When you've got a family and an active lifestyle, nothing's more practical than a minivan. But some vans are more practical than others. To help out with your decision-making process, we've put together a list of the 10 features we consider the most important to have in these family-centered vehicles, plus some bonus goodies. We've eliminated basics like rear air-conditioning controls and dual sliding doors that are standard fare on most, if not all, modern-day minivans, and concentrated on more recent innovations that you won't find in every van on the market. The features are arranged in no particular order. We've listed the minivans that are available with each feature — either as standard equipment or as a factory option.
1. Adjustable pedals or telescoping steering wheel:
People come in all sizes, and in order to be a sane parent, you've got to be able to find a safe, comfortable position behind the wheel. Adjustable pedals are a big help for those of shorter stature, as they allow you to bring the pedals closer without having to move the entire seat forward. A telescoping steering wheel performs much the same function (you're moving the wheel closer or farther from your body), but even taller adults will find that it allows them to tailor a driving position to their liking. In an ideal world, minivans would include both features, but for now, several models offer one or the other.
2. In-floor storage:
When you need a place to store groceries to keep them from baking in the sun or rolling around the rear cargo area, or extra storage space for children's toys, you can simply lift the cover on an in-floor storage cubby and place the items inside. This keeps items from being strewn around or lost, frees up precious floor space, and makes for a safer riding environment. If you need a large flat space for carrying cargo, simply open the storage cubbies and fold the second- and third-row seats into them. Simple, easy and effective!
3. Conversation mirror:
This politely named overhead convex mirror is actually a parental spyglass that allows the driver to see what's going on in every seating position in the van. Without turning around and looking away from the road, a flustered parent can discover exactly who is instigating border warfare in the third row, or can accurately aim a swat into the second row without swiveling her head.
4. Fold-flat third-row seat:
Do you like the idea of having to remove heavy third-row seats and cart them into your garage every time you need some extra cargo space? Neither do we. Fortunately, most, if not all, manufacturers offer a third-row seat that folds neatly into the floor, providing a flat load surface. Many offer a 60/40-split design for their seat, which provides additional flexibility for larger families: Someone can sit on one section of the seat, while the other has been dropped into the floor to accommodate cargo.
5. Tire-pressure warning system:
Your tires provide the only connection between your minivan and the road. If they're not properly inflated, your minivan won't handle as well and your ability to steer around potential accident situations will be reduced. Additionally, underinflated tires are more susceptible to blowouts should they pick up a nail. When you're taking care of small children, checking the tire pressure may not be the first thing on your mind. However, if your van has a tire-pressure warning system, you'll be alerted if the tire pressure falls too far below the factory specification.
Additionally, some minivans are fitted with run-flat tires, whose stiffer sidewalls allow them to support the vehicle's weight, even after a tire has lost most or all of its pressure. This comes in handy in remote areas, as a minivan can be driven up to 50 miles (at up to 55 mph) in the event of a blowout. Of note is the Michelin PAX run-flat tire system used on Honda's Odyssey and Nissan's Quest. This system requires specially sized wheels and a rubber donut inside the tire, and is often far more hassle if a tire needs replacing, due to added cost and complexity. The Ford Freestar and Mercury Monterey offer a lower-cost alternative to run-flats — self-sealing tires. Self-sealing tires have an extra lining coated with a puncture sealant that can permanently seal small punctures from nails and bolts without any human intervention.
6. Reconfigurable second-row seats:
Even if you've got a van with a fold-flat third-row seat, there are times when you may want to reposition the second-row captain's chairs to form a bench seat or make way for bulky cargo. Reconfigurable second-row seats are fore/aft-adjustable, so you can decide how to divide up the legroom between the second and third rows. Honda's Odyssey offers a pop-up center seat for the second row as well as full adjustability, making the second row capable of seating three instead of only two. Toyota's Sienna also offers fully adjustable second-row seats, but in practice, its seats aren't as easy to reconfigure into a bench (fortunately, Toyota offers an eight-passenger model for those who truly need a bench in the second row). An interesting system of note is the Stow 'n Go system for the Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country. This offers covered spaces in the floor to fold the second- and third-row seats into. When not in use, these cubbies can be used for storage.
7. Reverse-sensing system or rearview camera:
Backing out of the driveway or a parking space is no easy feat in a large vehicle, particularly when rear passengers' heads are obstructing your rearward view. Reverse-sensing systems, also called Park Assist, employ bumper-mounted sensors that use sonar to locate objects, pets and people from three up to six feet from the vehicle. Audible beeps of varying intensity let the driver know how close he/she is to an object before it's too late. These sensors also prove their worth when you're attempting to parallel park in a tight space. Radar-based back-up systems have a significantly longer range, sensing up to 16 feet behind the vehicle, and are currently found on the aftermarket.
Although reverse-sensing systems are quite effective, they're still no substitute for actually being able to see what's behind you. Some manufacturers have a solution to this problem: Equip a minivan with a navigation system, and a tiny bumper-mounted camera will project an image of what's behind you onto the nav screen when the van is in reverse. Though costly, this is a neat feature that quickly becomes hard to live without. You can also find parking sensors (for both the front and rear) and rearview cameras on the aftermarket.
Minivans with a reverse-sensing system:
Buick Terraza, Chevrolet Uplander, Chrysler Town & Country, Dodge Grand Caravan, Ford Freestar, Hyundai Entourage, Kia Sedona, Nissan Quest, Pontiac Montana SV6, Saturn Relay
Minivans with a rearview camera:
Honda Odyssey, Nissan Quest, Toyota Sienna
8. Side curtain airbags for all three rows:
Side curtain airbags protect occupants' heads in the event of a side-impact collision or rollover. Although they're fairly common among today's new passenger cars, full-length coverage (for all three rows of seating) is a recent development among minivans and large-capacity SUVs. If you're the type of parent who requires maximum peace of mind, you'll want to make sure you get a minivan with this feature.
