• Image Credit: Autoblog

Amidst the hoopla at the Detroit auto show, there was one concept that just sort of materialized out of thin air, the only such vehicle that was truly surprising. Chrysler didn't issue a press release weeks in advance or introduce it to the media with a song-and-dance number like with other concepts. It just moved the 700C into place on the show floor and left it there. When we inquired, we were told it was a design study, an exploration of what the next generation of Chrysler minivans might look like. Yet Chrysler didn't seem too excited about it, with some reports saying it only decided to show the concept in Detroit weeks before the show. If this concept represents the future of minivans, it was off to an inauspicious start.

Chrysler did have some people quizzing the media (and ostensibly the public after we left). "What do you think of it?" is as open-ended of a question as you can ask, and while we don't know what people were saying, we can make a pretty good guess. Minivan buyers have voted with their wallets, time and again, preferring staid, traditional designs over the futuristic and fantastical.

  • Image Credit: Autoblog

If we look back at the history of the genre, dating to the 1983 introduction of the first Dodge Caravan, swoopy and streamlined have not played well, as minivan buyers aren't exactly the types to embrace the avant garde.

When GM debuted its "Dustbuster" minivans for the 1990 model year – the Chevrolet Lumina APV, Pontiac Trans Sport, and Oldsmobile Silhouette – they looked like space shuttles compared to the boxy Chrysler competition. They had innovative space-frames and plastic body panels, which seemed apropos for people movers that take more than their fair share of abuse. Yet they did not sell well, and were redesigned to be more conventional looking before GM ditched the design all together for its second-generation minivan.

  • Image Credit: Nissan

More recently, Nissan tried to crack the minivan market with the 2004 Quest. It wasn't as radically styled as the GM minivans from the previous decade, but it had a curious interior and an odd slope to the rear hatch. By contrast, Chrysler's idea of radical styling at the time was to further smooth off the corners of its minivans. The Quest never caught on, and Nissan managed to sell fewer than 200,000 over its five-year run. By comparison, Chrysler sold some 205,000 minivans last year, split between its similarly conservative Dodge and Chrysler models. Dividing the volume between two models meant that Toyota could actually claim its Sienna was the best-selling minivan in 2011, with sales of over 111,000. The Grand Caravan came in second, just a few hundred vehicles shy, while the Honda Odyssey took third place, a few units over 107,000.

The new Odyssey might serve as a further cautionary tale for Chrysler's 700C. Completely redesigned for the 2011 model year, Honda broke with the traditional minivan styling that's graced its Odyssey since the late 1990s, opting for a more emotional, visceral look with lots of angles and asymmetry. It went on sale in September 2010, meaning that last year was its first full year of sales. Usually a brand new model is expected to light up the sales charts in its initial year on the market, yet Odyssey sales for 2011 were actually down by 1.4 percent.

While minivans don't have to be boring, it seems they sell better that way.

Nissan Quest
  • Image Credit: Nissan

Nissan Quest

MSRP: $27,750 - $41,350
Invoice: $25,859 - $37,859

Fuel Economy: 19 mpg City, 24 mpg Highway

"While minivans remain one of the most maligned symbols of adulthood, where some see them as a surrendering of youth and fun, Nissan sees the minivan as a celebration of family life," says Al Castignetti, vice president of Nissan North America.

In celebrating that, Nissan has come up with a vehicle that stands out among the family-oriented segment – a "fluid sculpture" body to the Quest, which was most recently overhauled in 2011. Depending on your perspective, it's a bold step in the right direction or a little too much of a breakaway from type.

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  • Image Credit: Nissan

Starting at $27,750, it can be more expensive than some of its competitors and it offers less flexibility in seat arrangements. Still, it's got a 3.5-liter, V6 engine with 260 horsepower and 240 pound-feet of torque available.

With all the engine and fuel economy specs in line with its competition, the Quest gives drivers concerned with exterior appearance a chance to stand out from the minivan pack.

