2007 Hyundai Entourage. Click image to enlarge
By Dave and Carolyn
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After over six months of reporting on the Autos Minivan Challenge, the show finally comes to a close. Our testers Dave and Carolyn spent the final two weeks in the vehicle with which they started, the Hyundai Entourage, as a bookend to the series. Because the Entourage was the first in the series, and they had no real experience of minivans at that time, they wanted to revisit the Hyundai after having driven all the other vehicles.
As you may recall, at the beginning of this Challenge, our testers were avowedly “not minivan people.” They had particular opinions of this type of vehicle, and of the people who drive them, and didn’t feel that such a conveyance fitted their sense of who they are, or their lifestyle. Case closed.
Well, maybe not. It is fair to say they’ve changed their opinions. Not that Dave and Carolyn are rushing out to buy a minivan tomorrow, but one is now definitely on the radar.
What changed their minds? Basically, a modern minivan is significantly different than they expected. Far more luxurious, comfortable, safe, convenient than they thought, this type of vehicle offers more interior room, and more interior flexibility than any car or SUV on the market. Vans may not be as “cool” as some SUVs, but their distinctive attributes are hard to ignore.
Throughout this series, Dave and Carolyn ranked each of the vehicles over twenty parameters. For Dave, his top vehicle “by the numbers,” was the Nissan Quest. He said, “the Quest represents the best choice for somebody who wants a minivan that sets them apart from the pack,” Concerning its ride, Dave commented that, “the Quest offers the most car-like driving experience of them all”
2007 Hyundai Entourage; top photo courtesy Hyundai Canada. Click image to enlarge
Also based on scoring alone, the Chrysler Town & Country tops Carolyn’s list. “It has so many family friendly features and offers a luxurious and smooth ride,” she commented. “The interior functionality of this vehicle is exceptional, in my opinion.”
But selecting a family vehicle is more complicated than that, and as you might expect, Dave and Carolyn have individual opinions on which vehicle would best serve their needs (within the price limits set by the Challenge). After reflecting on each of the minivans, and discussing their experiences and observations at length, they independently wrote up their conclusions. Read on for Dave and Carolyn’s thoughtful recommendations.
Dave’s final thoughts on the Autos Minivan Challenge
Following six months of driving minivans Carolyn and I have come to regard these vehicles as “second homes.” In fact, we have decided that our second child will be delivered in a minivan! Whether he or she will be conceived in a minivan is up to Carolyn. All kidding aside, we thoroughly enjoyed participating in the Minivan Challenge. I was particularly impressed by the degree of sophistication that characterized these vehicles. Each minivan was easy to operate, and featured many amenities, a smooth, comfortable, quiet ride, and loads of space. Regarding space, while exchanging all of our things from the final minivan back into our Kia Sportage, I must admit that I experienced some trepidation because our Sportage now seemed very small inside.
2007 Honda Odyssey; top photo courtesy Honda Canada. Click image to enlarge
In my role as amateur car critic I tried my best to identify each minivan’s strengths and weaknesses, from an average family member’s perspective. In retrospect, some of my complaints seem slightly excessive, especially regarding the first minivan we tested. This was due partly to the fact that I was initially unfamiliar with minivans, and thus I did not have a benchmark for comparison purposes.
In my opinion, none of the minivans comprising this challenge was disappointing; I think most individuals in the market for a minivan would be well served by any of these vehicles. Of course, each model had its high and low points, some more than others. Before focusing on my overall winning minivan, I would like to present some of my choices for first place across several subjective categories. Note that I’m not including the Mazda5 because I don’t really consider this vehicle a minivan. However, as a compact, “multi-purpose” vehicle, it certainly has many positive attributes.