9. Traction and stability control:
Traction control is a simple feature that allows for more confident low-speed maneuvers on slippery roads or in muddy parking lots at the soccer field. When one of the tires begins to spin and lose traction, the system intervenes by applying the brakes and/or reducing engine power to that wheel and smoothly redirecting it to the wheel(s) that have grip. Stability control goes beyond traction control and helps in higher-speed situations by employing sensors to monitor how closely your vehicle's path matches your intended path based on steering, throttle and brake inputs. When appropriate, such a system can apply braking forces to individual wheels and/or reduce engine power to prevent dangerous skids. It's especially useful on slippery roads.
Minivans that have traction control:
Buick Terraza, Chevrolet Uplander, Chrysler Town & Country, Dodge Grand Caravan, Ford Freestar, Honda Odyssey, Hyundai Entourage, Kia Sedona, Mazda MPV, Mercury Monterey, Nissan Quest, Pontiac Montana SV6, Saturn Relay, Toyota Sienna
Minivans that have stability control:
Buick Terraza, Chevrolet Uplander, Ford Freestar, Honda Odyssey, Hyundai Entourage, Kia Sedona, Mercury Monterey, Nissan Quest, Pontiac Montana SV6, Saturn Relay, Toyota Sienna
10. Side window sunshades:
This feature is just starting to creep into minivans after being offered for years in many luxury sedans. These power sunshades open and close at the touch of a button, offering occupants protection from the sun, especially useful for infants and younger children. Without this option, most parents resort to suction cup devices that don't work as well and look cheap. If your child rides in a car seat in the second row, this is an especially handy feature to have.
Bonus features: So we've told you the features we think are essential for every minivan, but what if you have a flexible budget that enables you to create the ultimate minivan? Well, here are some features that we don't consider necessities but are nonetheless enjoyable additions to a family vehicle.
115-volt power outlet: Don't let the voltage rating throw you off — we're talking about a standard two-prong household outlet. That means you can plug in the PlayStation 3 or the portable camp stove without using an adapter (the kind you'd need for the usual 12-volt power points). It doesn't get any more convenient than this.
Power-down rear side windows: Even with all the room to spread out, life in the back of a minivan can become uncomfortably warm at times. In the past, sliding side doors mandated fixed glass in the second row, leaving the "ventable" third-row windows as the only source of fresh air. Some manufacturers, however, have broken free of this limitation. They offer power-down side windows in the second row of their minivans, allowing passengers to enjoy a fresh breeze.
Power rear liftgate: What at first sounds like an extravagance turns out to be very convenient, especially when you approach the van with groceries in one arm and a child in the other. Simply press a button on the remote or yank on the exterior handle, and a power-operated liftgate will open under its own strength. Stow the groceries in the cargo bay, hit the button again, and go about your business. Like we said, very convenient.
Rear DVD entertainment system: Although there's plenty to be said for spending quality time together during a road trip, those hours can get mighty long, even for the closest of families. Having the option to pop in a cartoon for the kids or a movie for everyone to enjoy (except the driver, of course) can make long-distance adventures much more relaxing. And since these systems come with wireless headphones, the kids can watch the movie while the adults listen to the radio.
Minivans that have it: Buick Terraza, Chevrolet Uplander, Chrysler Town & Country, Dodge Caravan, Dodge Grand Caravan, Ford Freestar, Honda Odyssey, Hyundai Entourage, Kia Sedona, Mazda 5, Mazda MPV, Mercury Monterey, Nissan Quest, Pontiac Montana SV6, Saturn Relay, Toyota Sienna
Center folding storage tray: This simple feature is nothing more than a tray with cupholders that fits between the front captain's chairs, but the parents on the Edmunds.com staff love it. Why? Simply put, it can easily accommodate the spoils of a trip through the drive-thru, or provide the perfect resting place for a bag or a purse. In the event that you need to get to the rear seats to comfort a baby or break up a territorial dispute, simply fold down the tray and walk through to the back. Some manufacturers try to increase storage capacity by offering a larger, removable center console unit in this space, but these typically require two hands and some elbow grease to remove, so you'll find yourself having to climb over them when you're in a hurry — and that isn't very convenient.
Navigation system: Writing down directions or printing them off the Internet seems simple enough, but when you have a lot to carry or are in a rush, those directions can easily become misplaced. Also, written or printed directions can distract you from your driving by forcing you to check the paper and then look for the corresponding street signs. A navigation system helps avoid undue stress caused by complicated or misplaced directions. It also keeps you focused on your driving by telling you where and when to turn.
DVD changer: Most vehicles today offer the option of an in-dash, six-CD changer to cut down on the frequency with which the driver has to change a CD. Now, the option of a dual six-CD/DVD changer is being offered in some minivans. This allows parents to load DVDs into the changer and not worry about switching discs while driving, and risk hearing, "Are we there yet?" from the children in the backseat.
Onboard hard drive: Like cassettes and CDs when they first appeared, MP3s are emerging as the favored music format of today. GM was thinking of this when it introduced the option of a 40-gigabyte removable hard drive for its line of minivans, called the PhatNoise system. With this feature, you can store thousands of music MP3 files and several dozen movie files to the hard drive, and have them all accessible and searchable from inside your minivan. This feature eliminates the need to constantly switch CDs or DVDs, allowing you to concentrate on driving and keeping things hassle-free for the entire family at the same time. Worth noting is the addition of auxiliary inputs to the stereo in many new minivans. This feature allows an external hard drive, such as an MP3 player, to be connected to the stereo, allowing for much the same hassle-free use as an onboard hard drive.