Minivan Comparison Test

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Eeny, Meeny, Mini-van

  • Comparison Test

Minivans were invented for families. People with two or more children who were tired of cramming into the sedan for long trips, or who were annoyed at the garage space taken up by huge customized cargo vans. So in 1984, Chrysler Corporation, for lack of anything better to do besides save its plummeting stock value, came up with a compromise. They invented something that could hold seven people yet act more like a regular car. This invention was an instant success.

As with any success, however, the competition was bound to arrive. First the domestic manufacturers attacked with their own variations of the Chrysler minivan, but Chrysler, to their credit, always seemed to be one step ahead. While everybody else was scrambling to add one more cupholder, Chrysler was busy making the seats easier to remove or adding a sliding driver’s side rear door. In this manner of creative evolution, Chrysler Co. (including Chrysler, Dodge and Plymouth) maintained a 45% share of the minivan market. Instead of constantly reinventing the vehicle, Chrysler is constantly improving upon it. They’ve actually made the minivan sort of … attractive.

Take, for instance, the Dodge Grand Caravan. The Dodge family resemblance shines through due to its crosshair grille, and the car is a huge success. But what about performance? Are there other minivans that should be making more of a dent on the Chrysler sales chart? Ford has a minivan with a more powerful engine. General Motors is no slouch in the minivan market; they’ve even tried to combine the sport-ute appeal with minivan usefulness. Even Japanese manufacturers seem to have shaken off their initial shock at America’s desire to own behemoth-sized cars; Toyota just reentered the market, and Honda is soon to come.

So we decided to see what today’s minivans are really made of. Are they all the same package? What separates the men from the boys? Or in this case, the soccer moms from their boys. We chose one vehicle from each American manufacturer and the newest contender from Japan to compete in this test. We wanted a clear winner. But the results are far from the knockout we had in mind; in fact, this is the most closely-matched segment comparison test we’ve ever run.

The underdog going into this match was the Ford Windstar. The Windstar is the oldest design, and arriving unequipped with a passenger-side sliding door, the Windstar’s shortcomings were obvious.

From inside, it immediately became apparent that ergonomics were not going to win any points, either. All secondary controls, including radio and climate, are located out of reach. To their credit, the stereo controls are placed above the HVAC controls, but the standard-issue Ford stereo buttons are too small for convenience. We counted three distinct shades of brown plastic that composed the dashboard, and black plastic filled in the gaps. Not what we’d term "cohesive design."

The seating position is adequate, but the Windstar’s seats are the least adjustable of this group and the armrests are terribly uncomfortable, flimsy and unevenly elevated. The steering wheel was made one size too thin and its cheap plasticky texture didn’t help matters.

The steering feel itself was nothing special and we were left wondering if the alignment was off or if the wheel itself was mounted askew. On open flat stretches of road, the Windstar is a competent car. Wind your way along Sunset Boulevard, however, and you’ll soon yearn for something with a little more balance and a tighter suspension. As one editor pointed out, "The Windstar feels the most like a bus."

Each van went through a seat removal test, and on this count, the Windstar finished dead last. The second and third row seats are both bulky and a pain in the you-know-what to remove. They also weigh a ton. Seat removal is a two-person job, unless you’re the sort who enjoys the hard-earned satisfaction of a hernia.

On the road, Ford finally showed us why they even bother to build such a monstrosity. It’s gotta be da’ engine. Powered by a 3.8-liter V6 with 200 horsepower and 230 foot-pounds of torque (most power in this class), the engine makes up some ground on the competition. Too bad the motor sounds so loud from inside. Under acceleration, you’d swear it was about to wind itself into your lap.

Point-by-point, the Windstar is outmatched in this competition. We’re eagerly anticipating Ford’s redesign, which is due for the 2000 model year. Until then, read on.

Pontiac’s Trans Sport is loaded with goodies. A nifty remote keyless entry has a button just for opening the passenger’s side sliding door, which is also powered. Other treats include ABS and traction control, which are called to attention simply because of the exterior graphics that proclaim "ABS" and "Traction Control." In fact, each of these vans came equipped with antilock brakes, but only Pontiac openly bragged about such safety features. Casual observers might mistake this van for the Pontiac Traction Control.

