Minivan buying guide

Last updated: August 2015

Getting started

As a category, minivans provide the most spacious, versatile, and cost-effective solution for families on the go, but the rise of car-based crossover vehicles has caused the minivan market to shrink in recent years. Many models have been discontinued, some have been redesigned and re-imagined, and those that march on are either quite traditional in design or are daring to be different in order to attract minivan-adverse customers. Minivans continue to improve in overall refinement while introducing clever packaging features and leading-edge entertainment solutions.

Check our Car Brand Report Cards to learn more about each automaker.

Why buy a minivan?

The main appeal of minivans is versatility”the ability to carry various combinations of people and cargo. Cabins can be configured from strictly functional to living-room plush. Common options include leather upholstery, tri-zone climate control, reclining rear seats, power-operated doors, and rear-seat entertainment systems. Most minivans have seven or eight seats, which means they can transport as many, or more, people as a three-row SUV. But they do it with significantly improved comfort, more luggage space, superior cabin access, and better fuel economy. These accommodations and flexibility make minivans the best choice for a wide range of buyers, from families to commercial users.

Key things to consider

When looking for a minivan, consider how many people you will be transporting, how much cargo space and storage capability you need, fuel economy, safety, and price.

Most minivans are powered by a V6 engine. Six-cylinder minivan engines are typically in the 250- to 280-hp range. Admittedly, minivan fuel economy is not great”it ranges from the high teens to the low 20s”but it is better than most of the three-row SUVs against which these vehicles compete. Modern minivans are all based on front-drive platforms, and the practice of offering short- and long-wheelbase has ceased. Likewise, four-cylinder minivans have faded away. Today's shoppers can focus on how the minivan rates for overall performance, reliability, packaging, and features, rather than deliberating over body size and configuration.

What you'll spend

Minivans are priced in the $22,000 to over $40,000 range. The most costly models have long rosters of equipment, such as second-row captain's chairs, a power-operated sliding doors and rear hatch, wide (and sometimes multiple) rear entertainment screens, and even built-in Wi-Fi. The rear-seat entertainment systems, whether installed at the factory or by the dealer, can add significantly to the price.

Check our Car Brand Report Cards to learn more about each automaker.


Below we highlight important features for you to consider when purchasing a minivans.

Engines and fuel economy

New minivans come with a V6 engine and an automatic transmission, usually with five or six speeds, though the Nissan Quest uses a continuously variable transmission. Fuel economy is similar within the segment, though some models benefit from more advanced powertrain technology, such as cylinder deactivation.

Drive wheels

Nearly every minivan on sale uses front-wheel drive, which is more space efficient and provides better traction than rear-wheel drive in slippery conditions. The Toyota Sienna, however, offers optional all-wheel drive. That configuration's run-flat tires are a bit of a liability, though, as they degrade the ride, are expensive to replace, and tend to wear quicker than conventional tires. Traction-control provides extra grip in slippery conditions, but it isn't as effective as all-wheel drive. For more information about drive systems see our report on how much traction do you need.


A typical minivan can tow 3,000 pounds or more, which is about the weight of a large (5x10 foot) box trailer loaded to capacity. That capability is more than what a typical sedan can tow, but well within the expectations for most midsized and large SUVs.


Minivans have sliding doors on both sides for easy entry and exit. In many models, you can open one or both rear sliding doors with a button on the key fob or an interior switch. That is particularly useful for people carrying packages or small children to the vehicle. Most also offer power-operated rear hatches, too. With a large, open interior, minivans allow for moving around the cabin when parked, making it easier to load passengers and tend to children. Some allow the center-row seats to slide forward/aft and even move to the side. Such flexibility can aid third-row access.


Traditional minivan models accommodate seven or eight people, depending on the seating configuration. A seven-passenger model has captain's chairs, rather than a bench seat, in the second row. These living-room-style seats are more comfortable than a bench, help to separate kids, and allow for easy passage to the third row. Chrysler and Dodge offer second-row captain's chairs that can fold away under the floor, but those seats are not as comfortable as those without that ability. Nissan offers folding second-row seats that go quite flat. The smaller Mazda5 is a six seater, with three rows of two.


The versatile seating configurations of a minivan mean that nearly all of the space behind the front seats can be used for cargo, if needed. This is done with second- and third-row seats that are either removable or fold down into the floor. The most convenient type of third-row seat is one with a split design, so that one section can be folded down while allowing someone to sit in the other section. Some models have seats that fold electrically.

Most minivans have deep wells behind the third-row seats (into which the third-row seats are folded when not in use), giving them exceptional cargo carrying capacity even with all seats in place. Dodge and Chrysler's Stow-n-Go seating has similar wells behind the front seats. With the second-row seats in place, they provide a great hidden storage area, and their hard lining makes them useful for wet items like bathing suits or snow-covered boots that would otherwise drip into the carpets.

When comparing models, try removing and folding the various seats to see which designs are easier to lower, raise, and/or remove. In our testing, we find that there is a significant difference, and some seats may be too heavy or cumbersome for smaller adults to remove without assistance. Minivans also typically have wide rear openings and lower floors than SUVs, which make loading easier. They usually have maximum weight loads of 1,100 pounds or more, which is more than most SUVs have.

Safety features

All new minivans have standard dual front air bags, three-point safety belts in the outboard seating positions, and top-tether and LATCH child-seat attachments in the rear seats. Most models offer side air bags, antilock brakes, and head-protection bags, typically a side-curtain design that protects people in the front- and second-row seats.

Other safety features to look for include electronic stability control, traction control, safety-belt pretensioners, and daytime running lights. Rear-view cameras that can help prevent back-over accidents and aid parking are typically standard on all minivans. (See our Guide to safety features.)

