What You Should Know Before Buying Minivans
Despite the segment’s ongoing popularity, minivan sales have gone into a nosedive over the last decade. Women reportedly grew to dislike the ‘soccer mom’ label associated with their big box designs, and Chrysler – its Town & Country and Dodge Caravan had been the foundation of the category’s popularity – stopped investing in updates or redesigns. Recently, however, the minivan seems to have renewed energy. Honda (Odyssey) and Toyota (Sienna) remain serious contenders in the segment, and Kia’s Sedona introduces design elements that even an Alpha male might embrace. And then, of course, there’s the former Chrysler, now known as FCA, whose product team would seem to have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. In reconfiguring its Town & Country even the name is gone, replaced by a revived ‘Pacifica’ tag, which was last seen on a forgotten Chrysler crossover. There’s a lot to like about a minivan’s versatility, and if compared to a crossover or SUV on the same showroom, its inherent efficiency. Where the crossover might accommodate your bicycles only on a roof-mounted rack, a minivan can swallow both the bikes and small team of riders inside. In point of fact, ‘mini’ may now be a misnomer, as most minivans offer the utility of a full-sized SUV – without the dynamic or efficiency penalties associated with three tons of a body-on-frame box. There is also a recent revival of the compact minivans, passenger variants of commercial vans offered by Ford’sTransit Connect and Ram Promaster City. At the moment – with low gas prices – these ‘mini’ minivans are seen more often as cabs than cars, but are perfect for young families living in urban neighborhoods. Get in. Get out. Get going.
Exterior – You may think you know what a minivan looks like; at every grocery store or Wal-Mart they’re ubiquitous. But with the ongoing updates to Honda’s Odyssey and Toyota’s Sienna, along with newer entries from Kia and FCA, what you think a minivan looks like and its actual architecture – if you haven’t been looking – probably differ. Although everything in the market continues to hold to the two-box tradition, Chrysler’s new Pacifica has truly moved the design needle, as its sheetmetal is inarguably bold and (perhaps) swoopy. And since women have been pushing back against the minivan purchase, FCA marketing is pitching the Pacifica to dads; early indicators would suggest the pitch is working.
Interior – Since their initial launch minivans have offered a surplus – especially when compared to their sedan siblings – of space. More recently they’ve offered additional luxury and, most recently, significant technology. Much like their counterparts in the SUV pyramid, minivans can accommodate new technologies, and the business model is so much friendlier when those technological adds are marketed as options. To that end the new Pacifica starts at $30K and can end somewhere north of $50K. And since we’re still in the Chrysler showroom, know that Chrysler’s Stow-‘n-Go foldable seating has been enhanced in the Pacifica, and continues to surpass any other company’s seating flexibility. On the luxury end, two rows of captain chairs are increasingly common, as is leather, video and simulated wood.
Powertrains – Among the volume-oriented minivans, i.e. Chrysler, Honda, Kia and Toyota, you can have any powertrain you want as long as it’s a V6. But that’s about to change with the debut of the category’s first hybrid, available on the Chrysler Pacifica and delivering thirty miles of electric-only operation. Among the smaller options, both Ford’s Transit Connect and FCA’s Ram Promaster City are powered by four cylinder powertrains, as is the new Mercedes-Benz Metris, a cargo/passenger hauler (your pick) with four cylinders propelling a van roughly the size of Dodge’s evergreen Grand Caravan. The Metris is hard-pressed to hide its commercial roots, especially when considering its interior plastics, but it makes a great case for family utility in a package that’s easy to garage and park.
Safety – Having lagged for far too long in offering both designed-in safety through improved architectures and added-on safety via improved technology, minivans have made great strides in providing drivers and their passengers – most often families – an improved chance to avoid accidents, via improved handling and braking. There’s also an greater chance of surviving accidents through enhanced design and both standard and optional safety features. Adaptive cruise control will keep you out of the trunk or hatch of the vehicle in front of you, while blind spot detection keeps you out of the front fender in the adjacent lane. With all of that, know that the chances of distracted driving increase almost exponentially when a minivan has five kids in back – and only mom or dad up front.
Technology – Today, if a manufacturer opts for an introduction at a major auto show the offering is more typically devoted to newly-introduced technology within the product than the outside sheetmetal or under-the-hood enhancements. Of course, automotive technology can take many forms, including those intended to improve safety, efficiency, connectivity or entertainment. With its Tech of the Year Award in 2016, Autoblog recognized Apple CarPlay for its user-friendliness and “overall impact on bringing our connected lives into the car.” If you’re an iPhone user, the control of apps is done via a familiar interface on an infotainment screen while adding features that weren’t originally installed at the factory. Android Auto was second in the voting, delivering to the user essentially the same capabilities via Google’s phone OS.
With automotive technology’s trickle down, you can expect in-car WiFi to enjoy greater availability, and its integration into a ‘media hub’ increasingly common. Of course, what happens in the dash is not all that’s happening with the operation of a minivan. Chrysler’s Pacifica provides active noise cancellation on its new Pacifica, and makes available both an 8.4-inch Uconnect touchscreen and overhead DVD.
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