Regarding exterior styling, the Nissan Quest takes first prize in this category. Its unique, pleasing, modern lines clearly set it apart from the crowd. For those who want their minivan to look the least like the archetypical minivan (dare I say the “soccer mom” vehicle), this is the vehicle to purchase. Regarding interior styling, the Honda Odyssey’s interior was very refined; it was, in my opinion, a clear winner in this category. The Chrysler Town and Country’s interior must receive honourable mention because it too was very nice. I would also rank the Honda Odyssey first place in terms of overall “presence.” In this regard, the Odyssey conveys an aura of “aristocracy” among its competition. In terms of sportiness and ruggedness, the Pontiac Montana clearly fits the bill. With this minivan you can cruise the highways comfortably; however, it would also be my choice for tackling the back roads to the cottage, and for lugging tons of stuff. In terms of acceleration, fuel efficiency, handling (including braking and cornering), and overall build quality, the Toyota Sienna unquestionably receives first place. Regarding overall interior space, as well as best entertainment/sound system, the Chrysler Town & Country is my choice for number one. Although my ratings of this van might suggest otherwise, I consider the Town and Country to be a very nice minivan; however, the more I drove around in this vehicle the more I felt as though I was driving something meant for older individuals.
In terms of choosing an overall winner, my decision was based on several criteria, including not only the ratings we compiled throughout the Minivan Challenge, and the $40,000 ceiling imposed on this challenge, but also such things as warranties and safety ratings. It is noteworthy that both the Nissan Quest and the Toyota Sienna we tested during this Minivan Challenge could have been optioned higher while not exceeding the $40,000 limit. However, in choosing an overall winner, I do not feel that it is fair to speculate on what these vans would have been like with extra options. My ranking is based on the vehicles we tested. I will acknowledge, however, that if price was not an issue, a fully loaded Toyota Sienna or Honda Odyssey would be difficult to pass up (But if price was not an issue, there would be far more Ferraris, BMWs, Cadillacs (etc.) parked in people’s driveways, so I think this is a moot point).
In my opinion, the Hyundai Entourage represents the best vehicle for the money among the minivans we tested, with very little compromise. For under $40,000, this vehicle basically includes everything one would want or need in a minivan. For example: leather interior, climate control, heated seats, DVD system, power front, middle, and rear windows, power doors and power hatch, back-up sensors, front, side, and curtain airbags, loads of storage space, lots of cup holders and compartments, a conversation mirror, electronic stability control, a full five-year, 100,000-km bumper to bumper warranty, excellent safety ratings, and sensibly placed controls (such as the buttons to control the power seat which are located conveniently above the power window switches). The Hyundai Entourage was not the fastest, the best handling, nor the fanciest minivan we tested, but it was far from the bottom in any of these categories.
It is worth mentioning that because Carolyn and I experienced problems with the Entourage’s brakes, Hyundai arranged to let us drive a second Entourage to explore this issue further. We found the second Entourage to be devoid of any braking problems. Clearly, the rotors were faulty on our first test vehicle, and this is something that could have been addressed easily. The Hyundai Entourage is a stylish, comfortable vehicle with fine handling. It seems to me that in terms of offering a nicely-designed, complete minivan for under $40,000, Hyundai has done its homework well.
2007 Toyota Sienna; top photo courtesy Toyota Canada. Click image to enlarge
Undoubtedly, participating in the Minivan Challenge has changed my views regarding modern minivans in general. These vehicles are extremely versatile and much more luxurious and well crafted than I thought was the case. Given the stuff Carolyn and I regularly cart around with us, including our dog, this type of vehicle serves us well. With a second child thrown into the mix, this type of vehicle would obviously serve us even better. On the down side, these vehicles are not inexpensive, at least not when you include the many options that our test vehicles featured. For most people, including me, $40,000 is a lot to spend on a vehicle. Moreover, generally speaking, these vehicles are not particularly fuel efficient, and this must be considered from both an economic and environmental perspective. One can spend much less on a well equipped, smaller vehicle such as a wagon or a smaller SUV, and manage reasonably well in my opinion. Granted, the extra space that minivans offer is appealing. Would I seriously consider purchasing a minivan? – probably, because in the near future I cannot see how Carolyn and I will squeeze all of our stuff into a smaller vehicle.
