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Family Planning: Minivans throw fashion to the wind. But nothing can match their kid-hauling utility.
BY MICHAEL AUSTIN, PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARC URBANO April 2011
Guess what? Minivans are still uncool. Automakers know this. Even the latest ads for the Honda Odyssey and the Toyota Sienna acknowledge the squareness of the segment. Sales have stabilized at about 500,000 units per year since tragically hip moms and dads fled to crossovers.
As a mature segment with little potential for growth, minivans are getting comfortable with their squareness. For evidence, we direct your attention to the new Nissan Quest, which not only acknowledges its one-box silhouette but drapes a metaphorical trench coat over the whole thing.
So minivans are cool with being uncool. Can we move on? The premise remains the same as before: Maximize people and cargo space, and forget about the styling. Driving dynamics get second billing. The point is to get you and your kids (or, for aging boomers, your dogs) to and from every destination with the least amount of hassle and the most comfort.
The newest in our assembled quartet is the Nissan Quest, back after a two-year hiatus. Now based on the company’s D platform (shared with the Altima, Maxima, and Murano), the Quest is similar to the Japanese-market Elgrand. For 2011, the Chrysler Town & Country (and its sibling, the Dodge Grand Caravan) gets freshened exterior and interior styling, a retuned suspension, and—most important—a new 283-hp V-6 mated to a six-speed automatic, which replaces all three previous powertrain offerings.
The Odyssey and the Sienna are also new for the 2011 model year, but both offer carry-over engines lashed to new six-speed automatics (available only in Touring trim on the Honda).
There’s a lot of common ground among this set. All four are powered by 24-valve V-6 engines, with only 35 horsepower separating the strongest (Chrysler) from the weakest (Honda). In the top-of-the-line trims we specified for our test group, each minivan comes with power side doors and a power rear hatch. They all offer some sort of flat load floor when the seats are folded and/or removed.
It’s worth noting that although the vans tested here all ring in at about $40,000, each can be had for closer to $30,000. The price of the Sienna, the highest in this test, drops as low as $25,370 for a base four-cylinder model.
In light of the targeted use of these vehicles, we focused on the passenger compartments as much as we did on behind-the-wheel impressions. We watched Team America: World Police multiple times in an effort to evaluate the rear-seat entertainment systems. We also wore a pregnancy-simulation vest while examining each minivan for ease of child-seat installation. And yes, we left some small part of our dignity behind these sliding doors.
4th Place: 2011 Toyota Sienna Limited
Highs: Barcalounger second-row seat, two glove boxes, parking-lot friendly.
Lows: Cheesy-looking fake wood, light on refinement, bland as a Camry.
The Verdict: Looks great on paper but fails to inspire in person.
Full review of the Toyota;
3rd Place: 2011 Nissan Quest LE
Highs: Funky styling, tight turning radius, comfortable front seats.
Lows: Low-rent center-console plastics, only one 12-volt power port in front.
The Verdict: Not the Holy Grail of minivans but headed in the right direction.
For the full review on the Nissan;
2nd Place: 2011 Chrysler Town & Country Limited
Highs: Sporty steering, balanced chassis, high level of refinement.
Lows: Underwhelming engine power, dowdy exterior styling.
The Verdict: Chrysler fixed everything that was wrong and kept everything that was right.
For the full review on the Dodge;
1st Place: 2011 Honda Odyssey Touring Elite
Highs: Excellent ergonomics, seating for eight, trick folding third row.
Lows: Slow and numb steering, contrived exterior styling.
The Verdict: Good for drivers, great for passengers.
For the full review on the Honda;