2011 Minivan Buying Guide

Last Updated: May 2, 2010

Our 2011 minivan buying guide highlights the most amenable and, unfortunately, the most unfairly stigmatized, vehicles on the market.

Once among America’s hottest sellers, minivans are the Rodney Dangerfield of the car business: they get no respect from their target audience -- growing families. Indeed, there are no better all-around family vehicles. Minivans reward pragmatic buyers with roomy and comfortable interiors, myriad clever features, and pleasing all-around performance. Six-cylinder engines and automatic transmissions are the norm in this segment. Front-wheel drive is standard across the board, with the 2011 Toyota Sienna the only minivan that continues to offer all-wheel drive (AWD) as an alternative for those living in harsh winter climates.

Modern-day minivans sprung from Chrysler in the mid 1980s and soon supplanted the station wagon as America’s prime people movers. By the 2000 model year there were no less than 15 minivans on the market, ringing up annual combined sales of 1.37 million units. But the sport-utility vehicle boom took the wind out of the minivan’s sales. Soccer moms and dads alike embraced what were perceived as more rugged forms of family transportation. While most never once went off-roading, the new wave of SUV owners wanted to look as if they could. And when SUV owners eventually tired of truck-like ride and handling and abysmal fuel economy, a new class of more car-like crossover SUVs was there to tempt them away from minivans. Minivan sales tumbled to fewer than 650,000 in 2009. The category now consists of just seven models.

But there are plenty of signs of life in the minivan segment. Its heaviest hitters are revamped for the 2011 model year. Toyota is doing its part to generate enthusiasm with its redesigned Sienna, which offers a choice of four- or six-cylinder engines. The popular Honda Odyssey also is recast for 2011 with aggressive new styling that’s highlighted by a lowered stance and a lightning bolt-shaped beltline. Likewise, the compact Mazda 5 “mini minivan” sees a 2011 makeover, with cosmetic changes also evident among the segment’s pioneers, the Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan.

A key attribute of all minivans is their pair of big, sliding side doors. They make entering and exiting easier in close-quarters, such a parking spaces, and allow parents to buckle little ones into child seats without having to contort themselves. For added convenience, power-operated sliding doors are available. A rear liftgate makes loading cargo easier, and that too can be power activated.

All minivans come with three rows of seats. Some can accommodate eight passengers. Others substitute two second-row captain’s chairs for a three-passenger bench seat to reduce capacity to six. The second and third row seats typically fold flat to accommodate extra cargo, even large sheets of building materials. In most models, the third row seat can also fold flat into the floor when not needed to maximize cargo space.

The 2011 Town & Country and 2011 Grand Caravan include Chrysler’s “Stow ’n Go” center-row seats that fold completely into the floor, leaving two generous-size storage bins when in their upright position. Alternately, these models offer “Swivel ’n Go” center seats that pivot to face the rearmost row with a small table mounted between them. Reaching out to parents who care for their aging parents, the 2011 Sienna offers an exclusive mobility center-row captain’s chair that powers to the side and lowers itself to aid ingress and egress.

Gadgets abound in today’s minivans, with GPS navigation systems, rearview video cameras, Bluetooth wireless technology, and multiple-screen DVD/game entertainment systems common. The Chrysler and Dodge models offer subscription-based Sirius Backseat TV that delivers four channels of youth-oriented satellite TV programming as well as the FLO TV system of up to 20 mainstream channels. Town & Country and Grand Caravan can also be fitted with a Wi-Fi accessory that turns them into rolling hot spots for connecting laptop computers and other wireless devices to the Internet.

As befits family-oriented vehicles, every minivan comes packed with the full range of safety features, including antilock brakes, stability control, and myriad airbags. Most get perfect or near perfect scores in government crash tests. And given the typically cautious driving habits of their family-responsible owners, minivans boast among the lowest crash-fatality rates of any vehicle.

Fuel economy in this segment tends to be good, though not great. Minivans, after all, are relatively sizable vehicles carrying the weight of three rows of seats and lots of features. A growing trend is toward the sort of compact-sized, fuel-efficient six- or seven-passenger minivans common in overseas markets. Ford plans one called the C-Max, based on its 2012 Focus compact car. In U.S. showrooms today is the compact Mazda 5, a sporty six-passenger “mini minivan” rated at h 21/27 mpg.

Minivans typically are priced somewhere in between midsize cars and seven-passenger crossover SUVs. The lowest-priced minivan is the Kia Sedona, which starts around $23,000. Upscale models like the Town & Country and Sienna can easily top $40,000 when fitted with leather seats and a boatload of options. That may sound like a lot for a family vehicle, but a well-equipped minivan packs more bells and whistles than many luxury cars and furnishes more room and comfort than the typical limousine.

Here is our 2011 minivan buying guide:
2011 Chrysler Town & Country
Chrysler takes its version of this fine minivan even more upscale with a 2011 freshening

2011 Dodge Grand Caravan
Joins its Town & Country cousin with a major 2011 revamp, including a promising new V-6

2011 Honda Odyssey
A 2011 redesign aims for break-out styling mold while retaining class-leading road manners

2011 Kia Sedona
This may be the final year for the value-packed but slow-selling South Korean seven-seater

2011 Mazda 5
This agile and appealing mini minivan is redesigned for 2011 and gets flashy new body

2011 Toyota Sienna
A redesign brings fresh styling, more interior room, a four-cylinder engine, and Lay-Z-Boy seats

2011 Volkswagen Routan
VW’s return to minivans is a revamped Grand Caravan, but with less versatile seating