Ideally, it would be nice to have a second, smaller and more fuel efficient vehicle at hand as well. Perhaps Carolyn and I simply tend to carry too much stuff with us on our outings? Maybe this is something we should be working on!
Carolyn’s final thoughts on the Autos Minivan Challenge
As I reflect upon my participation in the Minivan Challenge I have to concede that while some of my initial impressions of minivans have been confirmed and/or strengthened, my overall opinion of minivans has changed considerably. My initial impression of minivans was that they were large, fuel inefficient, boxy, and mainly functional vehicles designed for families on the go. I did not perceive these vehicles as being very aesthetically pleasing and fun to drive. In my mind, the purchase of a minivan represented the infamous shift from being youthful and mainly self-oriented with a lot of freedom in mobility, to being less youthful and mainly family-oriented with much greater restriction in mobility – after all, one now has to worry about cargo space, the durability of materials and convenience features such as power sliding side doors and tailgates!
2008 Chrysler Town & Country. Click image to enlarge
I continue to think that families represent the best market audience for contemporary minivans. In most cases, families will have different needs than will single people or couples without children because they are often simultaneously engaged in home renovations and caring for family pets, children and extended (often times elderly) family members who may have special needs equipment that must be towed along on outings. Clearly, today’s minivans are carefully designed to make family life very flexible and comfortable. The bottom line is that it is simply more difficult to use a medium-sized sedan to pick up some home renovations supplies and nursery stock from the Home Depot and then drop your child off to dance class – but you can accomplish this quite easily using one of today’s minivans, and you can bring the family pet along for the ride! It is for these reasons that I have come to appreciate the versatility and convenience of these vehicles.
Moreover, the Minivan Challenge has made me appreciate that minivans are not only functional vehicles, but they are also very luxurious and pleasurable to drive. Their exterior styling has challenged my initial impression of them as being very plain and boxy. For example, the Nissan Quest and the Mazda5 both have a very modern and unique exterior that sets them apart from the rest and contributes to the very trendy and fun appearance of these vehicles.
My experience in a couple of the minivans which we tested was akin to driving a car (e.g., Mazda5, Nissan Quest); I did not feel as though I was driving a large vehicle. On this note, the Mazda5 represents a very trendy looking and economical option for one-child families; and you can always use the third row seating to carry up to six people if necessary.
I have to say that the tailgates on most of the minivans we tested were nicely designed, although I did still find the tailgates on both the domestic vehicles – the Chrysler Town & Country and the Pontiac Montana – to be fairly boxy looking. Further, I expected minivans to be fairly plain inside, with most of the attention being paid to maximizing cargo space (e.g., fitting more cup holders). Here, my initial impressions were clearly off the mark.
In my opinion, the Honda Odyssey and the Chrysler Town & Country stand out in terms of their interior styling, with particular attention paid to small details that come together to create interiors that are very luxurious and futuristic (Honda Odyssey) or artistic (the Chrysler Town & Country has a very nice Art Deco inspired dashboard console). The Pontiac Montana was the only minivan to offer red front row console lighting which automatically turned on when it was dark outside, which was really neat looking and convenient as well.
As expected, today’s minivans are extremely roomy inside. I think that the Chrysler Town & Country had the roomiest interior because it featured the Stow & Go seating. I felt somewhat constrained inside both the Mazda5 and the Nissan Quest; they felt considerably less spacious inside and they had fewer usable cup holders.
2007 Mazda5. Click image to enlarge
Contrary to my initial impression, modern minivans are also very powerful (although some were slower than others) and fun to drive, and offer relatively quiet and smooth rides. The Toyota Sienna is my first choice here, as this minivan far outshines all the others that we tested in terms of its very powerful engine, easy acceleration and cornering; the Toyota Sienna was a real pleasure to drive. The Pontiac Montana was also fairly peppy and the interior of this minivan was very spacious and offered a rugged and sporty styling, which would appeal greatly to people with a very active lifestyle.
