How to Choose The Best Minivan For Your Money

The trend in developed markets for the last decade has been from smaller passenger vehicles to the larger car-based crossovers and hulking SUVs and pickup trucks. This has caused the minivan market to shrink in recent years, although these unassuming family haulers are spacious and highly versatile, plus they are ideal for road trips. 

They also offer numerous advantages to the popular SUVs: easy cabin access, more cargo space, more family-friendly versatility and better fuel economy. Especially if you need to transport small children daily, minivans these days also come with handy safety and comfort features that would make it easier to monitor your passengers, and make life so much easier in general. Read on to learn important criteria for choosing the best minivan for your family. 

Family Minivan Ultimate Buying Guide

Minivan Basics

There really is only one type of minivan. You can say they look quite the same on the outside, a boring, but space-efficient box on wheels. The typical layout is dual-sliding rear doors on one or both sides for superior cabin access and three rows of seats. 

Due to the minivan market having been shrinking in recent years, nowadays only a limited number of automakers are still selling minivans, namely Honda, Toyota, Kia, and Chrysler, but fortunately all of them do offer a wide variety of styles, features, upgrades and options from which to choose. If you want more luxury and high-tech features, opt for higher trim levels.

how to choose the best minivan
Minivan are spacious, easily configureable, functional and versatile family haulers, especially ideal when you transport kids on a daily basis. Photo credit: CNET

Buying New or Used?

Like when buying any type of vehicle, the first decision to make is whether you should buy new or used. But regardless of which route you go, you should focus on reliability scores and safety ratings if you want a solid family vehicle that will be of good service for many years to come. This applies even if you’re buying used and the vehicle is still covered by its original warranty. A minivan is primarily a utility vehicle for practical purposes, so do your research.

There are undeniable benefits to buying a brand-new minivan. Firstly, you get a bumper-to-bumper factory warranty. Secondly, you won’t have to worry about concealed problems with the car that the pre-purchase inspection did not pick up, or whether it has been abused by the previous owner, and you won’t have to spend a whole lot of time running a VIN check and checking the service history records. 

Another important consideration when buying a family hauler, especially if you need to transport children, is that the latest models have the latest engineering improvements and safety features to make your daily commute more bearable. In addition, you have more choices in terms of aesthetics, and you can choose trim level and upgrade options to suit your specific needs. And although you’re spending more on a new minivan, financing rates are typically lower than for a used vehicle.

A new minivan depreciates very quickly though, on average losing 30% to 35% in value in its first two or three years. If you finance your new minivan with a low down payment, you might find yourself owing more than the vehicle is worth.

If you’re buying used, you certainly have plenty of choices despite not being able to choose the trims and options. A van that’s 2 to 3years old and has been serviced regularly would be ideal, since the biggest chunk of the depreciation has already been reflected in the price, but it should still have the majority of its useful life ahead of it. 


Minivan Seating Arrangement

If you are also considering buying an SUV for its three rows of seats and spacious cabin, know that minivans can handle as many passengers and cargo as a three-row SUV, and sometimes even more. On top of various other benefits, a major reason to forgo an SUV and dive headfirst into a minivan is that the interior layout of a minivan offers more family-friendly versatility. 

A minivan allows for flexible configurations, from basic, strictly utilitarian to more luxurious, living-room plush that would make long road trips more comfortable. Most minivans have seven or eight seats, and can handle various combinations of passenger and cargo. 

The third-row seats in most vans these days are spacious enough to accommodate average-sized adults. To facilitate easy access to the third row, the second row of  a seven-passenger model  typically has two captain’s chairs rather than a bench seat. These seats also help to separate kids and are more comfortable than a bench seat. These captain’s chairs can be folded into the floor like in the case of the Chrysler vans, or can be removed to open up space, and some simply fold up against the front-row seats, so there are many ways you can configure the layout to suit your transport needs. 

Cargo Space

When talking about hauling, most people would think of a hulking SUV or a pickup, but minivans are excellent at transporting cargo as well. They can well accommodate most family errands, from grocery shopping to trips to the garden store. 

It can even handle a furniture haul, as the power-folding second- and third-row seats can be folded down and fit into the floor to accommodate bigger items, like in the case of Chrysler’s Stow ’n Go system. But this feature might compromise seat comfort. If that is an important criteria for you, you might want to check if another trim offers better-padded and more comfortable second- and third-row seats, like Chrysler’s Stow ’n Go system on the Hybrid version.

On most vans, the third-row seats can be folded into the deep wells located behind them when not in use. Many third-row seats are split 60/40 to allow for more versatile configuration for transporting people and cargo even with all seats in place.

On some vans, the rear seats are fully power-operated to make folding and reconfiguring the seats for cargo carrying as effortless as possible. Otherwise, they would come with pull straps and handles for this purpose. 

Another handy cargo-carrying feature includes a power-operated rear liftgate. Some can open automatically when you stand behind the van with the key in your pocket, super useful when both of your hands are occupied with carrying stuff. If you transport people and cargo on a daily basis, you should definitely try these features out to find what is most convenient and comfortable for you.


Engines and Fuel Economy

These are “mini” vans, but they are larger and heavier than your regular sedan or hatchback nonetheless. Therefore do not expect the same level of fuel economy. EPA ratings for most minivans are admittedly not that great, at below 25 MPG, but it’s still better than many competing three-row SUVs. Most minivans come with a V6 engine, which typically produces some 270 horses to almost 300 horses. 

