The Toyota Sienna Limited

The Toyota Sienna Limited (April 16, 2014)

Long before anyone used the term “crossover,” America was besotted with another genre-bending vehicle called the minivan. A cross between a van and a station wagon, they emerged as the ideal family vehicle. Although they have been eclipsed by other genres in recent times, minivans are still going strong. 

“The truth is, the minivan is the most thoughtfully designed vehicle on the road today,” said Edmunds.com executive editorMichael Jordan. “It’s a little miracle of easy access, clever storage, comfortable seating and electronic entertainment/connectivity.”

The minivan has a long history. Car buffs trace its origin back to the 1936 Stout Scarab, which offered a removable table and a second row of seats that could be swiveled around to face it. Toyota and Dodge both launched minivan models in 1984 to address a growing market: baby boomers and their children. 

Perhaps because of their safe suburban image and boxy shape, the minivan has been the butt of many jokes. 

“It’s fashionable to disdain the minivan, but this is pure social snobbery,” said Jordan, who added that the value of a minivan is in the way it’s used, not the way it looks. “That’s why kids love minivans and old men in snappy sports cars do not. A minivan cannot be improved by a gas-guzzling engine, a badge from Germany and tailfins.” 

“Minivans get knocked by people who don’t own them,” said Jack R. Nerad, executive editorial director of Kelley Blue Book. “Based on per-passenger fuel consumption, they are also remarkably efficient. These days even their looks have improved.”

Today’s minivans are certainly not the cheapest vehicles on the road, with low-end MSRPs generally running between $25,000 and $40,000. The higher prices are a result of the extra features packed into most models nowadays. 

“Minivans continue to get more luxurious and feature-filled,” Nerad said. “Though the current leading minivans — Honda Odyssey and Chrysler Town & Country/Dodge Grand Caravan — are not all-new for 2012, they continue to be the class of the field.” 

The Odyssey’s appeal is based on a blend of great handling dynamics and a slate of options that includes a wide-screen TV. The Chrysler/Dodge minivans offer the broadest range of features — things like seats that fold into the floor and under-floor storage areas, plus dual-screen rear entertainment to keep the kids occupied.

In terms of sales, Dodge Grand Caravan leads the pack with 160,000 units sold in 2010. Chrysler Town & Country was second (126,000) followed by the Honda Odyssey (119,000) and Toyota Sienna (113,179). Other popular models include the Kia Sedona and Volkswagen Routan. And more models are on the way: VW is expected to introduce a 21st-century version of its legendary Microbus in 2014.

Indeed, the segment continues to evolve. A combination of factors has led to the introduction of smaller, more affordable models like the Mazda 5 and the forthcoming 2013 Ford C-Max. “These European-style minivans take the minivan formula and shrink it to a size that’s more compatible with an era of higher gas prices and smaller paychecks,” Jordan said. 

“Because we’ve grown used to the current generation of minivans, these new vehicles seem small at first,” he continued. “But ironically the Mazda 5 … offers the same amount of passenger space as the original minivan that transformed America — the 1984 Dodge Caravan.”

—Joe Yogerst, Custom Publishing Writer