Let’s get honest about minivans

To the general car buying public, buying a minivan signifies that you’re a mom or a dad, and that being a parent is your primary focus in life. It means that the life you may have had a decade ago is gone. No more going out with buddies, no bar hopping or golfing, no fun as you used to experiance it. Now you’ve seen every Pixar movie and your schedule revolves around kids’ soccer and lacrosse games. You carpool to miserable weekend birthday parties and you secretly enjoy the two hours you spend seating around doing nothing.

Not all people who have a few rugrats have given up on the lives, however. This is why SUVs are so popular. The people who should really be buying minivans buy SUVs. This is mostly done in order to at least partially mentally remain who they think they once were, or who they would ideally want to be. Those people want what minivans offer without having to be seen driving a minivan.

The truth is that people who are buying huge SUVs are fooling themselves into thinking that they are not the minivan type. They’re even fooling themselves into thinking that their SUVs are as functional or spacious, even when they agree that they compromised utility for the sake of tough SUVness.

Minivans are great, possibly the best vehicles one can have. They have interiors that are more spacious than SUVs, seats that are more comfortable, and a ride that is smoother. When called upon, the interiors transform into an empty cube, ready to transport a washing machine or two without flinching. With a lower ride height and sliding doors, they are much easier to get into and out of.
And those sliding doors are great. The wind will never rip them out of your hand, the door will never bang into another car, their openings are bigger, and can be remotely opened and closed. Sliding doors make so much sense that I now wonder why more cars don’t have them.

Buying a minivan means you won’t pretend that’s there a chance, a hope, of you going off the grid for a month, exploring parts unknown, like you would in your mighty SUV. It means that #trackdaybro will only remain a hashtag that you share on social media. But nothing beats a minivan for a family road trip.

The minivan market consists of three major players and Kia. Those minivans are very similar but the minor differences can sway buyers from one to the other really quickly. For instance, the Chrysler Pacifica is available as a fuel-efficient plug-in hybrid. The Honda Odyssey has the nicest interior and the most style. The Kia Sedona exists.

Pictured here is the Toyota Sienna. Sienna’s biggest advantage is the availability of all-wheel-drive. All wheel traction is another thing that sends people to the SUV store. The Sienna takes that excuse away. Having driven front-wheel-drive minivans and the AWD Sienna in New England winters, the choice would be very easy for me if I was shopping a minivan. But I’m not because I already have an SUV. I have a burly SUV because I have insecurity issues which I’m at least willing to admit. Don’t do as I do, do as I say.

The Sienna in its current generation has been around since 2010. Much like the 4Runner, its age shows. Despite that, it finds about 100,000 American buyers annually. People don’t buy it for style or opulence, they buy it for functionality. Available in ten trims, two drivelines, and with Auto Access Seat, which helps people with disabilities, there is a model for every person and every budget. The highest of trims has panoramic sunroofs, great audio system, heated steering wheels and seats, rear entertainment system, and La-Z-Boy-like recliners in the middle row – it’s like the best of Range Rovers but with more room and for a quarter of the price.

Those rushing out to test drive the latest three-row cross-overs owe to themselves to give the minivan a consideration. The minivan takes everything that the family SUV is and makes it better. I have yet to meet anyone who has purchased a minivan and did not end up loving it.

Disclaimer: Toyota provided to the vehicle for the purpose of this story. Images copyright 2019 Hooniverse/Kamil Kaluski

30 Comments

  1. This is a classic take, but a very true one at that. A minivan is a better SUV for most SUV owners. However, somehow the less functional form factor of the SUV (read: crossover) is somehow actually attractive to many, yet a true minivan is apparently ‘giving up’. It makes no sense. Both the SUV (crossover) and minivan are undeniable family vehicles, both tend to be rather comfortable but not very dynamic. It’s all about image.

    I think it’s all a marketing masquerade. They somehow have convinced people that extra expensive and less functional vehicles are worth a premium. In Europe this is even more visible, as SUVs are replacing MPVs, which are minivans and mini-minivans without sliding doors. Crossovers and MPVs are largely the same concept, tall and comfortable, but the SUVs/crossovers give up some usability in favor of angry bumpers and body cladding.

