Minivan Buying Guide

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 reimagined, and those that march on are either quite traditional in design or are daring to be different to attract minivan-averse customers. Minivans continue to improve in overall refinement while introducing clever packaging features and leading-edge entertainment solutions.

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 minivans do it with significantly better 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.

All new minivans for sale are powered by a V6 engine, which typically produces 270 to almost 300 hp. Admittedly, minivan fuel economy is not great (it ranges from the high teens to the low 20s), but it is better than that of most of the three-row SUVs that these vehicles compete against. Modern minivans are all based on front-drive platforms, and the practice of offering short and long wheelbases has ceased. While four-cylinder minivans have faded away, the Chrysler Pacifica has become the first plug-in hybrid minivan.

As the minivan segment has narrowed, 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 from $27,000 to more than $40,000 before options. The most costly models have long rosters of equipment, such as second-row captain’s chairs, power-operated sliding doors and rear hatch, wide (and sometimes multiple) rear-seat entertainment screens, and even built-in WiFi. The rear-seat entertainment systems, whether installed at the factory or by the dealer, can add significantly to the price. 


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

Engines and Fuel Economy
New minivans come with a V6 engine and an automatic transmission, ranging from six to 10 speeds. Fuel economy is similar within the segment, ranging from 20 to 22 mpg overall, with the notable exception being the Dodge Grand Caravan at 17 mpg overall. Fuel-economy gains can be traced to advances in powertrain technology, such as start/stop and cylinder deactivation, as well as the increased number of transmission gears. Chrysler pushes boundaries with its Pacifica plug-in hybrid. 

Drive Wheels
Almost 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, because 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. 

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 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 minivans 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. 

The versatile seating configurations of a minivan mean that almost 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 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 such as 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 take out. 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 airbags, three-point safety belts in the outboard seating positions, and top-tether and LATCH child-seat attachments in the rear seats. They are also equipped with stability control, side airbags, antilock brakes, and head-protection bags, typically a side-curtain design that protects people in the front- and second-row seats.

Rearview cameras that can help prevent back-over accidents and aid parking are standard, and should be sought after on used minivans.

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.

Advanced Safety Technologies
Forward-collision warning and automatic emergency braking are two valued systems that are fast becoming standard equipment on many new vehicles. Forward-collision warning (FCW) technology provides a visual, audible, and/or tactile alert to warn the driver of an impending collision with a car or object directly in its path. If a car equipped with automatic emergency braking (AEB) senses a potential collision and you don’t react in time, it starts braking for you. IIHS data show that rear-end collisions are cut by 50 percent on vehicles with AEB and FCW.

Other modern safety advances include telematics systems that alert emergency personnel if an airbag deploys, lane-departure warning systems that sound an alert if you change lanes without signaling, lane-keeping assist to center the vehicle in the lane if you start to drift, 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 smartphone connectivity, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatibility, and navigation guidance. Factory-supplied systems usually offer voice-activated controls for audio, phone, and navigation with various levels of sophistication. You’ll frequently find redundant audio controls on the steering wheel.

Audio System
The standard audio package is a stereo radio tuner with speakers left and right and fore and aft, with satellite radio and various inputs for external devices. CD players are becoming rare. 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, and app integration.

Minivans at every price level have a USB port for connecting a smartphone or an iPod and for charging mobile devices. Most minivans offer additional USB and power ports in the rear seats, which can be a boon on long trips because 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 $11 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 subchannels 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 high-end audio system. 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 minivan, 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.) You can also put your smartphone in a dash or windshield mount and use Google Maps or a navigation app such as Waze.

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 GPS technology to connect drivers with a call center staffed 24 hours a day, seven 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 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 to 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 welcome 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, because 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 prepurchase 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 that 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 that you can choose a good model and to follow that up with effective negotiation.

Learn more in our New & Used Car Buying Guide.

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