State of the Minivan: More Power, Improved Mileage

Today's minivans offer the same power and often the same or better mileage than their SUV rivals.

There has been a battle waged in the suburbs of America for the past 20 years, pitting SUVs against minivans: Would a family opt for the practicality of a minivan or the looks and performance of an SUV? Until the gas crisis of 2008, the SUV was clearly winning.

Now ... we're seeing the rise, once again, of the minivan.

Forget commercials selling swagger or even sex — we're looking at you, Honda — in this crop of modern minivans. The simple reality is, today's minivans pack as much power as their SUV counterparts with the same or better fuel economy, and they offer more comfort and room inside.

The lingering problem is the stigma of owning a minivan in the first place.

Go down any suburban street (take mine for instance) and the driveways alternate almost one to one, minivan, SUV, minivan, SUV and so on. Clearly, there's a divide, and much of it has to do with the number of kids in the family. Even with a nuclear family with two kids, transporting them and friends to school and other activities lends itself to driving one of these sliding-door-equipped modes of transport.

Sales back up this subtle shift back to the minivan. Recently, Honda has sold more of its new Odysseys than its Pilot three-row SUV. The Toyota Sienna has sold a bit slower than the company's Highlander SUV, but it's a close race. And the storied Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan are leading the charge at the rebounding domestic automaker. Both models are the best-selling vehicles for their respective brands by a significant margin.

Power and fuel efficiency are the biggest surprises of today's minivans.

Since becoming a father, I've been given the keys to minivans in our test fleet more frequently than before my two little ones arrived. I've written reviews of the latest from Dodge, Honda and Nissan before taking part in our Ultimate Minivan Shootout. I've also been in the latest SUVs from Ford and Dodge, the popular Explorer and the just-released Durango, respectively.

What's the most surprising thing about minivans? It's not the space and utility. That's a given. It is the power and fuel efficiency, especially in the Odyssey.

The Odyssey returns 18/28 mpg city/highway with 248 horsepower, while a front-wheel-drive Explorer manages 17/25 mpg. Those are significant numbers with gas prices on the rise.

And if you're driving in the 'burbs, the vans won't underperform their heavier SUV competition in most regards. I doubt many families consider performance when shopping for a minivan, but if you think a V-6 Explorer is vastly superior to a V-6 minivan, you're wrong, unless you need foul-weather capabilities, that is.

Today's minivan also tops the SUV in the vital "spoiled kid" spec sheet. In most of today's SUVs, you don't get widescreen video players with ports for a  gaming console and three spacious rows to watch them from. Or a third row that flips over for tailgate seating at soccer practice, like in the Grand Caravan, Town & Country and Volkswagen Routan. Heck, try sitting on the tailgate of the new Explorer. It's so high, only a teenager will be able to hop up there easily. And a tired mom or dad won't do that. There will also be less room for a lawn chair in an SUV — as much as 45 percent less if you opted for an Explorer over and Odyssey.

Most of today's minivans offer many amenities for their passengers.

Price? Even though some minivans hit extravagant price points — like the $44,030 Honda Odyssey Touring Elite that we tested — it's easy to run up the price in a three-row crossover to that level like the Explorer I recently tested. And while it was well-equipped at $44,095, it had no DVD system at that price, let alone one with a 16-inch widescreen display and 650-watt surround sound system that rivaled any home theater I've ever encountered.

There's still that minivan stigma, though. I rattle off all the above reasons to friends and acquaintances asking my advice for a vehicle for their five-person family. I tell them how awesome these vans are. They generally want to know about three-row crossovers I recommend, and I offer my best guidance for both. Nine times out of 10, the people I talk to aren't swayed by my arguments. Perhaps it's because we live in Chicago with brutal winter snow. But as long as your suburban streets are plowed, today's vans are nearly as capable as a front-wheel-drive crossover or SUV, and they have a lower center of gravity. 

Again, those advice seekers don't seem to care. They buy a Chevy Traverse, or a Mazda CX-9 or a Honda Pilot.

Somewhere out in the great American suburbia, there are savvy, practical-minded people rediscovering the best minivans to ever hit the market.

© 05/20/2011