Young folks might be surprised to learn that minivans used to be popular. Truly popular. After Chrysler launched the first minivans in 1984, family-focused shoppers flocked to the new, versatile body style. In American suburbia, nothing looked more normal than a minivan in the carport.
By the early 21st century, though, minivans had developed an image problem. As mothers were condescendingly dubbed “soccer moms,” minivan ownership started to signal a person who had “settled” into conformity.
Minivans began to disappear from automotive lineups. Even Ford and General Motors abandoned them.
Yet, what could possibly be more practical? Those that remain aren’t just for families. Plenty of older folks have either kept the old minivan after the kids were gone, or started shopping for a new one.
Like its Dodge Grand Caravan sibling, Chrysler’s minivan is the granddaddy, dating back three decades but still the one to beat.
Comfort/convenience details count for a lot with minivans, especially as they relate to seating. Chrysler/Dodge’s Stow ‘n Go seating is generally accepted as the best in the business. When cargo space is needed, the second row can fold fully into the floor, not leaving a pair of lumps that obstruct its utility.
FiatChrysler’s minivans aren’t perfect. The ride is good, not great. Handling is ordinary, but competent. Acceleration is suitably brisk. Driving ease? Top notch. Add seven-passenger capacity and sizable luggage space, and an imperfection or two is easy to accept.
Why would I list the Town & Country as a favorite, rather than the so-similar Grand Caravan? For one thing, minivan owners are likely to hang onto their vehicle for quite a while. So, if your pocketbook permits a bit of a splurge, why not put those surplus dollars into some luxurious amenities.
Ford launched a different sort of van in Europe, before bringing it to the U.S. market. The Transit Connect is European in nature, which means smaller than a comparable American-brand van. It’s also available as a passenger wagon.
Exceptionally easy to drive and park, especially in urban environments, this condensed van is even kind of fun to drive. Not only is it a wise size, but it’s near carlike in operation and readily maneuverable. Riding more like a minivan than a truck, it handles better than either.
With a choice of regular 2.5-liter engine or 1.6-liter turbo, a Transit Connect is peppier than expected, too, and pleasantly quiet. Fuel economy beats minivans. Despite compact external dimensions, you get considerable space for people or merchandise.
Frankly, my favorable impression on a first drive was enhanced by a seemingly small detail. Unlike most navigation-system screens, the one in a Transit Connect supplied the name of the next cross-street: exactly what drivers need to know most.
Every time Honda reworks its minivan, its competitors have to be ready to try and catch up. Typically considered one of the most sporty, if not the sportiest, minivans on the market, the Odyssey clearly excels in handling and roadgoing talents. Steering is heavy enough to impart confidence, but light enough for easy control.
Granted, there’s not much competition on that particular score, except from the Nissan Quest. Honda’s V6-powered minivan also scores strongly in performance. If that’s not enough, the fuel-economy estimate is more thrifty than typical for a minivan, and beats quite a few sedans, at 19 mpg in city driving and 28 mpg on the highway.
Rather than the usual seven-passenger capacity, an Odyssey can seat eight, though center occupants might not be thrilled. Rounding out the virtues is Honda’s long-standing reputation for solid quality and reliability. Admittedly, as minivans in general have improved, Honda holds only a moderate edge over its Nissan and Toyota rivals.
Nissan turns out vans in two sizes: NV and NV200. The latter is the smaller of the pair. After some legal altercations, a wagon version, with seating in the rear, was finally chosen as the “Taxi of Tomorrow” by New York City.
Whether in open van form for cargo hauling, or passenger-carrying wagon guise, the Mexican-built NV200 is smooth-operating and comfortable. You can expect an easygoing urban ride, in a van that’s impressively easy to drive and maneuver. Judging its position on crowded city streets isn’t difficult, either.
Stepping into the driver’s compartment is almost like stepping down. How did they manage that pleasant phenomenon? Because the NV200 is comparatively tall, you can almost stand up straight in the cargo area. Or, you can specify a higher roof that provides even more space above one’s head.
Nissan gets good marks for its Quest minivan, too, but this newer, bigger van seeks a different audience.
Ordinarily, a Chevrolet Express or GMC Savana full-size van might be occupying this spot on my list of favorites. That’s not the case for one reason: those GM vans come only in heavier-duty 2500 and 3500 form. Ford’s recently-introduced Transit cargo van, in contrast, is offered in three levels, starting with the 150 edition. So does the Ram ProMaster series from FiatChrysler, with a lineup that includes 1500, 2500, and 3500 models.
Having a broad choice gives Ford and Ram the edge. Because it’s the newest, introduced as a 2015 model, Ford’s Transit barely squeaks into my roster of favorites.
Attempting to rank full-size commercial vans is a largely fruitless endeavor, anyway, because they tend to be similar in driving qualities. Two facts matter most: driver comfort and sufficient space for merchandise, followed by urban performance. Full-size vans used to drive like -- well, like trucks, meaning ride comfort and maneuverability left a lot to be desired. Nowadays, all of them have become at least a little more carlike.