Rear backup alert systems, which warn the driver with an audible signal and visual graphic when the rear bumper is near a solid object, such as a parked car or a signpost, are common on minivans. These systems are marketed as parking aids and in testing, CR has found that they work well for this. However, they aren't reliable enough for use as back-up safety systems for detecting a small child behind the vehicle.

Consumer Reports' safety ratings include assessments of crash-avoidance capabilities, as well as crash-test results. Our road test reports detail issues regarding child seat installation and the adequacy of front and rear head restraints.

Emerging safety technologies

The latest automotive safety advances include telematics systems that alert emergency personnel if an air bag deploys; lane-departure warning systems that sound an alert if you change lanes without signaling; forward-collision warning that helps prevent rear-end crashes through an audible and visual alert (some systems can automatically brake); and blind-spot warning systems that indicate vehicles driving in the blind spots to the side and rear of you. (Learn more about car safety.)

Entertainment and convenience

The latest mobile electronics enable cars to deliver the fidelity of home theater, along with Bluetooth phone connectivity and GPS navigation. There is a wide range of infotainment features available from the factory, and more so available through the aftermarket.

Audio system

Most minivans come standard with a stereo radio tuner and in-dash CD player with speakers left and right and fore and aft, though some automakers are now abandoning the CD player in favor of an auxiliary input jack. An upgraded system typically has a more-powerful amplifier (so you can play music loud with minimum distortion), along with more and better-quality speakers to enhance clarity and sound separation. Top-level systems add digital sound fields, noise-canceling, surround sound, and DVD-Audio playback.

Minivans at every price level have a USB port for connecting a smart phone or iPod and for charging mobile devices. Some minivans offer additional USB and power ports in the rear seats, which can be a boon on long trips as they allow passengers to charge their own devices.

Satellite and HD radio

Subscription-based satellite radio (SiriusXM) offers a broad selection of channels with catering to a variety of musical and information interests, with uninterrupted service from coast to coast. Subscription packages range from $6 to $20 per month, and you can add service for your smartphone, computer, and home satellite radio for an additional fee.

HD Radio allows conventional (aka terrestrial) AM and FM stations to broadcast their content over digital signals with higher fidelity. It also allows stations to add more programming over several additional sub-channels that can be broadcast alongside a station's main frequency. This function can be used for delivering traffic updates, weather information, or more diverse music content.

Navigation systems and connectivity

In-car navigation systems are a great feature if you often drive in unfamiliar territory. They typically retail for $750 to $1,500 when offered alone, but nav systems are often bundled with other features, such as a backup camera or a high-end audio system, that can add another $1,000 or more. Built-in systems have large, clear screens mounted in the center of the dashboard and have generally intuitive controls. They are integrated nicely into the car, and most systems use touch-screen displays that make it easy to enter destinations and scroll through menus.

Most respond to voice commands, giving you the added safety of keeping your eyes on the road and hands on the wheel. For a subscription fee, many systems can provide real-time traffic reports, which can alert you to congested traffic, accidents, or road construction. But small portable GPS units can offer most of the same capabilities for far less money. (See Ratings and learn more about portable GPS navigation systems.)

Bluetooth connectivity is now ubiquitous, enabling devices such as smartphones to wirelessly communicate with the car's audio system. This allows convenient hands-free phone operation as well as playback of music stored on the phone. Many infotainment systems can stream internet-sourced audio to the car using apps such as Aha and Pandora.

Telematics systems, popularized by GM's OnStar, use a combination of cellular telephone and Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to connect drivers with a call center staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at the touch of a button. For a monthly or annual fee, such concierge services can provide directions and other travel aids. They also have an SOS feature that automatically calls to check on the car after an accident. If need be, these systems can summon emergency services, using the car's built-in GPS receiver to give first responders your car's location.

New vs. Used

When in the market for a minivan, the first consideration is whether to buy a new or used. Buying a brand-new minivan certainly has its benefits. Most notably, new minivans can have the very latest safety gear and engineering improvements. And with a new minivan, you know what you're getting, and it is backed by a comprehensive factory warranty. You don't have to worry about potential service problems or concealed collision damage. Further, you can have your choice of color, trim line, and option level. And financing rates are typically lower than for a used vehicle.

The key drawback with buying a new minivan is rapid depreciation. A new car can shed a third of its value in its first two or three years on the road. If you have financed the new car with a low down payment, you can easily find yourself "upside down" on the loan, where you owe more than the car is worth.

Used minivans can be a welcomed alternative. The used-car market is about three times the size of the new-car market, so there's certainly plenty of choice out there. One of the best strategies is to find a minivan you like that's only a couple of years old. Such a minivan has already taken its biggest depreciation hit, which works to your advantage, but it should still have most of its useful life ahead of it. Modern minivans, if soundly maintained, can stay on the road for 200,000 miles or longer. Rust isn't nearly as big a problem as it was years ago, and solid-state electronics have eliminated the need for frequent tune-ups. That said, since minivans are frequently used as family vehicles, older minivans are likely to show more interior wear and tear than you might find on a car of similar age. Check carefully for rips, stains, smells, and other damage.

The key to selecting a good used minivan is to focus on reliability, even when a prospective automobile is still covered by its original factory warranty. In this segment, that qualifier narrows the field to Honda and Toyota, brands that have a history of making reliable minivans.

CR's reliability scores are no guarantee, of course, but they do carry the weight of probability. If you shop for minivans with top-notch reliability scores, the odds are on your side. At the same time, every used car is unique. A careful pre-purchase inspection remains a vital part of the process. With minivans, there are many controls and systems, so try to use them all before buying to ensure you don't have surprises later. If you do your homework and take care in the selection, a used minivan can save you significant money in the long run.

Whether buying new or used, it is important to do research so you can choose a good model, and follow that up with effective negotiation.

Learn more in our used car buying guide


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