What's the Ultimate Minivan for 2016?

160915_Ultimate-Minivan-Challenge_Group-Shot_ES_01.jpg photo by Evan Sears

CARS.COM — While minivans may get a lot of disrespect in popular culture, they remain perhaps the best use of space in a family vehicle, and the entire segment has undergone a huge makeover in the past two years. We tested them in 2015 as well, where the Kia Sedona edged the Toyota Sienna by a mere 4 points. This year, in our new Champions Versus Challenger format, we’re taking the newest minivan, Chrysler’s all-new Pacifica, and pitting it against the top two finishers from our Ultimate Minivan Challenge 2015.

Ultimate Minivan Challenge 2016

Results | Child-Safety Seats | What You Get in the Ultimate Minivan

To compare these minivans, we brought back our judges from last year’s test:

  • Jennifer Geiger, assistant managing editor
  • Kelsey Mays, senior editor
  • Jennifer Newman, managing editor

Based on testing and the judges’ impressions and scoring, here’s how the minivans fared:

3 2017 Toyota Sienna, 644 points

The verdict: “The 2017 Toyota Sienna with its poky engine has been left behind by the all-new 2017 Chrysler Pacifica and the 2016 Kia Sedona — both of which emphasize value and luxury,” Newman said.

What They Liked

Space, space, space: “If you’re moving a dorm room, the Sienna is hard to beat,” Mays said. “Fold or remove all the seats and the cargo area is taller, wider and deeper than either competitor.” “I’m a mom with lots of stuff to stash,” Geiger said, “and the Sienna is a van with major stuff-stashing capabilities from its best-in-class cargo room to its double glove box and sizable center console box.”

Seats to die for: “The seats have sofa-soft cushions. The Pacifica’s stiff chairs are no match,” Mays said. “The Sienna’s third row folds easily into the floor and only requires a little bit of effort to do so,” Newman noted, “and what’s even better is they have an upholstery flap that bridges the gap between the folded seatbacks and the cargo floor.”

Sounds of silence: “The 2017 Sienna has significantly reduced the road noise coming into the cabin, which made for a more enjoyable drive,” Newman said.

Keep the kids occupied: “The rear entertainment system’s widescreen, which folds down from the ceiling, can be viewed as one large screen or split into two screens,” Newman said. “What’s great about it is even the kids in the third row can see what’s playing.”

Easy handling: “Despite the van’s long length, the Sienna is surprisingly maneuverable thanks to one of the smallest turning circles in the class,” Geiger said, and Mays noted that “The Sienna is still the only minivan with available all-wheel drive, a feature that makes it a legitimate SUV alternative.”

What They Didn’t

Heavy and slow: “The Sienna is the only minivan with all-wheel drive and the added weight of the system really bogged the van down,” Geiger said, and both of the other judges agreed. “The Sienna has both a new direct-injection V-6 engine and a new eight-speed automatic transmission, but they seemed not ready for prime time in our testing,” Newman said. “It took a long time for the minivan to accelerate from a stop.” “All-wheel drive makes the Sienna the heaviest van in the test, a penalty its V-6 engine and gear-hunting transmission can’t overcome,” Mays said.

Safety lags: “In a segment as safety conscious as minivans, it’s concerning that the Sienna has merely acceptable Insurance Institute for Highway Safety small-overlap front scores and no collision warning or automatic braking systems if you get all-wheel drive,” Mays said.

Design don’t’s: “The Sienna’s center stack of controls is U.G.L.Y.,” Newman said. “Its basic, utilitarian design looks out of place in a $49,079 minivan.” “The cabin is a bit of a styling circus, with all kinds of materials — many of them subpar — and no design cohesion,” Mays added. “The multimedia and climate control panel is not easy on the eyes,” Geiger said. “It’s a cluttered and confusing array of a screen, dials and small buttons.”

