When buying a new primary vehicle, families are often torn between a mid-sized SUV and a standard minivan.
Contemplate this comparison: the Toyota 4Runner Limited with full-time four-wheel drive versus the Toyota Sienna Limited.
At just under $48,000 each, price is not a consideration. Fuel efficiency? With combined mileage of 18 mpg for the 4Runner and 19 mpg for the Sienna, neither vehicle will make headlines for fuel efficiency, but little difference there.
Scores of similarities
In terms of power and handling, both vehicles are beneficiaries of huge advances in suspension and stability controls over the past 10 years and are much safer than even the best sedans of a decade ago. They’re both responsive in highway traffic.
How about characteristics of luxury, quality, comfort and convenience? No differences there, either. Both Toyotas have all the leather, wood trim, audio and navigation systems of any near-luxury car; both have lost connection with their roots as utility vehicles.
There is one small difference in equipment – the Sienna we tested had a slick DVD screen/system for second- and third-row occupants that can show one high-definition movie, or split the screen for two – if someone insists on watching “Frozen” while someone else wants to screen “The LEGO Movie.”
So once you’ve checked off the primary considerations when deciding what kind of a vehicle you need, what is the major difference?
Let’s face it: A minivan is a box on wheels, the most efficient way to pack and haul passengers and cargo. Both vehicles can carry seven occupants in three rows of seats, though there’s not much room behind that third seat. However, with the third row folded down, the 4Runner can store only 46.3 cubic feet of cargo, while the Sienna can carry 87.1 cubic feet.
If you’re helping someone move, remove the second row in the Sienna and you’ve got 150 cubic feet compared with 89 cubic feet in the 4Runner with the second row folded. So for transportation utility, the minivan wins, hands down, and this is what most people need most of the time.
Towing edge goes to 4Runner
What about less-frequent requirements?
It used to be that for towing a boat or trailer, the SUV was the only option, but even that’s not true any more.
The Sienna comes standard with basic towing capability, just like the 4Runner. Add the wiring and trailer hitch, and you’re ready to go.
The Sienna can tow only 3,500 pounds, compared with 4,700 pounds for the 4Runner, so for a few families, that might be the deciding factor. For most families, however, the Sienna is more than adequate.
Of course, the four-wheel drive makes the 4Runner off-road capable and can handle most snowfalls without chaining up. For an active skiing or camping family, that may make the difference, but most owners will use that feature sparingly – if at all.
On the other hand, for families that do many passenger pick-ups, and take many trips to shopping centers, those automatic sliding side doors in the minivan are absolutely magic. It’s much easier to strap small children into their car seats with the door completely out of the way and the seat at a reasonable height. Getting in and out of the back seats in tight parking lots is much easier as well.
But when you take all these rational considerations into account, the question of image remains.
Minivans just don’t have that devil-may-care image of the SUV, so we guess – frankly – that the big question is whether mom or dad is going to be the primary driver.