Drivers who need to carry more than five people can choose from models of various types and sizes. There are conventional minivans, three-row SUVs, and so-called microvans, each with their own pros and cons. For this issue, we tested a new or recently updated model from each group. The results might be surprising.
Overall we were most impressed with the Mazda5 (available to subscribers) microvan, which scored an excellent 95 in our testing and earned a Top Pick in our April issue in the Family Hauler category. Despite its modest size, it is versatile and relatively roomy, with sliding rear doors, a small third-row seat, and seating for up to six. It also gets better gas mileage and is more agile and fun to drive than larger alternatives. A 2010 upgrade brought standard ESC.
If you need more room, especially in the third row, a minivan is a better choice. But while the redesigned Toyota Sienna (available to subscribers) is a very good vehicle, it doesn't measure up to the previous model, which had been our top-rated minivan for three years. The Sienna is still roomy and fuel efficient and has a smooth ride, but a drop in interior fit and finish and quietness, among other things, contributed to a drop in its overall test score from 93 to only 80 for the redesign. The Sienna remains the only minivan offering all-wheel drive, but that version also dropped in its test score for the same reasons. The six-year-old Honda Odyssey now leads the category. A redesigned Odyssey is due out this fall.
Rounding out our group is the Ford Flex EcoBoost SUV (available to subscribers). The Flex employs the EcoBoost engine's turbocharging and direct fuel injection technology to optimize performance and fuel economy. That improvement boosted this version of the Flex to the top of its category, below only the Toyota Highlander Hybrid. While its boxy shape may not appeal to everyone, it helps give the Flex a very roomy and versatile interior with seating for up to seven. And like all car-based SUVs, the Flex is available with all-wheel drive.
Prices for the vehicles in this test group varied greatly: from $23,805 for the small Mazda5 to $46,720 for the Flex.
Only the Mazda5 is recommended. The Toyota Sienna and the Flex EcoBoost are too new for us to have reliability data.
Along with the Odyssey, freshened versions of the Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country minivans are expected in showrooms soon. A redesigned Nissan Quest is due in 2011. Among three-row SUVs, a redesigned Ford Explorer and a replacement for the Dodge Durango arrive in 2011. They shift to car-based platforms from their current body-on-frame designs.
The lines between wagons, SUVs, and sedans continue to blur with the arrival of more vehicles that combine characteristics of all three. Like the Acura ZDX and BMW X6, the more affordable Accord Crosstour (available to subscribers) has a tall stance and all-wheel drive, but the design hurts visibility, rear access, and cargo space. Its shape and accommodations are sedan-like, but a hatchback and folding rear seats add to versatility.