What's the Ultimate Minivan?

Minivan_Results_Lead.jpg

Ultimate Minivan Challenge;

Cars.com photo by Evan Sears

Many knowledgeable drivers will tell you that minivans are among the most utilitarian vehicles sold today: No other vehicle uses space quite so well. The reality is, many of those who buy minivans buy them fully loaded, and that's why we opted to test the "ultimate" minivans, with a price cap of $50,000, so we could evaluate the latest in technology, features and drivetrains.

The Ultimate Minivan Challenge
Results | Mileage Test

The contenders:

  • 2015 Chrysler Town & Country
  • 2015 Dodge Grand Caravan
  • 2015 Honda Odyssey (refreshed since our last test)
  • 2015 Kia Sedona (all new)
  • 2015 Toyota Sienna (refreshed since our last test)

We asked Nissan for a Quest to test, and it declined to participate.

We put the minivans through a week's worth of testing:

  • We drove them on a 135-mile real-world mileage course in and around Milwaukee.
  • We had our judges drive them back-to-back-to-back on the same pavement to evaluate ride, handling, comfort, acceleration and more.
  • We brought in an in-market shopper to test the vans for usefulness, ride and more.

From all of that, we found our winner. Our judges were:

  • Jennifer Geiger, assistant managing editor for Cars.com
  • Kelsey Mays, senior editor for Cars.com
  • Jennifer Newman, assistant managing editor for Cars.com 
  • Brian Robinson, producer for PBS' "MotorWeek"
  • Andrea and Andrew Thueme, our in-market shoppers, and their two children. Andrew, 36, serves in the U.S. military; Andrea, 35, recently left the service. They live in Manhattan, Kan.

The scoring broke down this way:

  • 65 percent from the judges' scoring
  • 15 percent from our family shoppers
  • 10 percent from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash-test scores (100 bonus points for Top Safety Pick Plus, 50 bonus points for Top Safety Pick and zero points for vans that failed the small overlap test)
  • 10 percent from the mileage drive

Here's how they finished:

  1. 2015 Kia Sedona

    740 points
  2. 2015 Toyota Sienna

    736 points
  3. 2015 Honda Odyssey

    664 points
  4. 2015 Dodge Grand Caravan

    561 points
  5. 2015 Chrysler Town & Country

    553 points

 

Scoring Breakdown

 

What You Get

 

What The Judges Said

 

12015 Kia Sedona, 740 points

The Verdict: "Our feature-packed Sedona is a champion of quality and refinement," Mays said, "though it gives up a lot of utility to get there."

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What They Liked

The Look (Seriously!): Minivans have been considered dowdy for a long time, but "Kia has done the improbable with the Sedona," Geiger noted. "It brings the style with a bold, studded grille and brawny sculpted face. You will almost look cool driving this minivan." "It's clearly the best-looking van here," Robinson added.

The Ride: "A strong drivetrain and quiet interior make the Sedona a capable road-tripper," Mays said. "If you're looking for peace and quiet, the Sedona is your best bet in this group," Newman said. "There's minimal engine and wind noise, though some road noise creeps in." "The steering feels great," Andrew Thueme said. "There's not slop. There's a little bit of feedback coming up from the road, but it's not constant."

Cool Features: "The multiangle Surround View Monitor backup camera is outstanding and immensely helpful navigating a variety of parking situations," Geiger said. "This is the only minivan of the bunch to have standard heated and cooled front seats," Newman said, "and this minivan has all the tech that families will want." And "although there may not be as much storage in the seating and cargo areas, up front there are plenty of well-thought-out nooks and crannies for stashing small items," Robinson said.

Second-Row Seats: "Kia's optional second-row lounge chairs are magnificent," Mays said. "Passengers will call shotgun to sit there, not up front."


What They Didn't

Second-Row Seats: "They're confounding," Geiger said. "I appreciate that they do a lot of things: They slide, recline, move sideways to enlarge the second-row walkway. But there's a dizzying array of buttons on them and not all of the graphics are easy to understand." "The lounge seats in this SXL trim level are not removable, don't slide very far forward and take up too much space. It kind of takes the practicality out of it for me," Robinson said.

Tech Quirk: "The rear entertainment system sits low in the Sedona," Newman said. "It folds out from the back of the front row's center console and could be difficult for third-row passengers to see."

Lack of Storage Space: Is "what really knocks it down," Andrea Thueme said. "You can't have your cake and eat it too," Mays said. "The carlike interior loses the plethora of storage cubbies found in the other minivans."