    This trend towards SUVs will probably continue for a while, until a new generation will recognize the SUVs (crossovers) for what they are, soccer mom cars, and they will suddenly become uncool as well.

    1. I think it’s already happening, I was reading in Autocar how market research with the “yoof” showed they preferred Sedans.

  2. I’d push for the Sedona being slightly more stylish than the Odyssey, since it trades the Japanese weirdness for the pseudo-European generic Kia styling.

    I also actively chose a Pacifica as a rental earlier this year, and it’s fantastic. In mixed suburban driving, I was getting mid-20’s MPGs (I think 30 might be optimistically possible, with the right gentle highway driving), and like you say, it’s roomy, versatile, and comfortable. My only disappointment is the dearth of smaller minivans. I have a couple friends who have Mazda5’s, and they love them, and considering I’m only ever going to have one kid, that’s just about the perfect size for me. But nothing newer like it exists (we also got the Kia Rondo for a few years more, but that’s gone too). Hell, my wife also fondly remembers the Chevy Astro she learned to drive on, as another one that really has no modern equivalent (we grew up in a lake town, so everyone that didn’t have Caravans had Astros so they could tow their assorted boats and snowmobiles).

  3. Minivans killed the station wagon.

    People came around and realized that the station wagon was cool after all.

    The station wagon morphed into the SUV.

    Therefore, people buy SUVs.

    You left out a couple of SUV advantages, like body on frame construction, ability to tow a trailer of horses, a boat, camper, or car, and in the US, some tax advantages for choosing SUV over minivan.

    1. I specifically mentioned (I think) large, three-row cross-over SUVs, thing such as Pilot, Highlander, Ascender, etc. All have similar 3500-5000 towing capacity as he minivans and similar payloads. Not full-size SUVs. And I think all tax breaks are done with.

  4. Ugh, not ANOTHER proclamation about how great mini-vans are and how everyone who buys an SUV is a fool for not getting an Odyssey or Previa or Astrovan. It’s as tired of a take as how nobody needs a luxury pickup or any American car can’t handle. I’m not arguing about how capable and functional they are ’cause duh, that’s plain obvious. But what does bother me is this: When it comes to cars/trucks/vehicles in general – why does form have to follow function? It’s the Consumer Reports view, that vehicles are merely an appliance to convey people from one place to another. If that is your opinion, then yes, you should absolutely be purchasing a minivan. For me – I need a vehicle to look good. I need a vehicle that makes driving an enjoyable experience. That stirs something inside of me. A car costs waaayyyy too much money to ONLY function as an appliance for me.

    I’m not badmouthing minivan purchasers at all (I know there are several happy owners here on the ‘verse) but I am tired of being told that SUVs and CUVs have no place, and everyone who buys one should be getting a Sedona.

    (boy, after reading my response it does come across as being petty and bitchy – oh well, I’m going to blame a lack of sleep as the MiSSus has been fighting a terrible bought of pneumonia and the couch doesn’t lend itself to quality sleep. Regardless, I stand by my opinion – I don’t want a minivan and you can’t make me buy one)

    1. https://s.aolcdn.com/dims-global/dims3/GLOB/legacy_thumbnail/640×400/quality/80/https://s.aolcdn.com/commerce/autodata/images/USC90TOS111B021001.jpg

      The problem is mostly that while buyers are eschewing minivans for something less utilitarian, they aren’t getting something exceptionally stylish or interesting or rewarding to drive in any way in return, just something that only announces they’re a parent at a moderate volume rather than screaming it from the rafters.

      SUV is fine, but CUV is almost exclusively a giant sack of meh, but it’s getting nearly inescapable.

      1. I agree with 0A5599 (a couple of posts above) regarding the need for a distinction between “SUV” and “CUV”, because we’re largely talking about CUVs/crossovers here. There aren’t many true SUVs on the roads these days, but the definitions should be tightened up.

