Choosing a minivan

On the surface, most minivans look pretty much alike. There are the sliding doors, second-row captain's chairs, entertainment options for the kids and typically more cup holders than seven or eight passengers could possibly use.

But the best reviewers dig deeper and find some real differences. Here's what the experts say to look for in a minivan:

  • Note how easy it is to reconfigure the interior for passengers or cargo. Most minivans hold seven to eight passengers. Reviewers generally favor second- and third-row seats that fold entirely into the floor. Most minivans have a third-row split seat that folds flat, but not as many have fold-flat second-row seats. Ease of reconfiguring the interior is a very important real-world consideration.
  • Rear-seat passengers should be part of your buying process. All the minivans covered here generally offer good comfort for the driver and front passenger. Rear-seat comfort can vary greatly, however, so bring along the people (like your kids) who'll be forced to sit in them. Are the seats comfortable? Can children see out the windows? These are all important considerations.
  • Convenience is critical. Abundant rear cargo space and storage cubbies are great. In-floor storage is even better because it can keep groceries out of the sun and toys and other items better organized. Many minivans now include a power rear liftgate, which reviewers say is a convenience that, once experienced, consumers can't imagine being without.
  • Comfort's important, too. Side window sunshades that open and close at the touch of a button are especially handy for shielding young passengers from the sun. Adjustable pedals and a telescoping steering wheel are also musts to ensure you're able to find a comfortably safe position behind the wheel.
  • Different minivans have different entertainment and technology options. Entertainment options for front and rear passengers have advanced greatly in the last few years. In most cases, shoppers will have one or more backseat entertainment features available as optional equipment. In some cases, like the Honda Odyssey, there are even widescreen displays that support high-definition video sources.  Likewise, the in-dash infotainment systems offered vary in their ergonomics and complexity. If you plan to purchase any of these systems, be sure to thoroughly try them out before making your purchase to ensure that they meet your expectations in terms of ease of use. 
  • Consider advanced safety features. All minivans now have standard antilock brakes, traction control, electronic stability control and a full complement of airbags (front, side and curtain). Many minivans also offer backup warning sensors (or rearview cameras) as standard or extra-cost options. Most testers say power sliding doors are important, because heavy manual ones could roll shut and crush kids' hands.
  • A minivan should drive more like a car than a truck. One of the reasons minivans are popular is their car-like ride and handling. Obviously, a test drive is necessary to determine whether the minivan's ride is sufficiently smooth and comfortable for you and your clan.
  • Almost all minivans today are front-wheel drive, but reviewers say all-wheel drive (AWD) can deliver better winter traction. That said, you don't have a lot of choice if AWD is essential. The Toyota Sienna is currently the only minivan that offers all-wheel drive as an option.

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