The (Loaded) Ride: With four adults "the Sedona's pristine ride quality seems to deteriorate the most among its competitors," Mays said. "Once loaded, it's nearly as firm as the Odyssey."

Research the 2015 Kia Sedona | Search Inventory

 

22015 Toyota Sienna, 736 points

The Verdict: "With plenty of storage, available all-wheel drive and an easy-to-use multimedia system, the Sienna checks a lot of boxes, but quick and quiet aren't two of them," Geiger said.

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What They Liked

Tech Ergonomics: "The control pod on the center stack was great," Robinson said, "with nice big buttons and knobs." "It was easy to pair my Android phone with the multimedia system, and I appreciate that not everything is controlled via the touch-screen," Geiger said. "Volume and station tuning knobs are handy."

Space, Space, Space: "It has acres of room," Robinson said. "Dispatch the second row and the Sienna has enough cargo space to move a large appliance or a dorm room, or maybe both," Mays said. "The second-row captain's chairs slide really far back for extra legroom," Newman said, "assuming there's no one in the third row." Even with someone in the third row, "the second-row seats have endless adjustment range, allowing both the second- and third-row passengers to forge an easy legroom compromise," Mays added.

All-Wheel Drive: "As the only competitor with all-wheel drive, the Sienna is sure to appeal to snow-belt families looking for some extra traction in the rain and snow," Geiger said. And our family, which picked the Sienna as their favorite minivan, liked that "You get a little bit of value for the all-wheel drive, especially for families where it snows,” Andy said.

Value: "The Sienna is still the only minivan in this group with two years of free maintenance," Mays noted.


What They Didn't

Noise: "Over rough roads, it sounds like there's a drumline banging away in the second and third rows," Newman said. "It kicks up quite a ruckus with high levels of road and engine noise," Geiger added.

Missing Tech: "The Sienna has the highest price," Newman noted, "but it's missing some of the safety tech such as lane departure warning and forward collision warning found on the Sedona and Odyssey."

Looks, Inside and Out: "It's not borderline offensive looking like the Odyssey, but it's still pretty horrendous," Robinson said. "The interior is probably fairly durable, but some materials just look and feel cheap."

Third-Row Folding Seats: Although Robinson found them "the easiest to fold" among the group, he was alone in that thought. "Folding the third row is awkward," Geiger said. "I practically had to climb into the cargo area to get enough leverage to fold the seats."

Research the 2015 Toyota Sienna | Search Inventory

 

32015 Honda Odyssey, 664 points

The Verdict: "The Odyssey has been a big seller in this segment for many years for a reason, mostly because it's a Honda," Robinson said, "but it is also mostly well thought out, has a ton of features and good comfort. But it's no longer leaps and bounds better than the competition."

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What They Liked

Great Seats: "The Odyssey's chairs look flat, but have good lateral support, with decent leather quality to boot," Mays said. In addition, there is "impressive second-row versatility," he added. "The captain's chairs slide outward to create a pass-through large enough for adults, not just kids, to use." "Honda calls its third row a Magic Seat, and it's pretty close," Geiger said. "It's by far the easiest third row to fold." And "it gets bonus points for third-row headroom," Andrew Thueme said.

Handy Features: "Honda flexes its family-friendly muscles with the Odyssey: HondaVac, a cool box, rear entertainment system with a widescreen and wireless headphones, and an HDMI hookup," Newman said.

Child-Seat Friendly: "It excels at accommodating car seats," Geiger said. "With five sets of exposed, easy-to-access Latch anchors, including two sets in the third row, so comfortably installing five car seats is a breeze."

Anti-Dirt: "With three messy munchkins, I appreciate Honda's commitment to cleanliness with the Odyssey's built-in vacuum cleaner and pop-up trash bag holder," Geiger said.


What They Didn't

The Ride: "Generation after generation, the Odyssey's busy ride persists," Mays said. "The suspension introduces you to every tar patch and expansion joint, whether you want it or not." "It's noisy with a lot of road and engine noise creeping into the cabin," Newman said, and "bump absorption is poor," Geiger added.

The Look: "No matter how many times Honda explains to me why it has designed the exterior the way it did, I still can't get behind it," Robinson said. "It looks ugly." "Honestly, it looks like a hearse in the back," Andrea Thueme said.

The Price: "It's way overpriced for what it delivers," Andrew Thueme said. "While it's not the priciest here, it seems awful darn expensive," Robinson said. "I'm not paying $45,000 for a vacuum," Andrea said.

