No wonder that minivans, after a brief period of decline, are making a comeback. And so they should. They make it easier to manage small children, strollers and all the other baby paraphernalia, still leaving enough room for dry cleaning, groceries and whatnot on an errand trip. And when the children grow a little older, there are soccer games, Girl Scout outings and trips to Costco that require all seven or eight seats and the cargo space.
To evaluate the latest crop of 2011 models, we drove three minivans in recent weeks – the Honda Odyssey Touring Elite, the Nissan Quest LE and the Toyota Sienna Limited. Although we didn’t have a herd of rug rats to take out on the trail, we discussed these vehicles with friends who are parents. And we did spend a lot of time in these minivans, taking them on all our favorite test roads.
The one feature that comes through in all of them is how well they drive. Unlike early minivans, which handled like the Conestoga wagons of yore, these vehicles actually handle well and are reasonably peppy. All three had good visibility and were easy to drive and control – despite their size and height.
Their size is what makes these vehicles useful. They all are nearly 17 feet long and more than 6 feet wide – that means they can transport that soccer team to practice, take a family of four with luggage on vacation or bring home a big-screen TV and entertainment center.
It could be argued that many SUVs, which don’t suffer from that mommy-van image, meet these criteria. Ah, but there are two things that SUVs cannot do. First, they can’t electronically open their own rear doors, sliding them back in a tight shopping center parking place, to allow mom to get the children into their respective car seats. Second, they can’t swallow a load of groceries and a folding stroller in the back at a height that doesn’t require a stepstool or loading dock.
A third advantage of these vehicles, equipped with the new generation of V-6 engines turning the front wheels, is their fuel efficiency. Each of the three minivans we tested gets approximately 20 mpg, better than most SUVs.
If these were our only criteria, we’d be hard put to suggest which of the three vehicles we would recommend, because there really is little difference among them (except for load capacity on the Nissan, which is smaller than the others). And that’s comforting, because handling, space and fuel economy are what really matters when you’re buying a family transporter.
Even cost isn’t of much help in making a decision. Each of the three minivans in our lineup is the best-equipped version of the top-of-the-line of available versions of each model. That’s the collective downside of this assortment. They are all pricey, with the most expensive the Toyota at $46,300 and the least expensive the Nissan at $42,150.
If it’s of any consolation, that price buys nearly every bell and whistle in the playbook, including fancy rear-seat video systems, multispeaker audio systems with plug-ins for MP3 players and iPods, Bluetooth phone systems, multiview backup cameras and radar-controlled cruise control.
Don’t forget, however, that the base models of all three of them, with the same proportions and basic equipment, are more than $10,000 less.
That leaves only two criteria on which to make a decision: convenience of the interior layout and relative attractiveness of the exterior design.
Based on those two criteria, we both liked the Honda Odyssey best. Looking at design first, unlike many previous minivans, the Odyssey actually seems to have some style, with nice sculpting of the side panels as well as pleasing details on the front and rear. Similarly, the Toyota is pretty pleasant to look at. The Nissan, by contrast, reminded us of one of those homemade armored vehicles on “Storm Chasers.” In fairness, other reviewers liked the Nissan’s styling, finding it solid and masculine.
Where the Honda impressed us most was in the thoughtful planning on the inside – not with its big, sophisticated infotainment system, but rather with the little touches.
For example, it has a “conversation mirror,” a wide-angle mirror that drops down from the ceiling and allows the driver to see everything going on in the second and third rows to determine if “We need to stop this car right now.” The mirror opens up to hold a pair of sunglasses. That detail probably only cost Honda a few dollars per vehicle but will be appreciated on every trip.
Other neat touches were two-level molded cubbyholes in each front door, with space to stow all the odds and ends that would otherwise clutter the dashboard. There is a slide-out plastic hoop on the rear of the front console sized to convert a grocery store plastic produce bag into a trash bag.
The front center console is removable and contains an optional cooler to keep the juice boxes cold.
It was as if Honda had convened all the parents in America and asked them what they needed in their minivan, then turned every single suggestion into an interior component.
One feature that might swing your evaluation toward the Toyota: The optional rear seats can actually recline with an extendible footrest like a seat in business class. If you’re buying your van because you’re ferrying mom and dad around rather than a troop of Scouts, designing the car so that two adults can sleep in the middle row on long trips might trump the extra cubbyholes.
But if you are in the market for a minivan, don’t take our word for best and worst. To decide which of these three to buy, you just have to take your family when you shop and have them crawl all over the vans to decide which one everyone likes.
We would make only one recommendation. Seriously consider whether you need to spend the several thousand dollars that the optional entertainment systems command. Because most children now use their own computers, iPods, Game Boys or cell phones for entertainment, you could skip the expensive stuff. Instead, use some of that money to buy a couple of iPads and portable navigation hardware.
And don’t worry about projecting the image of its being the parenting period of your life. These are the most practical and the safest ways to transport a family. There will be plenty of time for that Corvette or BMW when the stroller has gone to Goodwill and the children have reached the age where they pretend they don’t really even have parents.
Longtime Los Altos residents Gary and Genie Anderson are co-owners of Enthusiast Publications LLC, which edits several car club magazines and contributes articles and columns to automotive magazines and online services.