Third Place: 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT
This freshly baked Grand Caravan would have fared better in this comparison if it connected the driver more with the road. This is a quiet machine, the best here along with the Toyota, with very little road noise. It rides smoothly, too, although it loses its composure when the road turns rough. But it's isolated in that indifferent way that keeps the driver from feeling in charge. It's numb to the touch where it's not off-putting. The crude feel of the dash-mounted gear is a good example.
The new 4.0-liter SOHC V-6 is a strong performer, showing taillights to all others in the acceleration tests except the Toyota. The minivan customers really shows in the cleverness of the interior features. The Stow 'n Go second row, which can be lowered flat into the floor with only modest muscle, is a masterpiece of accommodating design. Those seats also slide themselves away from the door as they make a passage to the third row. When they're up in the family-hauler mode, they leave behind empty compartments under hinged lids. Mom is impressed. "A huge advantage," she says, for holding all the things kids need these days to amuse themselves.
If we have a reservation about Stow 'n Go, it comes down to the rickety feeling of the mechanism. Can this possibly hold up for five or 15 years? Another problem: Reaching under the captain's chairs for the slider latch can lead to a major finger pinch; one editor's digit still hadn't healed a week after the test.
Even more rickety is the optional console between the front seats. Mom loves the way it opens wide, providing a purse-hiding zone, and it cleverly slides rearward in two stages to offer a lunch table for the second row. But all these loose-tolerance sliders make it a wobbly apparatus that surely embarrassed Daimler halfway to divorce court.
Everywhere you look around the Grand Caravan's interior you see cup holders and storage niches. The front doors each have two-story bins for holding odds and ends, the dash has stacked glove boxes, the center of the dash has pop-out cup holders and more small cubbies on the way down to a spaniel-size open bin at the bottom. You could lose your mind in this poly-compartmentalized interior and never find it again.
Clever, but the interior has a cheap-motel look about it, too, with plastic gestures everywhere -- obvious plastic, blatant plastic. Chrysler makes impressive claims for the stain resistance of its YES Essentials interior fabrics. Great idea. Unfortunately, even when clean, the look is plebeian.
Maybe minivan customers, eyes fixed on cup holders and storage bins, simply see more utility when they behold these materials. But such appointments might have something to do with the category's sagging popularity, too.
Fourth Place: 2007 Nissan Quest SL
Nissan dared to be different and got whacked for it. When the market rejected the radical 2004 model -- in part because the goofy dash moved the instruments away from the driver to the center of the panel -- it was summoned back to the design studio for an emergency dequirking. Now it's merely an original thinker with a few provocative ideas.
We like space-bubble exterior styling. The only downside: Washing the inside of the windshield takes a long arm. This is the longest mini of the bunch on an exceptionally long wheelbase. Parking will be more difficult. Inside, the instruments have been moved to where they should have been all along. The revised center stack puts the buttons and knobs on a ramp, offering a fairly good view of them but a long reach to the fan and tuning rocker.
On the road, the steering is a bit vague on-center, and the accelerator response yo-yos when moving away from rest. By a tick, acceleration to 60 is slowest of the group, requiring 8.8 seconds. Apart from the Toyota, the other minivans are about equal in their vigor. With its Michelin PAX System run-flats as part of a pricey option package, the Quest bested the others in braking and skidpad grip.
Only the Quest in this group had no dead pedal for the driver's left foot. There were comfort complaints about the spoon-shaped front seats, too.
At the side doors, the Quest has a lower step into the cabin than any of the others, about 15 inches compared with 18 plus. Two hands are required to open passenger access to the third row -- it's a one-handed job in the Honda, Hyundai, and Sienna -- but the space opens wide. The second row slides on an unusual two-position rocker. Its big trick, however, is the way it kneels down close to the floor, a sort of semi -- Stow 'n Go that allows hauling space without the odious job of lifting the seats out; in fact, you can't remove them. Your back won't escape completely, however, because raising the seat from the kneeling position takes a medium grunt. The unsplit third row takes a bigger grunt, 38 pounds' worth, as you push the partly raised bench over the top of its arc to full upright. Mom hates the cup holders on the outsides of the second-row seats -- ditto in the Honda and Dodge. She says kids knock the cups onto the ground when they deplane.
Fifth Place: 2007 Hyundai Entourage Limited
Talk about space shuttles, the Hyundai's rocket-nozzle headlights are straight from outer fantasyland. But why should minivans be boring? The big chrome door handles set into their carved coves on each side certainly aren't. Moreover, the Entourage drew admiring comments for its plush interior. The steering wheel is as shiny as a new pair of Florsheims. The knobs and the switches drew snickers for their jumbo block lettering -- who ordered the AARP option? On the road, the powertrain impresses. The engine makes a husky, well-engineered sound, and the five-speed automatic creams shifts. Acceleration is midpack by most measures, as were handling grip and braking. Passengers in the second row will find toe space limited under the front seats, blocked by what seems like a solid wall. The cushions in both rows are too low to please adults; we rated the third row least comfortable in this group. On rougher roads, the ride quality is unpleasant back there. Of all the minis, the Hyundai has the least disciplined suspension motions.
Ergonomics are mixed. The steering column tilts but doesn't telescope. Audio and HVAC controls are located high on the stack, just a short eye flick off the road. Power-seat controls are in plain sight high on the door. Two stacked glove boxes are generous in size. The driver's footrest is properly shaped.
Maximizing cargo space by removing the second row is a pig wrestle, with no good place to grab each of the 60-pounders. Folding them, on the other hand, is generally easy. A 24-pound lift, measured on an extension scale, hoists the wide side of the split third row out of the well, and it goes over center early in its arc, easing the load. From the rear, the liftgate closes with a button over your head on the bottom edge of the door, a handy location that's almost clear of the door's motion. Back-row passengers have a local button to power-open the quarter-windows, a rare feature. Can the kids be trusted?
Even though the second-row chairs fold and tilt with one touch in an inertia-driven slam-bang motion, they open only a narrow passage to the rear. To make sure our customary male view didn't miss something, we included a working mother of two in the test jury. Mom says those seats "make a guillotine" kachunk when they drop back into their floor latches. "I wouldn't want little feet anywhere near."