The Little Things: "The Odyssey lacked a height-adjustable passenger seat, any rear USB ports or Blu-ray compatibility," Mays said.

Research the 2015 Honda Odyssey | Search Inventory

 

42015 Dodge Grand Caravan, 561 points

The Verdict: "Anyone with kids knows how expensive they are, so the Grand Caravan appeals from a penny-pinching perspective," Geiger said, "but an outdated multimedia system, uncomfortable third row and unrefined powertrain spoil the deal."

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Its Value Proposition: "For $33,865, a larger family can get a minivan with a few niceties such as a rear entertainment system and power sliding doors," Newman said. "Although it's one of the most affordable vans in the Challenge, convenience features were not skimped on," Geiger said. "It still includes creature comforts that families are looking for."

The Gearshift Location: This was a favorite with a couple of judges, Robinson and Newman. "It sits high on the dash," Newman noted. "It's out of the way when the driver is reaching for the center controls."


What They Didn't

The Folding Third Row: "It's a chore," Geiger said. It "did seem a little complicated," Andrea Thueme added. "I mean, it's a four-step process." "Adults will find the third row tight, not just in legroom, but also foot room," Newman said.

The Multimedia System: "The system is a relic," Geiger said. "The screen is dinky, the buttons within it even punier and the tech is way behind the times. After trying unsuccessfully to pair my Android phone several times using the Bluetooth voice command system, I had some choice words for the lady in the box." "As intuitive as a TI-83 calculator," Mays chimed in.

Overall Ride Quality: "Noisy," Robinson noted, and "I can really feel the vibrations on this one as you're making those turns," Andrea Thueme said, while her husband noted that "I've got to fight it through the curves, combined with the fact that the steering is sloppy."

Value? "The price is low on the Grand Caravan, which is great," Newman said, "but it shows all over the interior with its outdated multimedia system and a minimalist driver info screen."

Research the 2015 Dodge Grand Caravan | Search Inventory

 

52015 Chrysler Town & Country, 553 points

The Verdict: "Don't do it," Newman warned. "The Town & Country was once able to keep up with its competitors in terms of interior features, but the gap is too great now between it and the newer minivans."

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What They Liked

Its Unique Seating Options: The Stow 'n Go seats' "ingenious design allows them to fold and tumble into storage areas in the floor," Newman said. "If you have kids but need to haul larger items, this is a setup worth exploring." "They aren't the easiest to collapse," Mays said, "but they still make this one of the few minivans that truly maximizes cargo room without having to ditch the second-row chairs in your garage." And the Town & Country was "the only contender with a power-folding third row," Newman noted.

Looks and Appointments: "Luxury automakers don't make minivans, but if they did, the Town & Country's interior would fit right in," Geiger said. "Cushy leather seats, woodgrain paneling and plenty of padding give it an upscale look and feel." "It looks more classic in terms of the styling," Andrea Thueme said. "It's not trying to be something it's not."

Tech: "The rear entertainment system is top-notch, with two screens, and HDMI input, multiple USB chargers and a Blu-ray player. This is an iPad alternative," Mays said.

Acceleration: "I would not worry about driving this on the highway, getting up to speed, loading up the kids and the dogs," Andrew Thueme said.


What They Didn't

Uniquely Uncomfortable Seats: "The power-folding third row is a great idea that suffers from poor execution," Robinson said. They're also "out of proportion," Newman added. "The bottom cushions are overly long, making them uncomfortable." "You pay for those Stow 'n Go chairs," Mays said, "whose wafer-thin construction makes for economy-class comfort in the second row."

Brakes: "Scary, from start to finish," Geiger said. "A source of frustration: There's either not enough stopping power or way too much," Newman said.

Drivetrain: "The Town & Country can get a little wily," Geiger said. "Brisk acceleration is answered with a decent amount of torque steer. Punch the pedal and hold on tight!" "Accelerator lag is pervasive; prod the gas pedal when the light turns green, and nothing happens for a full second," Mays said. And it comes with a "fumbling transmission," Robinson noted.

Handling: "Is a weak point," Geiger said. "At lower speeds, the steering wheel requires a lot of effort for a minivan," Mays said.

Research the 2015 Chrysler Town & Country | Search Inventory

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Editor-in-Chief Patrick Olsen was born and raised in California. He loves pickup trucks and drivers who pay attention.  Email Patrick