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Honda Odyssey
  • Image Credit: Honda

Honda Odyssey

MSRP: $28,225 - $43,675
Invoice: $25,580 - $39,541

Fuel Economy: 18 mpg City, 27 mpg Highway

Things were looking peachy for the Odyssey through the first third of 2011, as the latest iteration of the popular Odyssey had boosted sales 13.1 percent year over year. But the Japanese catastrophes halted production, and the Odyssey finished the year down 1.3 percent overall. Not bad, considering the circumstances.

There's a lot to like about the latest model. Chiefly, it's a class leader in fuel economy, with its Touring model earning 28 mpg on the highway and most models averaging 21 to 22 mpg. It has also earned a top safety rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

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  • Image Credit: Honda

Eight-person models are available, along with plenty of flexibility in how drivers may want to configure the seating arrangements. Perhaps one surprise prospective owners might not expect from the minivan? For its segment, it has a healthy amount of power available. The 3.5-liter, V6 produced 248 horsepower with 250 pound-feet of torque. In short, the Odyssey has some hustle.

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Toyota Sienna
  • Image Credit: Toyota

Toyota Sienna

MSRP: $25,060 - $40,570
Invoice: $23,431 - $37,324

Fuel Economy: 19 mpg City, 24 mpg Highway

Despite some production delays associated with last year's Japanese catastrophes, the Sienna earned best-selling honors in the minivan segment, moving 111,429 units. Redesigned in 2011, the '12 model adds enhancements for infotainment options and comfort. Depending on which of the five Sienna models available, there's front-and-rear parking sonar, pre-collision systems and plenty of iPhone connectivity available.

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  • Image Credit: Toyota

The engine is offered in two varieties: a 2.7-liter, four-cylinder option that gets 21 combined mpg, which is only one mile more than the 20 combined mpg estimated in the 3.5-liter, six-cylinder model. All-wheel drive is also available on select models, which stands out among competitors in the minivan market.

In the seven-passenger configuration, the second-row chairs can slide up to 23 inches, helping to alleviate cramped quarters for even the tallest of passengers.

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Chrysler Town & Country
  • Image Credit: Chrysler

Chrysler Town & Country

MSRP: $29,995 - $39,300
Invoice: $28,790 - $37,351

Fuel Economy: 17 mpg City, 25 mpg Highway

From the founders of the modern minivan comes the latest rendition of the well-selling Town & Country. On the outside, it looks largely like previous iterations. The biggest changes come on the vehicle's interior.

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  • Image Credit: Chrysler

Seemingly aimed at soccer moms and dads who want a little comfort with their child-haulers, '12 updates include leather seats and rear-seat DVD players standard across the board, as are rear-backup cameras and a heated steering wheel option. Of course, the key drawing card -- Chrysler's trademark Stow N' Go seating technology -- provides the same distinctive versatility as always.

At 17 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway, the T&C isn't the easiest minivan on the wallet, but it comes with a fuel economizer mode that helps drivers maximize their fuel savings. And it claims a best-in-class 283-horsepower on its V-6 engine, making it a dependable stalwart in its segment.

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Dodge Grand Caravan
  • Image Credit: Chrysler

Dodge Grand Caravan

MSRP: $20,995 - $29,995
Invoice: $20,810 - $28,670

Fuel Economy: 17 mpg City, 25 mpg Highway

The latest Grand Caravan may be the jack of all trades, but the master of none. That is, it may not be the best minivan in any particular category, but it's highly competitive in all.

Its starting MSRP of $20,995 makes perhaps the most affordable on the market. It's earned numerous safety ratings. And its fuel economy mirrors that of its more expensive Chrysler cousin. It also contains the Town & Country's Stow N' Go seating, which makes it attractive for buyers seeking versatility and ease of use when rearranging the inside.

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  • Image Credit: Chrysler

The Dodge's 3.6-liter, Pentastar V-6 engine delivers a best-in-class 283 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque, and also contains a driver-selected fuel economy mode that helps stretch the mileage to 25 mpg on the highway. The design may be plain and interior may not have the luxury options of its competitors. But among a pragmatic set of buyers, it's a very practical pick.

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