. I was able to fit a small Kawasaki motorcycle, a complete set of front end body parts from a ’73 Pontiac Ventura II, and some small boxes of assorted junk–all with room left over for a full load of groceries and a front seat passenger (sorry, baby, no room for you and your astronaut chair).

In terms of ride and handling, the current Odyssey really isn’t much different than the 2012 model some friends and I drove across the country last spring. Which is to say, it’s great. Plus, it has that great Homeric name. Across the wine-dark continent we go!

Pros: The Odyssey has similar cargo dimensions to the Pacifica, along with handy junk bins and pockets between the two front seats. There are cupholders everywhere, and a place near the floor for baby toys and other assorted crap you don’t want rolling around on the floor while you’re driving.

The 3.5-litre V6 makes good power, and the ride is smooth. Cornering is decent for a vehicle of this size. Although it may look more or less the same as the previous-generation Odyssey, the 2018 and up models have been updated. But there’s a familiarity that many potential buyers will like, particularly from a vehicle with the Honda reputation for reliability. Although Consumer Reports took issue with the Odyssey’s electronics (more on that in a bit), mechanical reliability was deemed tip-top. Highway fuel economy is among the best of the gasoline-powered minivans.

Cons: Some may like Honda’s choppy styling, but I don’t think it translates well to the Odyssey’s bulkier shape. This look has been around for a while and could use an update. The interior felt a little bit cheap and plasticky, and the seats were kind of hard compared to other models in the minivan segment. The “magic slide” middle seats were a pain in the arse to use. My other beefs were engine noise. The 3.5, although capable, makes an unpleasant racket when you dig into the throttle. And then there’s the goofy Honda-Acura push-button shifter thingie. Also, if they were going to go to the trouble to install a push-button shifter, why couldn’t they add a few knobs for the stereo. That, I think, makes this the eight-millionth Honda review bemoaning the inferior quality of Honda’s nightmare of an infotainment system.

Price Range: $US30,690 ($45,490) – $US50,344 ($74,622)

Average EPA Fuel Economy: 22 mpg

Safety: Active safety features available; IIHS Top Safety Pick; 5-star (out of five) U.S. federal crash safety rating.

Kia Sedona

Photo: Kia Motors Corporation

I’ll never forget Kia’s debut, in 2014, of the current-generation Sedona minivan. It was held at a venue outside the New York International Auto Show, and there was a lady onstage who stuffed herself into a giant balloon so that she looked like a fertilised human egg.

Having seen a few Korean children’s cartoons since then, none of it seems all that strange in retrospect, but at the time, I was wondering if the performance was some sort of offbeat fertility messaging related to family vans. But I digress. The Sedona is great. It’s comfortable, it drives well, and like all Kias these days, it has pleasant exterior styling. One of my friends owns one, and he raves about it all the time. “It’s awesome. It was cheap. My kids love it,” he says. That is the minivan’s attraction in a nutshell.

Pros: Cargo space behind the rear seats is comparable to the Grand Caravan–a cube more than the Odyssey and Pacifica. Like all the other minivans on the market, the rear seats fold flat and the middle seats fold out of the way. Aside from the Pacifica, the Sedona probably has the most attractive styling. The 3.3-litre V6 is a stout mill and gets the van from place to place with reasonable power and efficiency. Best of all, a fully-loaded Sedona comes in well under the competition’s spec’d out models.

Cons: Fuel economy isn’t as good as some of the competition, and interior styling looks a bit dated. Most new Kias come with great-looking interiors, so hopefully, the Sedona will get freshened up a bit in the years to come. The Sedona’s biggest failing is that the middle row seats can’t be removed, which cuts into cargo capacity. After all, one of the perks of owning a minivan is having a bus that readily converts into a junk hauler.

Price Range: $US27,400 ($40,613) – $US39,640 ($58,756)

Average EPA Fuel Economy: 21 mpg

Safety: Active safety features available; “Good” ratings on most IIHS crash tests and “Poor” rating for headlights; 5-star (out of five) U.S. federal crash safety rating

Toyota Sienna

Photo: Toyota Motor Corporation

The Sienna is neither the best looking nor the smoothest riding minivan on the market. It’s not even the most fuel-efficient. But it is, somehow, the most fun to drive.

I can’t quantify this feeling with scientific test results, but among the minivans I tested, the Sienna felt the most like a smaller car–even though the Sienna has more space inside than any of its competitors. Part of that probably owes to its engine, which cranks out nearly 300 horsepower. The Sienna is also the only minivan available with all-wheel-drive – undoubtedly a huge selling point to people who live in places where snow and ice can be a persistent road hazard. All in all, the Sienna is my favourite minivan and is the one I’d be most likely to own myself.

Pros: Cargo space behind the rear seats is 39 cubic feet, and with the third row folded flat, 87 cubic feet. With the middle row removed, cargo volume jumps to 150 cubic feet–or enough room to fit a lot of car parts and/or construction materials.

The seats are comfortable, the dash looks decent in that new-Corolla kind of way, and the transmission shifter is an actual lever, instead of the goofy buttons and dials found on other models. Backed up by an eight-speed automatic transmissions, the 3.5-litre V6 produces torque in a useable range and sounds good when you mash the accelerator to the floor.

It’s a Toyota, so obviously reliability is about as good as it gets (and if you don’t trust me, Consumer Reports gave it a pretty stellar reliability assessment). It also comes standard with active safety features like automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection and adaptive cruise control.

Cons: Compared with the more luxe Pacifica, the Sienna’s interior seems a little cheesy, and its ride isn’t as polished. (Fortunately, most children aren’t so picky about such things, and junk doesn’t care.)

The styling, which calls to mind a bloated Camry, won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Fuel economy comes in at the lower end of the minivan spectrum (unless you go for the front-wheel drive version, which is similar to the Odyssey). But hey, all wheel-drive.

Price Range: $US31,565 ($46,787) – $US50,884 ($75,422)

Average EPA Fuel Economy: 20 mpg (AWD); 22 mpg (FWD)

Safety: Active safety features standard; “Good” ratings in most IIHS crash tests; 5-star (out of five) U.S. federal crash safety rating.