Vans of Versatility
A few years ago it looked as if the minivan — once the go-to vehicle for active American families — would be kicked to the curb by the advent of the crossover SUV. Even though crossovers gained wide popularity in the ensuing years, the ultimate people mover seems to be making a comeback. In 2016 minivan sales are up more than 30 percent compared to last year, and there are plenty of new features and technologies available to keep minivans within the consideration set of car-shopping families on the go. But these minivans wouldn’t be where they are today without the originals from the late 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. Here’s a look at the minivan’s inauspicious beginnings and the feature-rich counterparts available today.
Then: 1984 Dodge Caravan
The Caravan was the first modern-day minivan when it came to market for the 1984 model year, and it is fair to say that over the years Chrysler brands have perfected the formula. The original Caravan was available in three trims: base, SE and the top-level LE that featured those classic vinyl woodgrain side panels. Power came from a 96-horsepower 4-cylinder engine and there was even an available 5-speed manual transmission.
Now: 2016 Dodge Grand Caravan
Not only is the Grand Caravan the least expensive minivan on the market, it’s currently the best-selling minivan in America. Much of the Grand Caravan’s success may be attributed to innovations such as exclusive Stow ‘n Go seats — rear seats that can be folded completely flat into the floor via one-handed operation. High-end features include a Blu-ray entertainment system with 9-inch high-res video screens for the second- and third-row passengers. A far cry from that original 1984 model, the current Grand Caravan boasts a 283-horsepower V6 engine with a respectable 25 mpg on the highway. Grand Caravan can also tow up to 3,600 pounds.
Then: 1990 Chrysler Town & Country
When the Town & Country arrived for 1990 it introduced the concept of a luxury minivan. Chrysler was already selling the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager, and the Town & Country came fully loaded with everything available on those original minivans — plus more. Leather seats and door trim were standard, as were front and rear air-conditioning, an Infinity sound system and a luggage rack. The 2016 model year will be the last hurrah for the Town & Country, since it is being replaced by the new Pacifica. A special edition Town & Country celebrating Chrysler’s 90th anniversary will be available, featuring a sunroof, bright door handles, heated first- and second-row seats, a heated steering wheel and Keyless Enter ‘n Go.
Now: 2016 Chrysler Pacifica
The Pacifica is an all-new minivan for the 2017 model year, and with fresh styling and a slew of innovations it is arguably the best minivan Chrysler has built since it created the category more than 30 years ago. Pacifica can be equipped with seating for up to eight occupants, which still leaves plenty of cargo space in the rear. Stow n’ Go seats can be folded into the floor for a completely flat cargo area all the way to the front seats. Passengers can enjoy an available Uconnect Theater featuring 10-inch high-res touchscreen displays with a variety of inputs and integrated games. There’s even an available Stow ‘n Vac — a powerful vacuum cleaner located conveniently behind the second row, and easily accessible from any door opening. Chrysler has also announced that a Pacifica Hybrid will be coming later this year — the first hybrid minivan on the market.
Then: 1991 Toyota Previa
Toyota introduced the Previa in early 1990 as a 1991 model, with the goal of competing with the popular minivan offerings from Chrysler. The Previa had a unique look; also unique was its mid-engine design — the engine sat beneath the front seats. Available in rear- or all-wheel drive, the Previa made a mere 135 horsepower from its small 4-cylinder engine. In 1994 power climbed a bit when Toyota added a supercharger. Previa had a sliding door on the passenger side only, but it did offer seating for up to eight occupants. The Japanese automaker discontinued the Previa in 1997 and shortly followed it up with the introduction of the all-new Sienna minivan.
Now: 2016 Toyota Sienna
As one of the top-selling minivans on the U.S. market, Sienna comes well equipped with features such as 3-zone climate control and Toyota’s Entune audio system with applications including Yelp, iHeartRadio, OpenTable and Pandora. Although other minivans have offered all-wheel drive over the years, Sienna is currently the only AWD minivan on the market — perhaps making it even more appealing to those who desire a crossover. There are plenty of other reasons to get into a Sienna, including Driver Easy Speak, which uses the microphone from the voice-command multimedia system to broadcast to the audio system’s rear speakers. Presto, no more yelling at kids in the back seat — or when you do yell, it will be even louder. The conversation mirror in the overhead console lets drivers see all goings-on behind them, so they’ll know when they need to intervene. But chances are those backseat passengers won’t be causing trouble once they become captivated by the available Blu-ray entertainment system with its 16.4-inch display.
Then: 1993 Nissan Quest
The original Nissan Quest was the result of a Nissan/Ford joint agreement to create an all-new minivan. Slightly smaller than the Chrysler competition, the Quest was also sold as the Mercury Villager. Quest had seating for seven — the middle row could be removed and the third row could be slid forward to increase cargo space. A redesigned Quest came to market in 1999 with more aerodynamic styling and a driver’s-side sliding rear door. The Quest’s standard powerplant was a 151-horsepower 3.0-liter V6.
Now: 2016 Nissan Quest
This latest generation of the Quest was introduced in 2011 and remains primarily unchanged for the 2016 model year. Quest may not have sales at the same level as entries from Chrysler or Toyota, but it holds its own with plenty of interior space and a number of innovative, useful features. Entry is easy with a one-touch unlock/open of the powered sliding rear doors — especially convenient when your hands are full. Inside, Quest has theater-style seating — the second and third rows are slightly raised to provide better visibility, as well as convenient viewing of the 11-inch entertainment-system display screen. Dual glass sunroofs help even third-row occupants feel less claustrophobic, and a conversation mirror at the front keeps those banished to the rear seats in constant view of the driver. Of course the Quest may not always be hauling people — all seats can be folded flat to provide much usable cargo space, and valuables can be stored out of sight in a covered storage bin in the rear cargo area.