        I also agree with Maymar here. If crossovers were significantly (or at all) more stylish or fun to drive than minivans, then I could see GTXcellent‘s point. I realize styling is a very subjective thing, but I consider myself very picky with a vehicle’s appearance. Truth is, if you look at the minivans’ crossover brethren, the styling (like it or not) is pretty much the same. The Pilot dropped its rugged squareness a generation back, and now looks like an Odyssey with a slight lift and no sliding doors. My Sedona is often mistaken for a Sorento (especially now that I put KO2s on it). The Sienna is long overdue for a restyle, but I have little doubt the next one with either have the chromed-up smile of the Highlander, or else the ugly geometric fish-face of the RAV4 and 4Runner. The Pacifica… well, it sadly looks like a bloated 200 sedan, but I’m sure if Chrysler had an SUV, it wouldn’t look much different than the Pacifica.

        Buy what you like/want/need, but the minivan gets a lot of undeserved disrespect. It’s not for everyone, and the crossover certainly has its place– it exists to provide an approximation of the minivan’s practicality, but with the facade of an SUV’s utility.

      1. I blame my father for my harsh anti-van stance. When I was about 15, my folks were shopping a replacement to Mom’s venerable Delta 88. They looked at – hard – a conversion GMC Safari. It was pretty nice. Buckets, card table, even a VCR! My father has never been a rash decision maker, but it got to the point where he decided to sleep on it. Well, he slept on it – and the next day he bought a Suburban, and put 33s and a grille guard on it. Just because he didn’t want a van. I’m the same – I don’t care that it’s practical, I don’t care that it gets better mileage, and tows as much, and does everything great – I don’t want one, and I’ll never fault anyone else who eschews one to buy an Edge, or a Cherokee, or a Pilot or a Blazer – well, no if you buy a Blazer then I will mock and ridicule

    2. It’s fine for you ‘muricans where you have the choice, but in smaller countries, the “tyranny of the majority” can dramatically shape the car market. It’s pretty much impossible to buy a full size MPV (by European standards) in Ireland now. No Espace, Galaxy/S-Max, Mazda5, Toyota Previa or Lancia Chrysler/Voyager while the streets are littered with 1.5 litre Nissan CashCows and Dacia Rusters (which are tiny inside, like a MK2 clio with a bit more boot). Anyone who needs to carry five kids AND luggage needs to buy one of the Van based option (VW Caddy Life, Mercedes V-Class, which are very pricey for what they are).

      You could in theory personal import a Nissan Elgrand, but CO2 tax makes that prohibitive now.

      Also, as I keep saying, Minivans are way more rock and roll. Good luch getting a drum kit and amps in a crossover. 😀

      The pragmatic thing that will eventually kill of CUVs as we know them is ride heights. While they’re ever more economical, you can’t argue with aerodynamics forever and as targets for effciency get ever tighter, cars have to get lower again. Land Rover is even making noises about making a “Road Rover”, so just a “Rover” then?

      https://www.telegraph.co.uk/content/dam/cars/2016/09/20/109035090_E61F4F_1981_Rover_SD1_Vanden_Plas_V8_powered_luxury_car_with_sports_car_performance_drivin_trans_NvBQzQNjv4BqOevUlXS8Q-ZUtqXctdI1XpztBg_D8USGSJU7uqKReOY.jpg?imwidth=1400

  5. It’s partly “don’t drive what your parents drove” in action, we have all these 80s and 90s kids who grew up in minivans turning their backs on minivans in the same way that children of the 60s and 70s turned their backs on station wagons.This leaves hope for the future that SUVs will turn uncool and station wagons will come back. The only fly in that ointment has been the shift from truck based BOF SUVs to car based unit body “crossovers” that are basically jacked up hatchbacks and wagons that look tough but get good enough gas mileage and ride well enough.

    On the personal side, I never saw the need for a standard size minivan but thought a Euro sized 6 seater like the Mazda5 or a Fiat Multipla was ideal. When we finally bought a Mazda5 it was the most relentlessly efficient, “I don’t care what you think about my car” vehicle ever, since we could fit 6 people or a small van worth of stuff in the same footprint as a Saturn SL2 and get the same gas mileage.

