NEWS

Do You Need an All-Wheel-Drive Minivan?

2021 Chrysler Pacifica driving in snow 2021 Chrysler Pacifica | Manufacturer image

A minivan can be a smart choice as a spacious and convenient family hauler as long as shoppers can overcome the stigma (we recently saw a “I’ll never own a minivan” bumper sticker — on a minivan). They’re designed to comfortably seat up to eight occupants with ample cargo space and family-friendly features. But while there are dozens of three-row SUVs on the market, there are only four minivans: the Chrysler Pacifica, Honda Odyssey, Kia Carnival and Toyota Sienna. And of those, only the Pacifica and Sienna offer all-wheel drive.

Related: Winter Driving Tips

Shoppers who have to drive in inclement weather such as snow and ice often prioritize AWD as a must-have feature. But is it really necessary, or will a front-wheel-drive minivan suffice? We consider each side of the debate below and share some minivan alternatives that offer a wider range of options.

Why Go With an AWD Minivan?

toyota-sienna-woodland-2022-03-exterior-profile 2022 Toyota Sienna Woodland Edition | Cars.com photo by Jennifer Geiger

Your Choices Have Doubled

While the Sienna has offered AWD for years, the Pacifica’s 2020 Launch Edition briefly offered AWD before it became available across most gas-only trims in its 2021 refresh. The new Pacifica performed well in a Cars.com minivan Challenge, earning second place behind the Carnival, and it’s proven to be a popular choice among shoppers (more on that below).

The Sienna was also redesigned for 2021 with a new hybrid powertrain, and an adventure-oriented Woodland Edition available exclusively with AWD followed in 2022. Although adding AWD can come with a notable fuel economy trade-off, that’s not the case for the Sienna: The minivan’s hybrid powertrain gets an EPA-rated 36 mpg combined for FWD models, while AWD variants still manage 35 mpg combined.

Minivans With Available AWD Sell Better

minivan-challenge-2021-group-shot--01-group-shot.jpg Minivan Challenge | Cars.com photo by Christian Lantry

According to Automotive News, the Pacifica comfortably outsold competitors with nearly 76,000 units sold from through the first three quarters of 2022, followed by the Sienna with around 49,000 units. The FWD-only Odyssey and Carnival lagged behind with approximately 40,000 and 16,000 units, respectively. The Pacifica’s sales in that same period also climbed 8% compared to the same time in 2019 before AWD became available, while the Sienna’s sales fell 15%. The Odyssey, which was the top seller in 2019, saw sales dip 58% from 2019 to 2022.

Automakers don’t break out drivetrains in their sales reports, but what these numbers suggest is that if you’re in the market, you might have an easier time finding a recent-vintage minivan both with AWD and the options you want than you would that same minivan with FWD. It’s worth noting, however, that pandemic-related supply-chain constraints impacted some automakers more than others, and the above sales figures may reflect a model’s availability — or lack thereof — as much as its popularity.

You Live in a Snowy or Hilly Area

The 2020 Chrysler Pacifica AWD Launch Edition, which is equipped 2020 Chrysler Pacifica AWD Launch Edition | Manufacturer image

AWD can provide a confidence boost for shoppers who live in cold climates with poor snow removal or hillier areas of the country. While AWD can help in these conditions, other considerations like winter tires also improve traction on snow and ice.

“The reasons for buying an AWD minivan remain reasons you’d buy any other AWD body style: You have a steep driveway, live in a hilly location or in an area with poor snow removal,” said Joe Bruzek, Cars.com managing editor. “Also know that tires play an important part in traction on snow and ice, and a dedicated set of winter tires could make a big difference in snow performance for those looking for added security in a minivan that only offers FWD.”

Why Skip AWD?

kia-carnival-sx-2022-05-angle--exterior--front--gray.jpg 2022 Kia Carnival | Cars.com photo by Christian Lantry

AWD May Not Be Necessary

Before you nix the Odyssey or Carnival solely because they don’t offer AWD, consider whether you really need the feature in the first place. (It’s worth noting the FWD-only Carnival won our minivan comparison thanks to its overall value, capable powertrain and safety features; the AWD-equipped Sienna, meanwhile, placed last.) As mentioned, the utility of AWD is region-dependent; even areas that see regular snow may not require AWD if snow removal is adequate, meaning that a FWD minivan can be a safe and cost-effective choice.

“Minivans have inherent qualities that may make AWD more of a ‘nice-to-have’ than other body styles, at least for shoppers who live in flat areas with good snow removal,” notes Bruzek. “First, minivans are heavy, and weight is good for traction. Second, every minivan on the market starts with a front-drive layout, which positions the combined weight of the engine and transmission over the drive wheels for additional traction.”

AWD Might Pack on the Pounds

If you’re considering the Pacifica, going with an AWD model adds hundreds of pounds to the minivan’s curb weight, which can impact performance. That extra weight was noticeable during our comparison as the Pacifica’s acceleration was sluggish compared to the FWD Odyssey and Carnival. Alternatively, the Sienna’s curb weight is only dependent on the trim; FWD and AWD variants have the same curb weights.

FWD Can Save You Money

A FWD minivan can save shoppers thousands of dollars compared to one with AWD. For example, the 2022 Pacifica’s base model is the FWD-only Touring, which starts at $38,690 (all prices include destination); opting for AWD means upgrading to the Touring L, which has a starting price of $45,715. AWD also adds a premium to the 2023 Sienna: The base LE comes with standard FWD, which starts at $36,720; optional AWD bumps that price up $2,000.

Among FWD minivans, the 2023 Carnival carries the lowest price of admission at $34,235, while the 2023 Odyssey starts at $38,785.

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The Alternative: A 3-Row SUV

kia-telluride-2023-18777-005-blue-dynamic-exterior-front-angle-suv 2023 Kia Telluride | Manufacturer image

Maybe the question you’re asking isn’t “Do I need an AWD minivan?,” but “Do I need a minivan?” If AWD is a non-negotiable feature, pivoting to a three-row SUV vastly expands the available options. Among the aforementioned minivans’ stablemates, the Honda Pilot, Kia Telluride and Toyota Highlander each offer AWD across all trims and seat up to eight occupants (or seven with optional captain’s chairs).The Telluride even one-upped its minivan sibling to claim the title of Cars.com’s Best Family Car of 2022. In addition to these three models, there are many more mid-size and full-size three-row SUVs that won’t force you to sacrifice AWD.

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