Finding and Keeping a Reliable Minivan

Odds are, people who drive a van of any type aren't doing so because of the image factor; drivers who choose this form of transit tend to have a lot to transport, usually in the form of people. With that kind of cargo on board, finding a minivan or van you can count on ought to be one of the most important factors in your search.

So, how exactly do you secure a dependable van? There isn't one answer for that question, but there are several things buyers can do not only to avoid the need for roadside assistance, but also to save money on repairs and avoid the anguish of repeated breakdowns in the long run.

Learn From Your Peers
The Toyota Sienna ranked highest in Consumer Reports' list of most reliable minivans.

The Toyota Sienna ranked highest in Consumer Reports' list of most reliable minivans.

The best test of dependability is time. That's why reliability studies from organizations like J.D. Power and Associates and Consumer Reports are so valuable.

According to J.D. Power, the most reliable vans include the Chevrolet Express, Ford E-Series and Toyota Sienna. Consumer Reports puts the Sienna at the top of its list, rating the Toyota minivan 30 percent more reliable than average based on the magazine's survey of all vehicle categories. In fact, the Sienna was the only van in Consumer Reports' 2005 rankings to rate better than average. Next on the list were the Honda Odyssey, which ranked about 5 percent less reliable than average, followed by the E-Series, the V-6-equipped Dodge Caravan and the regular-length Chrysler Town & Country, all of which came in at about 10 percent less reliable than average.

Thanks to several recent redesigns, much of Consumer Reports' 2005 data is based on only one year of ownership experience, so time is bound to give a more accurate reading of those models' reliability.

J.D. Power's study is based on problems reported per 100 vehicles over three years of ownership, meaning results in the 2005 study are based on 2002-model-year vehicles. Consumer Reports surveys its subscribers and, when possible, calculates reliability based on average scores for the past three model years, given the vehicle remains substantially unchanged over those years.

Know When the Data Doesn't Apply
A redesigned model, such as the 2006 Kia Sedona, may suffer a dip in reliability, according to experts.

A redesigned model, such as the 2006 Kia Sedona, may suffer a dip in reliability, according to experts.

Obviously, it's impossible to know just how reliable a brand-new model will be, and the same thing is true for redesigned models.

Gabriel Shenhar, Consumer Reports' senior auto test engineer, said that when a vehicle is redesigned its reliability record usually takes a dip in its first year, no matter how reliable previous generations of the model had proved to be.

"Some manufacturers have it more severely than others, but even manufacturers with excellent reliability records are not immune to it," he said. "There's no way to project on a brand-new car or redesigned car."

In those cases, Shenhar said a buyer's best bet is to go with a manufacturer with a history of solid reliability.

Determine a Maintenance Schedule
For the Honda Odyssey, or any minivan, experts recommend following the maintenance schedule outlined in the owner's manual.

For the Honda Odyssey, or any minivan, experts recommend following the maintenance schedule outlined in the owner's manual.

That may sound a bit too empowered for comfort, but the proper maintenance schedule for your van will depend in large part on how you're using it. Most owner's manuals include two recommended schedules, one based on normal use and the other on severe use, but what constitutes "severe use" can be a bit fuzzy.

Denny Kahler, an Automotive Service Association chairman, said there is no formula to determine a foolproof schedule, so the best method is for owners to go to a full-service auto shop and consult with a technician they trust.

"If a person is using a repair shop and being forthright in how they're using their vehicle, they'll be able to get a recommendation," he said. "If [a technician] is working on the car, they'll be able to tell."

For starters, know that vans that log mostly stop-and-go, city-traffic miles will need maintenance much more frequently than those that are used mostly for freeway commutes.

Secondly, don't be too quick to think your van couldn't possibly qualify for the "severe" label. Angie Wilson, ASA's vice president of marketing and communications, said use of few of the vehicles on the road today would be considered "normal."

"City driving, mountains and even temperature variations can move you from the 'normal' column to the 'severe' column," she said. "Be sure to also consider the number of hours your engine is running [and not just your mileage]."

Do as You're Told

Some manufacturers recommend first-rate treatment for their vehicles, such as premium fuel or synthetic oil. It may seem a bit nose-in-the-air, but Kahler says the best rule of thumb in those cases is to "just do it."


"If they say synthetic oil, use it," he said. "If they say you have to run it on premium fuel, run it on premium fuel. Lesser fuel means lesser performance and lesser mileage."

Thanks to onboard computers, Kahler said, using lower-grade fuel won't ruin your engine the way it would have in the days before cars were so sophisticated. The computer will protect the engine by compensating for the lesser fuel, but drivers will see a dip in performance.

Posted on 4/5/06