And…: “The Sienna’s second-row lower Latch anchors are buried within the stiff seat cushions, requiring a lot of muscle (and aggravation) for connection,” Geiger said. “There aren’t a lot of storage areas for the second-row passengers’ items and their cupholders are inconveniently found in the center console’s rear,” Newman added.

Research the 2017 Toyota Sienna | Search Inventory | Car Seat Check

2 2016 Kia Sedona, 732 points

The verdict: “Stylish and comfortable, the Sedona — which won’s last minivan comparison — is aging gracefully,” Mays said. “Its flaws seem more by design: Kia’s minivan is purpose-built to haul people, not so much stuff.”

What They Liked

Power at the right time: “The V-6 is punchy and smooth, and the six-speed automatic proves, yet again, that more gears aren’t always better,” Mays said. “Where the others’ eight- and nine-speeders hunt for gears, the Kia bangs out decisive, crisp downshifts.”

A face a soccer mom could love: “The Sedona is one of the best-looking minivans in the segment with a bold, studded grille and brawny, sculpted face,” Geiger said. “You will — almost — look cool driving this minivan.”

Ride in comfort: “The Sedona wins my vote for most comfortable ride with its just-right suspension that helps to minimize potholes,” Newman said. “Ride quality is up there with the Pacifica,” Mays said. “The suspension does a nice job masking smaller bumps.”

Tech winner: “Kia’s UVO touchscreen system is refreshingly simple, with a large, clear screen, touch inputs that register quickly and swipe functionality that has a natural, smartphone-like feel,” Geiger said.

Sit in style: “The Sedona treats its driver and passengers well with extremely comfortable seats in both the first and second rows,” said Newman. Mays agreed: “The second-row lounge chairs are a class above in terms of space and adjustability,” he said.

Car-seat bliss: “The exposed lower Latch anchors in both the second and third rows take the struggle out of installing car seats,” Geiger noted.

And..: “Third-row passengers are often an afterthought, but the Sedona has amenities in the wayback, such as seatback pockets and four cupholders, that make the space more inviting,” Newman noted.

What They Didn’t

Cargo calamity: “As configured, this Sedona excels at hauling people but not stuff,” Mays said. “The second-row chairs don’t fold down or collapse, and they aren’t removable. If you need to move furniture, this Kia falls well short of the minivan standard.” And, Newman noted, “when the third-row seats are folded into the floor, there’s a lip between the folded seatbacks and the cargo floor as well as lots of nooks for items to drop into.”

Third-row troubles: “Folding the third row is a lot like dressing my twin toddlers,” Geiger said. “The seats are heavy, the maneuver is unwieldy and achieving the finished result requires way too much energy.” Newman agreed: “Folding the Sedona’s third-row seats is not for the weak. It took a lot of muscle to get the heavy seats to fold into the floor and even more to put them back into position.”

The shape it’s in: “The Sedona handles like the long, hulking van that it is,” Geiger said. “It leans around corners, floats over bumps and most road imperfections ripple through it.”

Less than entertaining: “Skip the Sedona’s optional rear entertainment system with its small screen that sits on the center console’s rear,” Newman said. “The dinky DVD entertainment system will likely be fodder for a sibling temper tantrum,” Geiger added. “The single screen is very small and positioned oddly low, so not all the passengers will be able to see it comfortably.”

And…: “The flow-through center console eliminates one of the great minivan traditions: a big, open well below the dashboard in which to wedge a bag or purse,” Mays said. He was also troubled that the “rear visibility is constantly blocked by the wide, airplane-style head restraints on the second-row lounge seats.”

Research the 2016 Kia Sedona | Search Inventory | Car Seat Check

2017 Chrysler Pacifica, 805 points

The verdict: “With the new Pacifica, Chrysler’s minivan entry went from a dog to best in show,” Geiger said. “It out-styles, out-drives and just plain out-wows the rest of the class.”