    1. “don’t drive what your parents drove”

      My parents drove the same 1967 Buick LeSabre two-door hardtop from when I was about two years old until after I had left for college and I like to think I ended up with a healthy, balanced automotive viewpoint.

      I do not, however, have a 1967 Buick LeSabre.

      1. your car collection is a unique corner case and the world is a more interesting place because of it.

  6. Minivans are the bomb. My wife got one of the original boxy Caravans as a company car and never looked back. They have low load floors, handle more like a car than a truck and maximize interior space. I’ve been trying to wean us away from Chryslers but she refuses to give up Stow N’ Go. I don’t blame her. It’s super easy to go from people mover to cargo hauler, something she does several times a week. I’m blessed to have one but glad I don’t have to drive it daily.

  7. I would just like to point out that you left out the passenger versions of the Ford Transit Connect and Ram Promaster City on your minivan list. I would argue these are the true minivans, since they’re actually mini in size.

    1. I’ve been shopping the Fords for a while and they are aggravatingly expensive for what they really are.

      I guess shipping a van across the ocean for near-as-matters-to-no-reason will do that fer ya

    2. These are great, I love the transit connect, you actually sit higher and have better visibility than most crossovers, but in Europe at least, surprisingly expensive for what are basically converted commercial vehicles, and we can’t get the nice engines either. 🙁

    3. You’re right– these are truly minivans, but Kamil’s correct that they’re of a different breed. I considered the Transit Connect before buying a “full-sized” minivan, but it just didn’t make the grade. In order to compare it fairly with mid-trim minivans, you must load it to the gills, at which point it’s nearly the same price. And even loaded up, the interior quality, sound deadening, transmission smoothness, ride quality, and powertrain are inferior to the (more spacious) Odyssey, Sienna, Sedona, and Pacifica. I think it’s brilliant as a small cargo van, but as a passenger wagon it’s just lipstick on a pig. (I assume that the FTC in Europe gets a bit more engineering attention and competitive marketing, but here in the States it seems like a neglected afterthought.)

  8. Not much to add really, but a month ago I visited US for the first time, I went to Orlando with friends. We rented a minivan and when we arrived I chose a Pacifica (it looks much better that the Dodges) and it was awesome (although, when compared to a Fiat Uno everything is good).

    Fast, very comfortable, very nice interior (but some of the “metal” trim gets hot in the sun), lots of space for 5 people and about 8 pieces of luggage (half of the third row folded)… but the best was the cooled seats, those things are really great, I still miss them

  9. My favorite thing about the minivan segment is the Dodge Grand Caravan. FCA has a competitor that has been out for four model years and they keep making new ones. Automakers may be in for a bit of a shift. It’s been a few years since people began saying “there are no more truly bad cars”, but the less noticed related phenomenon is that the relatively good, if unimpressive platforms can continue to be a really good value proposition for far longer than anyone would have thought.

    Oh, and I also like the whole Dajiban thing way more than I could justify and have started liking vans in general more as a result. Among my post-Powerball daily driver buffet is a supercharged Siena and/or Odyssey. A full on caged Dajiban with a NASCAR drivetrain would be the non-daily section.

    1. Dajiban racing is awesome fun to watch (I’ll admit to being tempted by a Craigslist ad for a late-90s SWB B150 recently). I love it when people take a vehicle and modify it for a task it wasn’t even remotely designed to perform.

      1. I want the drivetrain out of this car in one, just for the sound and sequential shifting. If I had to use an E-150 Ford, so be it.

  10. My parents drove one, but I’m almost 30. It won’t be much longer until “minivans are lame” has been erased from the collective memory of the young. Those kids will overlook minivans because they don’t know they exist, not because they’re dorky. They’ll find them because they’ll be looking for a CUV like the lame one their parents drove and the minivan will catch their eye: “Wow, the doors slide?!” It’s only a matter of time.

    https://vignette.wikia.nocookie.net/hotwheels/images/8/8e/Pacifica_Blue_19.jpg/revision/latest/scale-to-width-down/2000?cb=20190621092546

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