Meet the Ultimate Minivan Shootout Family

After a steep decline in the minivan market several years ago — Ford and GM pulled out of the segment altogether — minivans are making a comeback.

The Weatherby family joined the Ultimate Minivan Shootout to lend real-world expertise to the tests.

You can't argue with the minivan's functionality for busy families juggling life, careers, school and afterschool activities. And they're not just coming back in that retro-cool sort of way, like Converse sneakers. They're being completely redesigned and re-engineered for today's families, offering a mix of seating and cargo flexibility, high-tech entertainment features and even luxurious finishes and modern styling.

Our experts put six minivans to the test for our Ultimate Minivan Shootout in Atlanta. Of course, we asked a family to provide their unique perspective on how they take advantage of a minivan's usefulness in their daily lives.

Enter the Weatherbys. Travis and Heather Weatherby are parents to 15-year-old Colin; Loralei, 6; and Dexter, 1.

The Weatherbys used to drive a 2007 Honda Odyssey and loved it. However, for budget purposes, they traded it in for an older-model Chevy Suburban, which Travis says "fits us really well." Heather would love to get back into the ease of use of a minivan, and spending the day in the minivans in our Shootout seemed to reignite her love affair with family haulers.

The Weatherby family explores all the nooks and crannies of a minivan.

When car shopping, it's important to clarify and prioritize the features most important to the family and stay focused on those. The Weatherbys have the added challenge of finding a car whose features appeal to the wide age range of their children. 

When asked what family features are most important in a minivan, Travis answered, "The perfect blend of storage and seating space." What else? "Automatic everything, a third row with air vents, entertainment with rear controls to keep the kids occupied," Travis said, along with "window locks and plenty of legroom." The legroom is both for Dad and the gangly-legged teenager Colin. 

However, like most of us carrying around our families daily, safety is the most important feature to the Weatherbys. After driving several of the minivans in the Shootout, Heather said, "I really liked the backup cameras and alarms for the blind spots when driving."

Beyond safety, Heather loved the keyless entry and push-button start offered in some of the minivans. "As I'm heading out, I can toss the keys in my purse or diaper bag and then not have to dig for them," she said. She also likes minivans that have seats that move or fold flat easily "so that my 6-year-old can operate them and help Mom out." Other key features for Heather? Cupholders that the kids can reach so they don't spill. "I also like the auto liftgate function," she said.

What about the cool factor? The only features of the Weatherbys' current car, an older Chevy Suburban, that have proven to be "uncool" to the whole family are the age of the vehicle and the fact that it's as big as a bus. Colin seemed unfazed by any sort of perceived status, or lack thereof, associated with being a teen and riding around in the back of a minivan, and he definitely didn't scoff at the undeniably cool technology in many of the minivans we tested. 

Inside the Odyssey, Colin's eyes opened wide, and he said in a dazed tone, "Whoa — that's a huge TV. This is cool." For any teenager, that's an enthusiastic endorsement and pretty much sums up how the Weatherbys felt about the Odyssey.

Many of the safety and convenience features of minivans were important to the Weatherbys.

After testing, Heather said, "I pretty much am in love with the Honda and want every feature it offers." However, if she could make any changes to improve it, she'd add a soundproof glass barrier "like a limousine."

If Travis had his way, he'd be driving around a "convertible minivan with four-wheel drive and zero-percent financing." Right. We won't be holding our breath for that one.

© 05/20/2011