Actually, several consumers often mistake the Trans Sport for the Montana, which is simply an option package. That’ll teach Pontiac to advertise a minivan as a rugged sport-ute. People didn’t want a wimpy Trans Sport, they wanted a rugged Montana! The Montana package includes a luggage rack, 15-inch aluminum wheels, traction control, a touring suspension and lower body cladding. Not quite off-road material, but that never stopped Subaru, either.

Other extras are safety-related, and in the case of the Trans Sport, they’re standard. Daytime running lights may not be the most advanced offset form of safety, but we do appreciate side airbags. One drawback of GM minivans is poor offset crash test results. The crumple zone includes the driver’s shins.

Two-tone exterior paint makes the Trans Sport an eyesore in the parking lot. It just looks a little weird, especially when compared to the dapper Grand Caravan and the boring Windstar. But inside, all is forgiven. The third row seat in particular offers tremendous comfort, and the driver’s seat came with six-way power adjustments – another big plus. The one interior accoutrement we could do without is the graphic equalizer on the stereo. How many people actually know how to use these things, and how good an idea would it be to adjust them while driving?

The seats of the Trans Sport are deceptively simple to install or remove. We say deceptively because we had such a hard time doing it. What should be an easy two-step task turned into quite an arm wrestle. First the latch would not release, and then we couldn’t get the bracket back into place for reinstallation. Finally, when the seat should have been in place, it didn’t appear to be aligned properly. After repeating the process, we judged that the 50/50 split seat was naturally misaligned. What we thought would win top honors for easy seat removal actually became quite a headache. Thankfully, the third row bench comes in two pieces – otherwise, it would have lost some more points.

The Trans Sport’s 3.4-liter V6 makes 180 horsepower at its high range, and 205 foot-pounds of torque. While not the best in this class, that kind of power is respectable, and it does the job. Who needs a hotrod minivan, anyway? We found the Trans Sport underpowered on only one occasion, while backing up a steep grade. Otherwise, it feels quite peppy, and one editor preferred driving the Trans Sport over all others.

The suspension is a little too tight and at times, felt bouncy. We were disappointed with the brakes, both in action and pedal feel. Compared to all the others, these brakes are mushy as oatmeal. Steering feel also lacks precision. The typical GM "dead spot" was all too apparent on-center, and freeway travel sometimes felt darty.

For a car that will get you from point A to point B, the Trans Sport fits the bill. But we’d like to see General Motors use some of its own initiative when it comes to minivan design. The Trans Sport simply follows in Chrysler’s footsteps, and extra body cladding isn’t breaking any new ground in this segment.

The Toyota Sienna, a new entry in the world of minivans this year, is a fine automobile. While we’re not crazy about its styling, we love the fact that it’s a Toyota, a brand known for reliability. That’s why it was such a surprise to find our test vehicle falling apart at the seams. The passenger-side sliding door refused to open without a fierce pull from the outside. From inside, forget it. Something had to be wrong with the latch, because neither interior nor exterior handles were defective.

We were also unpleasantly surprised by the non-responsive remote keyless entry system. None of the buttons worked, it turned out. Unfortunately, this was discovered only after leaving our personal belongings unattended inside the unlocked car.

Curious quality issues aside, the Sienna proved why Toyota plans to sell 60,000 -70,000 minivans per year. It’s like driving a car. And the car on which it’s based – the Camry – was the best-selling car of 1997. The Sienna shares the Camry’s genes, right down to the 194-horsepower 3.0-liter V6 engine and elongated floorpan. For a measly 3.0-liter, that’s a lot of horses. The Windstar’s 3.8-liter motor is only good for six more horsepower. But driving the Sienna is of course not nearly as much fun as driving the Camry V6, unless your idea of fun is a heavier Camry with a high center of gravity.

Steering is sure if not quite nimble, exactly like the Camry. At higher speeds, the steering becomes a bit light to the touch, but we found it always to be on-center. We also liked the fact that the steering wheel is small, so the driver has the illusion of being more connected with the road.

The suspension soaks up all manner of road imperfections, and wind noise is kept to a minimum. It’s a pleasantly boring ride – also just like the Camry. One complaint that surfaced in our four days with these vans is that the Sienna’s styling is boring, too. No, it’s not quite as hideous as the Trans Sport, but at least the Trans Sport has some character. The Sienna is a snooze. And the lower body-cladding is of a low-rent gray plastic variety, not at all attractive.

