Minivans are the brunt of jokes everywhere you go. But amid all the snickering about soccer moms, there is one unassailable truth: The modern minivan is more practical and efficient than a sedan or SUV.

OK, here's another truth: Despite the mockery, minivans remain solid-selling vehicles for nearly every U.S. and Asian automaker.

Here are a pair of minivans at the top of their games: the Chrysler Town and Country from the United States and Mazda MPV from Japan, each with a different twist on the nature of practicality.

For Chrysler, the minivan was a lifesaving innovation. Twenty years ago, Chrysler's introduction of the world's first front-wheel-drive minivans was revolutionary and helped pull the automaker's bankrupt fat out of the fire.

Since then, Chrysler has stayed on top of the minivan game, with all of the other major players falling in line behind the same front-drive formula. The Chrysler Division of DaimlerChrysler remains the class act of the minivan world and dominates the segment, selling nearly 143,000 during 2001.

The eL model of Town and Country is the base model out of seven long-wheelbase versions. Yes, the "e" is small, for whatever reason.

With a base price under $24,000, it arrives well-equipped with power and convenience features, including front and rear climate control, keyless entry, six-speaker stereo, power heated mirrors and power-adjustable pedals for short and tall drivers.

The test van was set up right, too, equipped with some desirable and surprisingly inexpensive options. The best outlay was a paltry $335 to boost the engine to 3.8-liters and 215 horsepower from a 3.3-liter, 180-horsepower V-6 .

The stronger engine makes the eL feel light and lively, words not usually associated with minivans.

Responsive rack-and-pinion steering and four-wheel disc brakes make the Town and Country feel sharply maneuverable.

So it may look like a baby whale, but it drives better than many sedans.

The Town and Country is huge inside, with loads of space for seven people and the power to move them. Some of the plastic dashboard parts seemed cheap, and the interior is starkly utilitarian.

Other options on the test eL were side air bags, $390; power sliding door on the right side, $400; an awesome power liftgate, $400, and a roof rack, $250. Shipping was $680, for a total of $26,355.

With the options, the Town and Country eL was a balanced package of good features without frills that drive up the bottom line.

Sporty Mazda minivan

Mazda touts its MPV as the sports car of minivans, even unveiling its latest model on a racetrack. Advertising shows it cavorting with Miatas.

That's fine, and the MPV's trim size, nimble handling and 200-horsepower engine does make it more fun to drive than most minivans.

But it's still a minivan, a bit too tall and heavy to rank as a sporting machine.

Personally, I favor its smaller size even thoug h it does limit interior space, especially compared with the Town and Country.

The competition for the MPV comes from the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna, though the Mazda sharply undercuts them in price.

I reviewed the revamped MPV last year but wanted to sample the standard luxury features that Mazda has slathered on so generously. These include leather seating, 17-inch alloy wheels, full power equipment, antilock brakes, excellent audio system, steering-wheel controls, side air bags and power sliding doors on both sides.

The MPV also boasts rack-and-pinion steering for greater steering response and feel. The MPV feels tighter and more maneuverable than the plump Chrysler.

My favorite feature is the trick rear seat that folds into the floor, station-wagon style, or flips back for a comfortable tailgating seat.

My least favorite is the column-mounted transmission stalk that, when in "drive," blocks the stereo controls.

The only options on the test were fog lights, $250; rear spoiler, $250; and power moon roof, $700.

For just under $29,000, Mazda offers a luxurious minivan that is more fun than most, though calling it sporty is pushing it.

Chrysler Town and Country eL

Vehicle type: Seven-passenger minivan, front-wheel drive.

Base price: $23,900.

Price as tested: $26,355.

Engine: 3.8-liter V-6, 216 horsepower at 5,000 rpm, 245 pounds-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm.

EPA mileage: 18 city, 25 highway.

Highs:

Practical features.

Moderate price.

Lows:

Mundane interior.

Baby-whale styling.

Mazda MPV

Vehicle type: Seven-passenger minivan, front-wheel drive.

Base price: $27,192.

Price as tested: $28,852.

Engine: 3-liter V-6, 200 horsepower at 6,200 rpm, 200 pounds-feet of torque at 3,000 rpm.

EPA mileage: 18 city, 24 highway.

Highs:

Steering and handling.

Standard luxury features.

Lows:

Awkward column stalk.

Tight interior.