Jeff Wagner is something of an automotive anomaly.

The 56-year-old resident of Corralitos, California is married with no kids. When he's not working as an audio-visual technical manager at a nearby university, he likes to spend his free time windsurfing, kayaking and camping. Like many Californians, he's always preferred small, sporty cars.

So even his friends did a double-take when he purchased a minivan.

"People look at me and say, 'What'd you buy that for?,'" he said. He counters: "It's ideal. I don't have that usual reason of schlepping the family around. I bought it to schlepp my stuff around."

Wagner transformed his 2010 Honda Odyssey LX from an alleged family hauler into an empty box, removing the second-row seating and folding the third-row bench into the floor.

In doing so, he's shown his windsurfing friends and others what a select group of minivan owners tacitly understand – their minivans are some of the most versatile and multi-use vehicles on the market today.

2012 Honda Odyssey
  • Image Credit: Honda

2012 Honda Odyssey

MSRP: $28,375 - $43,825
Invoice: $25,956 - $40,048

Fuel Economy: 18 mpg City, 27 mpg Highway

When he looked at replacing his pickup truck, Wagner first looked at SUVs, including the Honda Pilot. But he found the alternatives didn't provide enough length for his windsurfing boards.

Wagner has used the cavernous space inside for everything from hauling gear to his windsurfing events to sleeping quarters – he says it snugly fits two adults.

What clinched his decision to pursue the Odyssey was a thumbs-up from another windsurfing minivan owner, who said minivans provided more security than other equipment-haulers, which necessitated gear being stowed on roofs.

He would have preferred a manual transmission, but says he doesn't mind the automatic. "It's pretty decent in this thing," he said. "I'm pleasantly surprised. I go over a couple of mountains, and it downshifts nicely to hold speed."

Wagner encourages automakers to market their minivans as outdoor-friendly vehicles, much like Subaru has done with the Outback.

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2012 Dodge Grand Caravan
  • Image Credit: Chrysler

2012 Dodge Grand Caravan

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

Fuel Economy: 17 mpg City, 25 mpg Highway

Want towing for versatile minivan use? The Grand Caravan eclipses the towing capacity of the Sienna by 100 pounds, giving it rights to best-in-class claims.

As a member of the Chrysler family, it also contains the Stow N' Go seating in the third row and one-touch folding seats in the second. When freed of those seating arrangements, the Grand Caravan provides 143.8 cubic feet of cargo space.

And the Grand Caravan's starting price point of $21,000 makes it the most economical choice in the minivan segment.

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2012 Toyota Sienna
  • Image Credit: Toyota

2012 Toyota Sienna

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

Fuel Economy: 19 mpg City, 24 mpg Highway

Far from forgotten, the Toyota Sienna was actually showed the most love from new minivan owners last year. In 2011, the Sienna captured the title of best-selling minivan, selling 111,429, enough to edge the Dodge Grand Caravan by 567 units.

J.D. Power has named the Sienna the most-dependable minivan two consecutive years, which no doubt helped boost its profile among potential buyers.

While it may not have the popular Stow N' Go seating that has made the Town & Country so popular, the Sienna boasts 3,500-pound towing capacity, plenty for anyone looking to haul something in addition to their families.

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2012 Chrysler Town & Country
  • Image Credit: Chrysler

2012 Chrysler Town & Country

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

Fuel Economy: 17 mpg City, 25 mpg Highway

Kelly Hovius and his family appreciate the versatility minivans offer so much that they own two, a 2010 Honda Odyssey EX and the 2011 Chrysler Town & Country Limited.

Like Wagner with his Odyssey, Hovius pulled the middle seats from their T&C. His two daughters enjoy the spacious interior on frequent road trips from their Tabernacle, N.J. home – he estimates that his family will put as many as 40,000 miles on the vehicle this year alone.

His wife loves the heated steering wheel and seats that the T&C provides, along with a DVD player they feel is integrated better than in their Honda.

They had purchased the '10 Odyssey as a replacement for their '01 model, but his wife disliked it almost immediately. So he uses the Odyssey for commuting to Philadelphia and picking up supplies for home-improvement projects.

"At least once a week, I'm bringing home things that wouldn't fit in a sedan," Hovius said. "Door frames don't fit well in a sedan, but in the Odyssey, we drop the rear seat down and can fit doors no problem."

Given his wife's dislike of the new Odyssey coupled with some mechanical problems, he plans to trade it in once the warranty is up and buy a new Ford Flex or F-150 pickup.

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2012 Nissan Quest
  • Image Credit: Nissan

2012 Nissan Quest

MSRP: $25,990 - $42,350
Invoice: $24,222 - $38,774

Fuel Economy: 19 mpg City, 24 mpg Highway

With 24,047 Quests sold in 2011, the vehicle ranked a distant fifth in segment sales. One of the reasons for that might be its seating configurations are less flexible than its competitors.

But there's still some things to like about the vehicle that, in appearance, carefully treads the line between minivan and full-fledged van. It's got a 3.5-liter, V6 engine that provides 260 horsepower and 240 pound-feet of torque.

It's got a rear-vehicle storage well, and it wins high marks for its interior panel design. But one of its downsides, for people like Wagner and Hovius, would be in its cargo space.

The seats are fixed, and even when folded forward, the Quest only provides 108.4 cubic feet of space.

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