Ergonomics are generally good, but we’d prefer our stereo controls above our climate controls. Despite the backward placement, everything is within reach. But the gear selector sticks out of the steering column like some sort of abnormal growth. Whatever you call it, it’s not the most intuitive stalk placement.

But Toyota impresses us with otherwise ingenious attention to detail: witness the two-piece third row seat. Not only is each piece a snap to install or remove, but even the meekest of automotive journalists was able to handle the seat as if it were a small piece of luggage. Besides being easy to remove, the seats can also tumble forward and out of the way, for those times when you just need to expand cargo area temporarily. Why all the other minivans have failed at such a basic concept is beyond us. But we’re not the engineers; we just know when it’s right. The only design feature we’d change on the Sienna’s seats are the cupholders on the seatbacks. Their only purpose is to boost Toyota’s cupholder count to a whopping 14. Unfortunately, most of the cupholders are unusable when all seats are occupied.

Overall, Toyota does not make the biggest minivan, but it does make a convenient alternative to Chrysler-designed family-haulers. Need to trade in your old Camry to make room for another member of the family? Toyota has a built-in answer to your dilemma. And they’re hoping you see it that way, too.

That takes us to Chrysler – or Dodge, in this case. The benchmark by which all minivans are measured. The sales leader. The one to beat.

The Dodge Grand Caravan is a beautiful vehicle, as minivans go. While such praise may be similar to holding a beauty contest for hippos, we’re sure the simple design is empirically elegant. Of particular acclaim is the sliding doors’ integrated, or camouflaged exterior rack. The rack is well masked, just below the windows. Other minivans make do with a huge gash in their flanks.

The gold-accented wheels on our test car received mixed reviews from our staffers. On the bright side, they resemble Chrysler’s corporate star logo. But the glittering accents reminded us of garish gold teeth.

The Dodge’s paint quality was judged poorest in this group, because an orange peel texture could be detected from a distance of approximately 20 ft. That’s something they can probably improve.

What’s going to be harder to improve is overall quality of design. The Grand Caravan ES comes loaded with equipment, including dual rear sliding doors, traction control, four-wheel ABS, cruise control, power locks and windows, air conditioning and a 3.3-liter V6 engine. Our test car came with the optional 3.8-liter V6, good for 180 horsepower (22 more than the 3.3-liter) and 240 foot-pounds of torque. The base engine should be avoided, as its performance pales in comparison to what has become the standard for minivans.

Brakes are well modulated, and the Grand Caravan handles well enough around curves to keep the enthusiastic driver happy. The suspension is also first-rate, for a minivan.

Seat removal is a piece of cake, thanks to rollers and a helpful track that guides them into and out of place. Still, we prefer the 50/50 split seats of the Trans Sport and Sienna to the Grand Caravan’s bulky bench. Two people are recommended for seat removal, though the bench is much lighter than Ford’s lead-lined seats. Seven grocery bag hooks are mounted behind the rear bench, a new feature and another big plus. Hooks are much more helpful than Sienna’s and Trans Sport’s worthless seatback cupholders.

The Grand Caravan, like our Pontiac test car, is an extended platform, meaning it is six inches longer than the normal Caravan. So it may have enjoyed a spatial advantage over the newcomer Sienna, but that’s for Toyota to worry about. The Grand Caravan measures the same as the Caravan in terms of front seat head and legroom. Second row seating is actually decreased, but rear seat room in the Grand Caravan is much larger than what you’ll find in the smaller Caravan.

The true shine of the Grand Caravan is in its flexibility. It drives more like a car than any of the competition. It has comfortable, functional easy-to-remove seats. It’s not as powerful as a Ford Windstar, but Dodge’s transmission cooperates with the motor in a much more refined manner. Taken as a whole, the Grand Caravan is still a more versatile vehicle than anything made by the competition. And that’s what it was invented for in the first place.

So who wins this battle of the bulk? Well, taking price into account, the Windstar does a fantastic job of shuttling small soccer players to and from practice. Then again, the Trans Sport has a nifty remote keyless sliding door opener. And what mom wouldn’t appreciate Toyota’s lightweight modular seats? Then again, the Grand Caravan looks pretty cool, and it’s the most fun to drive. It all comes down to your definition of value.

Personally, I’ve always preferred station wagons.

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