Minivans Offer Many Unexpected Features

For most of its 23-year history, the modern minivan has meant fixed windows, bench seats and one sliding door. Buyers wanting slicker styling and premium features instead chose sport utility vehicles.

Times have changed. Gas prices and rollover ratings have knocked the SUV off its pedestal, while minivans have made up some lost ground. J.D. Power and Associates ranked the Honda Odyssey, Nissan Quest and Toyota Sienna at the top of the minivan segment in its 2005 Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout study. APEAL measures short-term owner satisfaction with various vehicle attributes on a 5-star scale. In 2005, the three minivan winners averaged 4.5 stars — a substantial increase from 2000, when the top three minivans averaged just 2.7 stars.

Neal Oddes, J.D. Power and Associates' director of product research, credits dramatic improvements in exterior styling, creature comforts, safety features and cabin versatility. Parents magazine senior editor David Sparrow joined Oddes and several other J.D. Power and Associates analysts — director of retail practice Jeff Zupancic, senior director Larry Wu and research supervisor Diane Kusnierczyk — to highlight some notable features in today's minivans:

Luxury Equipment
The Nissan Quest gives passengers the luxury of skylights.

The Nissan Quest gives passengers the luxury of skylights.

Chrysler pioneered the luxury minivan in the 1990s with its Town & Country, offering power seats and leather upholstery long before any competitors did. Other automakers eventually followed suit: Today, most well-heeled minivans include leather upholstery, heated front seats, premium stereos and tri-zone automatic climate control as standard fare. The Toyota Sienna adds laser-guided cruise control and automatically dimming side mirrors, while the Nissan Quest has parallel skylights that run the length of its cabin. Mercury's Monterey offers air-conditioned seats, a feature typically found only in upper-crust vehicles. Of course, decadence carries a price: Loaded with options, both the Sienna and Quest exceed $40,000.

Navigation Systems

Another longstanding luxury feature, today's navigation systems have traveled far down-market. Beneficiaries include not just minivans, but also compact and midsize cars, as well as most SUVs. Navigation systems use satellite positioning to map routes and give directions. A dashboard screen displays vehicle location and relays points of interest, directional heading and, in some cases, traffic congestion. In some minivans, the navigation system operates by voice recognition.

Power-Sliding Doors and Liftgates
Power-sliding doors, such as those available on the Honda Odyssey, can be a very convenient feature.

Power-sliding doors, such as those available on the Honda Odyssey, can be a very convenient feature.

General Motors introduced a power-sliding door on the passenger side of its minivans in the early 1990s. It took five years for automakers to add a power-sliding door on the driver's side, which debuted on Honda's 1999 Odyssey. Automakers have since thrown in power-operating liftgates that are activated, along with the side doors, by a key fob. Most systems can work on an incline and employ safety cutoffs to keep the doors from closing on occupants.

Electronic Park Assist

Electronic parking assistance helps drivers figure out what's around their vehicle — a helpful feature, given minivans' limited sightlines. There are two types of systems: proximity sensors and rearview cameras. Proximity systems intuit nearby obstacles with sensors embedded in the bumper, emitting audio or visual signals to warn the driver. Most proximity systems work only from the rear, although some also measure front bumper proximity. Rearview cameras feed real-time pictures from a tiny tailgate camera onto a dashboard screen. Most minivans offer one or the other as an option, though some combine both.

Rear-Seat Entertainment Systems
The Chrysler Town & Country is one of many minivans that offer a DVD entertainment system.

The Chrysler Town & Country is one of many minivans that offer a DVD entertainment system.

Rear-seat entertainment systems incorporate DVD players and flip-down screens for passenger entertainment. Minivans have included them for years, though some were little more than a portable television wedged between the front seats.

Today's systems are vastly improved. Multimedia compatibility allows passengers to connect MP3 players to the vehicle's entertainment system, while wireless headphones ensure that rear-seat entertainment poses no distraction for those up front. Some versions incorporate two rows of drop-down screens, while others include multi-disc DVD changers or separate programming for different headsets.

Reconfigurable Cabins
A reconfigurable cabin, such as the one in the 2007 Hyundai Entourage, can make hauling large items easier.

A reconfigurable cabin, such as the one in the 2007 Hyundai Entourage, can make hauling large items easier.

Honda won acclaim in the 1990s for the third-row Magic Seat in its Odyssey minivan that folded into a floor compartment to create a flat load floor. Other automakers have since followed suit, and Chrysler now offers second-row seats that fold into the floor on the Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan. In some cases, second-row seats move forward so occupants can be closer to those up front.

Unlike technology-laden options, reconfigurable cabins don't add much to a minivan's price because their innovation comes largely from design, not additional equipment. Case in point: A base 2006 Kia Sedona LX, which costs about $23,000, includes a fold-flat third-row bench and second-row chairs that can fold forward or be removed altogether.

Storage Innovation
Many vans that have folding seats also present storage options when the seats are in use.

Many vans that have folding seats also present storage options when the seats are in use.

Floor compartments that berth fold-flat seats double as storage containers, adding as much as 12 cubic feet of cargo volume to some minivans — about equivalent to the trunk space in a Kia Spectra sedan. Overhead rail systems in the Grand Caravan and Quest add more storage with drop-down ceiling bins, while armrest cubbies, floor consoles and door pockets pack even more space. Versatility comes naturally to the minivan design: With platforms uninhibited by the raised framework and bulky driveshafts needed in many SUVs, minivans are free to offer tall cabins, low load height and abundant under-floor storage.

Posted on 4/5/06