When daily life involves driving the school carpool, sharing your commute with co-workers or hauling large amounts of cargo, there really is no substitute for a minivan or full-size van. With rear doors that slide for easy access, configurable rear seats and boundless storage cubbies, the modern minivan is tops at getting people and their stuff from place to place. Minivans get better fuel economy than most full-size SUVs, are more maneuverable and can seat seven or eight adults comfortably, with usable space left over for cargo.
And for very large families who need loads of passenger space and business owners and contractors who need maximum securable cargo space, a full-size van can't be beat. Though fuel economy and handling in most full-size, truck-based vans leave a lot to be desired, sometimes a huge box on wheels is the only thing that will fill the bill. While there are slightly fewer choices than there used to be when it comes to minivans (General Motors and Ford both phased out their minivan offerings in 2008 and Hyundai dropped its version of the Kia Sedona for the 2010 model year), there are still people movers to suit most budgets.
The Toyota Sienna is a strong competitor in this segment, thanks to its smooth V6 engine, ample power, available all-wheel drive (unique in its class) and upscale interior. From the entry-level CE trim to the top-of-the-line Limited, the Sienna is a solid contender. If you live in an area that has a wet and/or snowy climate and you must have all-wheel drive, it's the only contender.
Also high on our list of recommended minivans is Honda's Odyssey. With its agile handling, conveniently flat-folding third-row seat and excellent crash test scores, the Odyssey is a great all-around performer that also manages to be fun to drive. Minivan shoppers who don't like the idea of giving up driving fun just because they're buying a minivan would do well to give the Odyssey a close look.
If your budget doesn't accommodate the likes of the Sienna or Odyssey (which, when optioned out, can get quite pricey), the Kia Sedona is our choice. The Sedona delivers loads of value without sacrificing safety, practicality or comfort features and has an MSRP that starts in the low-$20Ks. The Nissan Quest is pleasant to drive, has a powerful engine and looks quite stylish, but it doesn't match the feature content and functionality of the above-mentioned vans. Additionally, Nissan has stated that the Quest will be sold as a 2009 model through late 2009 while the company moves production from the U.S. to Japan.
With Ford and GM no longer offering minivans in their model lineups, the only domestic minivans offered are the corporate-twin Chrysler Town and Country and Dodge Grand Caravan. When these minivans were fully redesigned for 2008, we were initially excited, but after living with a long-term 2008 Grand Caravan, we can't recommend them. Even though the Chrysler minivans sport features like elaborate rear-seat configurability (their Swivel 'n Go and Stow 'n Go seating options are quite useful), they can't make up for the lack of quality we observed during our extended test.
A sort of half-sibling of the Chrysler twins is the Volkswagen Routan. Possibly the best of the three vehicles that are built on Chrysler's minivan platform, the Routan has a Volkswagen-designed interior and suspension, which makes a notable difference in ride and interior quality, but not enough for us to recommend it over the minivans from Japan and Korea.
For those who seek minivan functionality and convenience in a much smaller package, an MPV (multipurpose vehicle) may fill the bill. A vehicle type that has proven quite popular abroad (and sometimes called a "mini-minivan"), the only MPV currently available Stateside is the Mazda Mazda 5, a diminutive six-seater based on Mazda's well-liked Mazda Mazda 3. With sleek styling, dual sliding doors, sporty handling, 71 square feet of maximum cargo space and a starting price in the high teens, the Mazda 5 is a good option for smaller-statured families who don't need a huge, conventional minivan.
For shoppers considering a full-size van, whether it's for hauling lots of people or lots of stuff, we recommend the best-selling Ford Econoline. Like most full-sizers, the Econoline comes in two versions, Wagon (for toting people) and the less expensive Cargo. We like the Econoline for its robust towing abilities, standard stability control and plentiful grunt -- as long as you don't go with the base engine.
The Dodge Sprinter, which is really a rebadged Mercedes-Benz product, has refined handling capabilities, is more refined than the Ford and leads its class in interior space thanks to a high roof, but its much higher price and underpowered turbodiesel engine make it a less attractive option. Additionally, Dodge has announced that 2010 is the last year it will sell the German-built Sprinter. The van will receive a more powerful engine and be sold in Mercedes dealerships starting with the 2011 model year.
GM fields two players in the full-size market, the Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana, which are corporate twins. Both are respectable choices in a small field of large vans, and both are available as passenger or cargo vans. Their strong engines, standard sliding doors (as opposed to swing-out barn-style doors) and available all-wheel drive make them solid choices.
Finally, small business owners who are interested in more cargo utility than what a conventional minivan offers should check out the new-to-our-shores Ford Transit Connect, a compact work van in a smaller and more maneuverable package, that's wildly configurable to fit your specific business needs.