Story by Tony Whitney
Photos: Dennis Miles, Ryerson University

Minivans competing for Canadian Car of the year honours. The Toyota Sienna was named Best New Minivan. Click image to enlarge

At the recent Automobile Journalists Association of Canada “TestFest” staged in Ontario, I was one of the media types allotted a quartet of 2004 minivans to evaluate. TestFest is an evaluation process on road and track that takes several days. The purpose of the exercise is to select the best vehicles of 2004 in various categories and ultimately, overall winners for Car of the Year and Truck of the Year.

Four all-new minivans were competing for honours this time around – the Nissan Quest, Toyota Sienna, Ford Freestar and Dodge Sprinter. The latter vehicle isn’t strictly a minivan, though it was entered in the segment. The Sprinter is a large, roomy, diesel-powered van developed from a Mercedes-Benz design. Expect to see them used for everything from airport shuttles to produce delivery vans, but it would need a family of Victorian proportions to make use of one as a family vehicle.

The evaluation exercise reminded me of just how much Canadians love their minivans. In proportion, there are far more sold here than in the United States and automakers tell me that for many families, it’s their only vehicle. Many people these days demand absolute practicality from their vehicle and that in some ways explains the popularity of SUVs. Minivans are incredibly versatile and are quite happy ferrying around seven or eight occupants, or – with seats stripped out – dealing with amazing amounts of cargo.

Of course, like everything else in the automotive world, minivans have come a long way in recent years – both from a technological standpoint and from the point of view of convenience and practicality. It’s interesting to take a look at some of the features you’re likely to find in a 2004 minivan – even some of the least expensive models have a surprising array of goodies.

2004 Toyota Sienna
The 2004 Toyota Sienna: Best New Minivan

2004 Ford Freestar
2004 Ford Freestar

2004 Nissan Quest
2004 Nissan Quest

2004 Dodge Sprinter
2004 Dodge Sprinter
Click image to enlarge

Incidentally, there are more than a dozen separate minivan designs on the market in Canada and many of those are split up into multiple versions under differing nameplates. Prices range from the low $20,000 range to stickers approaching $60,000.

Over the past decade, there have been two significant landmarks in minivan design in my opinion – the addition of a second sliding door on the driver’s side and the introduction of rearmost seats that fold neatly into the rear floor, rather than having to be removed. That extra rear side door is now pretty well universal, but there are still a few minivan makers yet to add that “disappearing” rear seat for various reasons. Seat removal is very important in minivan design because every now and again, just about all users need to turn their van into a cargo hauler. At least one new van design has second row seats that fold almost flush with the load deck and others offer easy ways to get the seats out. Chrysler has equipped its removable seats
with wheels in recent years, which makes the job easy even for a person of light stature.

Another step forward has been the use of lightweight materials like aluminum for seat frames – a light seat is an easy seat to remove. A few years back, some minivan seats needed two people to haul them out of the vehicle.

One thing many of the latest minivans have in spades is power. Vans with 200 or more horsepower are now quite common and having driven many a minivan to Palm Springs from Vancouver and back on holiday trips, I can vouch for the value of horsepower when it comes to slogging across mountain passes with a full vacation load of people and cargo.

Many of the new minivans offer built-in DVD systems which usually involve a fold-down screen located on the roof lining. These systems have to be the ultimate way of keeping the kids entertained on long journeys with both movies and video games. Since most of them use individual cordless headphones, the folks up front don’t have to hear all the mayhem from Terminator 3. One 2004 model even has two screens – one for each of the rear seat rows.

Among convenience features, one of the best has to be the availability of power remote doors and rear hatch. Many minivans now offer power for both sliding doors and the hatch – or just the hatch or the doors. The choice is usually up to the buyer. For owners with small kids to deal with, there’s nothing quite as handy as being able to open a door with just a touch of the key fob.

Some convenience features of minivans are simplicity itself – and don’t even add much to the cost of the vehicle. A good example here are the grocery bag hooks which seem to be everywhere on the 2004 minivans. Everyone’s had bags empty themselves at the first bend in the road, but with these nifty hooks, that problem is a thing of the past.

What the next “big thing” in the world of minivans will be, nobody really seems to know. Perhaps they’ve reached the extent of their development, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see one automaker or another coming up with something truly original for 2005.

Of course, the minivans we’re familiar with all have three rows of seats and room for up to eight occupants, but in Europe and Asia, two-row “mini” minivans are the big thing right now. These smaller vans used to be typified by products like the old Colt Vista. I often hear from website readers who’d like to see them back on the market. In Europe, most of the major manufacturers offer a van in this class and quite recently I tried a VW Touran which was a pleasure to drive on the long run we tackled – even with three adults on board with luggage for two weeks. One Japanese automaker has hinted that it plans to bring a smaller van to Canada, but there’s no confirmation of that.

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