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Minivans

Minivan buying guide

Last updated: February 2014

Getting started

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

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 being strictly functional to living-room plush, with leather seating, tri-zone climate control, power doors, and rear DVD entertainment systems. A minivan can transport as many people as a three-row SUV, with more passenger comfort, easier access, and better fuel economy. Those 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 come with a single V6 engine right now. The exception to this and other rules is the mini-minivan Mazda5, which has a four-cylinder engine. Six-cylinder power is typically in the 250- to 280-hp range. Fuel economy extends from the high teens to 20 mpg. Admittedly, minivan fuel economy is not great, but it is better than most of the three-row SUVs these vehicles compete with. Modern minivans are all based on front-drive platforms that are similar in size to what used to be called "extended length" some years ago. Today's shoppers can focus on how the minivan rates for overall performance and reliability, and on packaging and features, rather than deliberating over body size and configuration.

What you'll spend

Minivans are priced in the $25,000 to almost $40,000 range. The most costly models have long rosters of equipment, such as captain's chairs, power rear hatch, wide rear-entertainment screens, and all-wheel drive. Built-in entertainment and navigation systems can add significantly to the price.

Features


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

Engines and fuel economy

Almost all minivans come with a V6 engine, typically mated to a five- or six-speed automatic transmission, though there are continuously variable transmissions in some. Fuel economy is similar within the segment, though some models benefit from more advanced powertrain technology, such as cylinder deactivation.

Drive wheels

Today's minivans use front-wheel drive, which is more space efficient and provides better traction than rear-wheel drive in slippery conditions. The Toyota Sienna is the only minivan currently sold that offers an all-wheel drive option. That configuration's run-flat tires are a bit of a liability, though, as they degrade the ride and are expensive to replace. 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.

Towing

A typical minivan can tow 3,000 pounds or more: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.

Access

Minivans typically 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. Some models 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.

Seating

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.

Cargo

The versatile seating configurations of a minivan mean that all of the space behind the front seats can be used for cargo, as 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. 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. (See our cargo capacity chart to compare the cargo area of different models.) 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 (standard on all passenger vehicles starting with the 2012 model year), 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 cell-phone connectivity and navigation guidance. There is a wide range of infotainment features available from the factory, and more so available through the aftermarket.

Audio system

The standard audio package is a stereo radio tuner and in-dash CD player with speakers left and right and fore and aft. An upgraded system typically has more powerful amplifier, so you can play music loud with minimum distortion, and more and better-quality speakers to enhance clarity and sound separation. Top-level systems add digital sound fields, noise-canceling, surround sound, and hard-drive music storage.

Depending on the package, an audio upgrade can add many hundreds of dollars to a car's sticker price. Minivans at every price level are including a jack for plugging in an MP3 device for playback through the car's audio system. Only stereos with a specific iPod connector or USB input, rather than a micro plug port, will be able to control and recharge an iPod.

Satellite and HD radio

Subscription-only satellite radio offers broad channel selection, catering to a variety of musical and information interests, much like cable TV. Most vehicles offer satellite radio readiness in some audio systems.

HD Radio allows conventional (or 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 channels that can be broadcast alongside a station's main frequency. This function can be used for delivering traffic or weather information, or more diverse music content.

Navigation systems and connectivity

In-car navigation systems can be a valued featured if you often drive in unfamiliar territory. They typically retail for $1,000 to $1,500 when offered alone but are often bundled with other features, such as a back-up camera or a high-end audio system that can add another $1,000 or more. Built-in systems have large, clear screens that are in the center of the dashboard and have generally intuitive controls. They are integrated nicely into the minivan, and some use touch-screen displays that make it easy to enter destinations and navigate through menus. Some can also respond to voice commands, giving you the added safety of keeping your eyes on the road and hands on the wheel. For a fee, many systems can provide real-time traffic reports, which can alert you to congested traffic, accidents, or road construction. But portable GPS units can offer most of the same abilities for much less money. (See Ratings and learn more about portable GPS navigation systems.)

Bluetooth connectivity is standard in all models, enabling wireless devices such as a cell phone to wirelessly communicate with the car's audio system. This allows convenient, hands-free phone operation. In addition, many infotainment systems can interface with your smart phone using apps to stream music and other Internet-sourced data to the car.

Popularized by GM's OnStar, telematics systems use a combination of cellular telephone and Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to connect drivers with a call center staffed 24 hours a day and 7 days a week at the touch of a button. For a monthly or annual fee, such concierge services can provide directions or summon emergency aid based on your vehicle's location.

New vs. Used

When in the market for your next car, 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.

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 a long, long time. Rust, for example, isn't nearly the problem it was years ago. Likewise, solid-state electronics have eliminated the need for a lot of the regular servicing that was necessary in the past. An older minivan will likely have more wear and tear than you might find on a minivan of similar age, further pointing toward more recent examples as attractive buys.

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--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

See coming minivans in our New Car Preview

Brands


Below we highlight the most popular and the most significant minivan brands, with a synopsis of traits. In this segment, the Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey dominate, based on performance in our testing and reliability.

Toyota

The Toyota Sienna is a big seller that also scores well in CR's testing. The Sienna is also the only minivan left that offers an all-wheel-drive option. However, that configuration also comes with run-flat tires, which degrade the ride and are expensive to replace. Toyota vehicles generally have good reliability. Highs include quietness, ride comfort, fuel economy, and reliability. Lows have been agility and steering feel.

Honda

The popular Honda Odyssey also rates well in CR's testing. Hondas typically are very reliable and have consistently high test scores. Some highs include good powertrains, handling, fit and finish, and crash test results. Lows have been road noise.

Chrysler

Chrysler has two minivans in the market, the Dodge Grand Caravan and the Chrysler Town & Country. Those popular minivans have improved over the last generation, but still lag behind the Japanese and South Korean brands. Highs include access and interior flexibility. Lows are engine noise, fuel economy, and braking.
   

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