Hybrid minivans offer slightly better fuel efficiency, often in the high 20s. One example is the Toyota Sienna, which comes exclusively as a hybrid. Its 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine together with the electric drive achieves a combined 245 horsepower. It is perhaps the most fuel efficient minivans on the market, with an overall 36 MPG rating, something extremely rare for a vehicle this big and heavy in the minivan category.

Another hybrid offering is the Chrysler Pacifica, a plug-in hybrid version. When running as a hybrid, it delivered an impressive 27 MPG overall. 

Hybrid Minivans: Range and In addition to fuel economy, you should also look at range and battery charging time when looking at hybrid minivans. The Chrysler Pacifica can travel 32 miles purely on electric power, which means that a fully charged battery should be by far sufficient for one day’s commutes and errands, making it a game-changer family hauler. 

The Chrysler Pacifica takes 2¼ hours to fully charge the battery when charged with a 240-volt Level 2 charging station, and around 12 hours when plugged into a standard household power outlet.

Ride Quality, Handling and Safety Features

Being sizable family haulers, no minivan would impress you with a thrilling driving experience like that of a coupe, but most of them offer a reasonably comfortable ride. They are reasonably easy to handle, and despite their size, they are responsive enough to make them feel safe and not too clumsy while maneuvering tight spaces or parking. And note that only Chrysler and Toyota offer all-wheel drive.

To judge how safe and reliable a model is, you should check out Consumer Reports’ safety ratings for it, which assess the vehicle’s ability to protect its drivers and passengers in case of an impact. The safety rating is based on crash-avoidance capabilities and crash-test results from tests performed by the federal government and insurance industry. 

Another place to look is the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s crash tests. With funding by the insurance industry, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) conducts crash tests to evaluate two aspects of a vehicle’s safety: crashworthiness, that is how well the occupants are protected in an accident, and crash avoidance and mitigation, that is how well the vehicle’s technology can prevent a crash or at least lessen the impact. There are six tests in total to judge various aspects of a vehicle’s safety. 

Next, after shortlisting the safest, most reliable minivans by industry standards, you should look closer at the safety features that a certain model offers. Automotives these days often come with an array of high-tech driver assist features for safer and less stressful driving. Many features are becoming somewhat of a standard, but there are certain essential safety technologies you should look out for when you’re buying a minivan for family commuting. 

One is adaptive cruise control down to a stop. Adaptive cruise control down to a stop is extra safe and handy, as it lets your vehicle brake in traffic down to a full stop, and usually these systems can hold you at a stand still until traffic resumes. Note that it has become a standard feature, but not all such systems function at highway speed all the way down to a stop, and some do cut out below a minimum speed of 35 mph or so. 

A second crucial safety feature your minivan should have is lane keeping assist that works from a stop up to highway speeds. This system will only notify you when you are crossing lanes due to absentmindedness, that is when the vehicle is crossing over into another lane without the driver turning on the blinker. The latest lane keeping assist systems can even self-correct the car’s steering to gently nudge the car back toward the centre of the lane.

A third is 360-degree camera systems with superior visibility that allows the driver to have a 360-degree view of their surroundings, making parking in a crowded parking lot much safer and easier. Other important crash-avoidance technologies that your minivan should have are forward collision warning, which warns the driver of the risk of collision with a car or an object directly in its path; automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection to brake when there’s a risk of a collision if the driver doesn’t react in time; and blind spot warning that monitors a vehicle’s flanks to detect if another vehicle is approaching from where it may be difficult to see. 

Towing Capacity

If you want to tow some gears behind for weekend camping trips, you’ll want to check the towing capacity of a model. A typical minivan can tow as much as most midsize and large SUVs, with a towing capacity of 3,000 pounds or more, which is about the weight of a fully loaded 5×10-foot box trailer. Coupled with the spacious cargo and cabin area, that can handle the recreational needs of most families. 

Amenities and Comfort Features

Cabin cameras have become a standard feature for minivans, and the purpose is to make them more family-friendly, that is making it easier for you to keep an eye on your kids at the back while driving.  

Chrysler offers FamCam, an interior camera system with a split display and the ability to zoom in that allows you to monitor the little ones in the rear seats. The Kia Sedona also comes with a handy fold-down mirror near the top of the windshield header. The only exception is the Kia Sienna, the only van that doesn’t have a cabin camera for monitoring kids.

And this might at first sound unnecessary, but many parents out there would swear to be a lifesaver. Some vans do offer a rear-seat reminder system to remind you that there are children in the back rows when you’re stopping and exiting the vehicle, so that you don’t accidentally leave your kid locked in the van (trust us, that happens). These systems are based on the door opening and closing sequence.

And being engineered to be a well-rounded utilitarian vehicle for the family, minivans these days can sometimes serve as a home on wheels, with all types of comfort features to make a busy schedule more beatable. These handy features abound, including USB ports, power outlets, even built-in WiFi, built-in vacuum cleaners to quickly clean up traces of snacks, storage bins and drawers, cup holders, and even cooled storage compartments so your kids never go hungry. Some even come with an intercom system that allows the driver to speak into a microphone to the little ones in the back to restore order in the cabin.

Other luxury and comfort features include leather upholstery, power-operated doors, reclining rear seats, and rear-seat entertainment systems that often pack several kid-friendly features to keep your rear passengers occupied and quiet. The Honda Odyssey offers an app similar to a flight tracker so that you can avoid the “Are we there yet?” on repeat.