Minivans come in two sizes: compact (small families only) and regular (medium-size families). Large, full-size vans are larger and less maneuverable; they're for very large families and contractors.
Plan to spend $19,000-$25,000 for a minivan with basic features and up to about $45,000 for one that's equipped like a luxury car. Full-size vans start in the mid-$20,000s and top off in the high $30,000s.
V6 power is the standard among minivans, though two offer four-cylinder engines. Expect adequate to brisk acceleration and around 20 mpg combined. Full-size vans carry heavy loads, so they generally require larger V6, V8 or even V10 engines; diesel engines are also common.
Minivans are some of the safest vehicles on the road, though certain models go a few steps further with features like knee airbags and rearview cameras. Shoppers should be aware of crash test scores as well, but it should be noted that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration adopted more strenuous testing procedures for last year, making the ratings of recently tested models incomparable with those tested in the past.
Key items to look for in a minivan include power-sliding doors, versatile seat configurations, rear air-conditioning, an entertainment system, storage containers and so on. Luxuries like automatic climate control, heated seats, iPod interfaces, navigation systems, keyless start systems and Bluetooth capability are now commonplace options on minivans. Full-size vans offer a few luxuries but are low on conveniences.
Family buyers should zero in on a minivan's second-row seat, as each model generally offers some sort of unique configuration or feature that may benefit your family. Some rotate to face the third row, some stow into the floor, some have built-in footstools, some feature removable center positions and some slide laterally to accommodate three-abreast child seats. All minivans now feature a third row that folds neatly into the floor, but the ease with which it performs this trick varies from model to model, as does the resulting passenger space.
Minivans can seat seven or eight in comfort and are designed to allow parents to move about easily to tend to young children. Full-size vans are cavernous; they can seat anywhere from seven to 15 passengers depending on the van's size.
No matter how you cut it, a minivan is superior to an SUV in its ability to haul passengers and cargo. The cabins are cavernous, though the versatility of its second row comes into play here as well. How heavy and easy are its seats to remove, or do they fold away as the third row does? Full-size vans are typically used by plumbers and contractors, so they obviously can fit a lot of stuff. However, their seats must be physically removed, and doing so is difficult.
A few minivans and full-size vans offer all-wheel-drive systems — worth considering if you live in a particularly cold, wet, snowy climate. Keep in mind that AWD vans get lower gas mileage than two-wheel-drive models.
While SUVs may seem like the more stylish choice for family transportation, minivans are definitely the more financially savvy choice: They cost less to buy, insure and maintain. They seat more people comfortably in their roomier cabins. They're just about as fuel-efficient as large crossovers, but have an advantage over full-size truck-based SUVs. Full-size vans' fuel costs can be high, but time-tested components keep repair bills down.