Then: 1995 Ford Windstar
Introduced in 1995, the Windstar was Ford’s first front-wheel-drive car-based minivan. It replaced the trucklike Aerostar and was more of a competitor to the popular Chrysler minivans. Seating was available for seven, and the original Windstar derived power from a 155-horsepower 3.8-liter V6 engine borrowed from the Ford Taurus. Before dual sliding doors were de rigueur in minivans, the original Windstar did not have a sliding door on the driver’s side, so in 1997 Ford extended the driver’s door by 6 inches to allow access to the rear seat from the left side. In 2004 the Windstar was completely redesigned and renamed Freestar during a company-wide initiative to have all vehicles start with the letter F. Freestar was discontinued following the 2007 model year.
Now: 2016 Ford Transit Connect
It’s not quite a minivan — in fact Ford refers to it as the “un-minivan” — but the Transit Connect offers van versatility in a much smaller package. The Transit Connect has seating for up to seven occupants in the long-wheelbase version (the standard carries five) and with its tall roof design, Transit Connect offers great space for people and cargo. Dual sliding doors provide easy entry and exit, and in back buyers have the option of choosing either a standard liftgate or side-hinged swing-out doors. The Transit Connect’s small size makes it a unique family hauler; it’s easier to drive and maneuver while still feeling spacious inside. Assisting in that maneuverability is an available rearview camera, as well as front and rear parking sensors.
Then: 1995 Honda Odyssey
Honda joined the minivan fray in 1994 with the 1995 Odyssey. Based on the Honda Accord, the Odyssey featured conventional rear doors rather than sliding ones. Dual airbags were standard, as well as dual-zone heating and cooling. Seating was available for seven with a middle bench seat, or for six with second row captain’s chairs. From 1996–99 the Odyssey was also sold by Isuzu as the Oasis. In 1999 Honda introduced the second-generation of the Odyssey, which was larger and more minivan-like with sliding doors replacing the standard rear doors.
Now: 2016 Honda Odyssey
The Honda Odyssey has come a long way since that original Accord-based model. With seating possible for up to eight passengers, the Honda of minivans is available with popular features such as a rearview camera, tri-zone climate control, leather-trimmed power front seats and a high-end 650-watt audio system with Surround Sound Theater Mode. Honda adds a new Special Edition to the Odyssey lineup for 2016, bringing the total number of trims offered to eight. The SE — priced at $33,500 — comes standard with many popular premium features such as a rear entertainment system, SiriusXM Radio and the HondaVac integrated vacuum cleaner. Powered by Honda’s 3.5-liter V6 engine producing 248 horsepower, the Odyssey has enough power to tow up to 3,500 pounds. With its standard 6-speed automatic transmission, the Odyssey is rated at 19 mpg city / 28 mpg highway.
Then: 2002 Kia Sedona
When Kia jumped into the fray with its first minivan, the Sedona became the lowest priced minivan offering in America at the time, with prices starting below $19,000. But Kia has always provided good value, so even though that minivan was low priced it featured front and rear air-conditioning, seating for seven and removable rear seats for plenty of cargo space. The original Sedona sourced power from a 3.5-liter V6 engine producing 195 horsepower, teamed with one of the first 5-speed automatics found in a minivan.
Now: 2016 Kia Sedona
Redesigned last year, the Sedona was updated with styling similar to a crossover SUV without losing any functionality expected of a minivan. One of the standout features on the new Sedona is second-row “First Class” lounge seating that can be positioned for impressive legroom; it includes retractable lower legrests and airplane-style winged head restraints. Kia also offers YES Essentials fabric technology for the Sedona, which provides protection from spills with stain-repelling and stain-releasing fabric — a great feature when messy kids are sitting in back. If cargo carrying is high on your list of people mover must-haves, the second-row seats can also fold up against the front row, and with the third row folded into the floor Sedona provides plenty of cargo-carrying capacity. Another cool feature is the automatic rear liftgate — stand behind it for three seconds with the key fob in your pocket and the liftgate magically opens.
Then: 2005 Chevrolet Uplander
As crossovers started to take market share from minivans, Chevrolet fought back with the Uplander. The short-lived minivan was billed as a “crossover sport van” and featured SUV-like styling as well as available all-wheel drive. Power came from a 200-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 engine, which was enough oomph to earn Uplander a 3,500-pound tow rating. Seating was available for up to seven, and Chevrolet even made a rear-seat DVD entertainment system standard. When the Uplander was canceled following the 2008 model year, Chevrolet officially pulled out of the minivan market.
Now: 2016 Chevrolet City Express
Even though it is a small van, it might be a stretch to call the City Express a minivan since it’s meant for cargo rather than passengers. That said, the City Express is the closest vehicle to a minivan that Chevrolet offers. Based on the Nissan NV200, the City Express has 122.7 cubic feet of cargo space as well as dual rear sliding doors; the 60/40-split rear cargo doors open 180 degrees for easy loading. Standard features include vinyl flooring, a 150-amp alternator, a 12-volt power outlet, cruise control, Bluetooth connectivity and backup sensors.