There comes a point in many people's lives when certain facts can no longer be ignored. Maybe it's the multiple child safety seats, the strollers, the Pack 'n Plays, toys and seemingly endless baby stuff that's become somehow necessary for life with young children. Maybe it's the five-days-a-week carpool duty, outdoor adventures and trips en masse to the latest High School Musical flick that school-age children require. Or it could be the non-offspring-related demands of a small business, whether you're delivering giant flower arrangements, hot meals to seniors or vanpooling co-workers to the office. Whatever the reason, you come to terms with it and admit that you need a minivan, that paragon of utilitarian vehicles, the oft-scorned suburban icon, the vehicle of choice for soccer moms and NASCAR dads everywhere.
And that's nothing to be ashamed of. With their easy-access dual sliding doors, efficient use of interior space and decent fuel economy, minivans are the most effective vehicle available for moving humans and their stuff. There's definitely something to be said for maximum practicality. The trick is to find one with the amenities, gadgetry and characteristics that you desire and that fits into your vehicular budget. Though this segment has shrunk slightly, with Ford and General Motors phasing out their minivan offerings for 2008 in favor of large crossovers, there are still plenty of solid choices in the minivan-iverse.
We start with the Honda Odyssey, the segment's leader since the second-generation Odyssey debuted in 1999, and the minivan that garnered the most votes from our editors this year. Benefiting from a midcycle refresh for 2008 (including an engine update and freshened front-end styling, Bluetooth capability, interior materials upgrades and more storage capabilities), the 2009 Honda Odyssey manages to tackle all minivan tasks well, while still being fun to drive. While it's not the least expensive member of the minivan segment, and you can definitely find vans from other manufacturers with more high-tech gadgets and whiz-bang innovations, the Honda Odyssey is the strongest overall performer in the segment.
Another solid contender is the Toyota Sienna, which offers more power but less driving enjoyment than the Honda. Unlike the Odyssey, the Sienna offers all-wheel drive, an important distinction for shoppers who deal with severe weather on a regular basis. The Hyundai Entourage and Kia Sedona twins are budget-conscious choices that deliver value without sacrificing safety, practicality or comfort features. Shoppers who don't have quite the budget for an Odyssey or Sienna (which, when loaded up with the myriad features available, can push the affordability envelope) should definitely consider the Entourage or Sedona. The Nissan Quest, though pleasant to drive and on the stylish side of the minivan spectrum, just can't match the functionality and feature content as those vans mentioned above, but shoppers who are also car enthusiasts will appreciate its nimble handling and powerful engine.
On the domestic front, minivan options are less attractive. Last year, we were excited about the all-new Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan, but after living with a 2008 Grand Caravan in our long-term fleet for the better part of a year, we have little to say about the experience that is positive. Though the configurability of these minivans from Chrysler/Dodge is admirable (Swivel 'n Go and Stow 'n Go seating are quite useful), they do not make up for the many issues we have had with overall quality, especially for the price.
A newer subcategory of the minivan segment that has been popular abroad for many years but is gaining steam in the U.S. is the "mini-minivan." These diminutive people haulers are based on compact sedan platforms but offer minivan-style utility at a smaller price than full-size, traditional minivans. The Mazda 5 is such a vehicle. Based on the well-liked Mazda 3 compact sedan, the 5's combination of six-passenger seating (that's admittedly best suited to smaller-statured families), dual sliding doors, sleek styling, sporty handling, useful maximum cargo space and sub-$18,000 starting price make it a great option for smaller, young families for whom a conventional minivan seems like overkill.