What They Liked

Get up and go: “The Pacifica is downright zippy on city streets and highways thanks to its powerful 3.6-liter V-6 engine,” Newman said. “When you step on the gas pedal, its power nearly knocks your head back.” “The V-6 engine and nine-speed automatic transmission are well-matched,” Geiger added. “Power from a stop is ample, and its delivery is smooth and prompt.”

Driveability: “Driving a minivan doesn’t have to be a chore and with the Pacifica, it’s a delight — body lean in corners is minimal and composure over bumps is excellent for overall comfortable, stable road manners,” Geiger said. Mays added, “The suspension can get noisy at times, but it’s exceptional at isolating the cabin over pockmarked roads. Toyota should study this.”

Updated, classic seats: “Chrysler’s Stow ‘n Go seats are far easier to use now, and the third row’s one-touch power folding puts the others to shame,” Mays said. “Fold it all down and this is the only load floor of the three without bulky hooks that threaten fragile cargo.” “The Stow ‘n Go seat system is even more magical this year, with wider, cushier seats and an enhanced folding maneuver for easy, one-handed operation,” Geiger said.

Diversionary tactics: “I’m normally not a fan of rear entertainment systems, but the Pacifica won me over with its dual seatback video screens that have games such as checkers, tic-tac-toe and a lot more to keep the kids occupied on trips of any length,” Newman said.

And…: “Visibility is excellent,” Mays noted. “The second- and third-row head restraints flip out of the way, with a release button up front for the third row.” “Pens, notepads, charging cables, packs of gum, tissues, hand sanitizer … the list of must-haves for family life in the car seems endless,” Newman said, “but in the Pacifica there’s seemingly a never-ending array of cubbies and pockets to store all those items in.”

What They Didn’t

Deep-seated issues: “Stow ‘n Go has improved, but the seats are still short on cushioning, especially in the second row,” Mays said. And, Geiger noted, “the Stow ‘n Go second-row seats no longer slide forward or back, a step backward from the previous generation in terms of versatility.” That can cause problems for others, Newman noted: “Third-row legroom is tight for taller passengers because the second-row seats are fixed in place.” Finally, it wasn’t just the Stow ‘n Go seats that had issues. “After a long day of driving,” Newman said, “the Pacifica’s overly firm driver’s seat caused lots of discomfort during my testing.”

Space drama: “Although small-items storage is good thanks to loads of cubbies in the cabin, cargo room behind the third row trails competitors,” Geiger said. “There’s an absolute plethora of storage nooks and crannies up front, but parents might want a single mammoth compartment somewhere, like the Sienna has, to accommodate a larger item,” Mays said.

The vacuum needs oomph: “The built-in vacuum failed our simulated toddler-with-Goldfish-meltdown test,” Geiger said. “The crackers quickly clogged the hose and reduced the suction by quite a bit.”

Moving violations: “On the highway, there was lots of percussive road noise whenever the Pacifica traveled over raised road joints,” Newman said. Mays added that “the transmission is much better than other Fiat Chrysler nine-speeds, but it still hesitates a bit on downshifts.”

Research the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica | Search Inventory | Car Seat Check

How the Competitors Fared in Each Category

How We Tested

The judges put the minivans through round-robin testing, driving each over the same route to determine real-world differences in ride, handling, acceleration and more. In addition, they took these vans on a mileage drive of about 130 miles around the Chicago area to see what real-world fuel economy they could achieve. The scoring breaks down this way:

  • 80 percent from the judges’ scores
  • 10 percent for crash-test worthiness
  • 10 percent for mileage drive results

The crash-test scores bear some examination. The new Pacifica would have earned a full 100 points for safety if our particular test van had been built after August 2016, when Fiat Chrysler Automobiles improved the Pacifica’s Insurance Institute for Highway Safety small-overlap front crash score by adding structural reinforcements. However, our minivan was built in July 2016, and all units built in August or earlier had marginal small-overlap scores (based on a scale of good, acceptable, marginal and poor).

Ultimate_Minivan_Challenge_2016_Mileage_Chart_PM_F.jpg graphic by Paul Dolan

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