However, my participation in the Minivan Challenge has confirmed and strengthened my initial impression that today’s minivans are large, fuel inefficient vehicles that can be difficult to manoeuvre and park. They are simply not as fuel efficient as a medium-sized sedan or small SUV (such as our Kia Sportage); they require you to fill up more often and this can get very costly to both the family’s budget and the environment. The Toyota Sienna was probably the most fuel efficient minivan in my opinion, even though it had the most powerful engine (the Nissan Quest was a close second for fuel efficiency).
However, for the most part, I did not feel as though I was driving big vehicles, but I did notice their very large size when I tried to park them (thank goodness for backup sensors!). I suppose I got used to this with time and experience but I still much prefer the more compact size of a medium sedan or small SUV in this regard.
If I had to identify the easiest minivans to park out of the ones we tested I would pick the Mazda5 and the Toyota Sienna.
The interior ergonomics and functionality of all the vehicles we tested has also impressed me positively. Clearly, much attention has been paid to ensure that the driver and passengers are comfortable in these vehicles, and that all controls (e.g., radio, seats, tailgates, DVD) are easy to locate and use.
2007 Nissan Quest. Click image to enlarge
Moreover, the number of family-friendly features that are available is irresistible to prospective buyers. For example, our test vehicles could be purchased with the following features: DVD entertainment system, satellite radio, On-Star System (this feature was only offered in the Pontiac Montana), tinted windows all around, built-in sunshades to protect passenger’s eyes, conversation mirrors, power sliding side doors and tailgate, moon roof, roof rack, comfortable leather seats or seats made of comfortable and stain-repellent materials which represent an ethical alternative to leather (this latter feature was only offered in the Chrysler Town & Country), many cup holders and hidden compartments to store stuff, flat folding seats, back up sensors, stow away seats that fold right down into the floor and ambient lighting (only the Chrysler Town & Country minivan offered these two last features), middle row consoles that can be moved out of the way, climate controlled heating and air conditioning, extra seating in the second row that can be removed (e.g., Honda Odyssey), power and heated driver and passenger seats. In my opinion, these features not only make driving more comfortable but a lot of fun too, and it is this element of fun that makes minivans more appealing to me, and something that I didn’t expect.
In terms of the total number of family-friendly features noted above, the Hyundai Entourage stands out because it offers the most features for the most competitive price, along with the longest warranty. This minivan is fully loaded, so to speak, and represents a really good choice for the consumer. As an aside, I was originally much too harsh in my judgments of the Hyundai Entourage and this is likely because it was the first minivan that we tested and we had little with which to compare it; this minivan ranks much higher in my overall judgment at the conclusion of the Minivan Challenge. The Honda Odyssey, Chrysler Town & Country, and the Pontiac Montana fall next in line in terms of the total number of family-friendly features they offer for approximately $40,000.
I would also like to comment on customer service as well because this is really important to me as a prospective buyer. It should be noted that both the Hyundai Entourage and the Pontiac Montana were delivered to our home which was really nice; the Hyundai Entourage was the only minivan that came with two sets of keys, one for each my husband and I. A customer representative was available to greet us and give us an extensive introduction to each of the following minivans: the Mazda5, the Chrysler Town & Country, and the Pontiac Montana. Moreover, I received excellent customer service when I experienced a flat tire on the Pontiac Montana. A Pontiac representative came to pick me up and the flat tire was fixed very quickly. Finally, we received similar, excellent customer service by a Chrysler representative when one of the controls for the side door sliding doors was not working properly. In summary, I am impressed positively by the outstanding customer service we received from both of the domestic minivan companies.
Okay, so which minivan would we purchase?
2008 Pontiac Montana; top photo courtesy General Motors Canada. Click image to enlarge
Although I started the Minivan Challenge by saying that I would never consider purchasing a minivan, I have to conclude by admitting the opposite! Yes, I would consider purchasing one of today’s minivans especially if my husband and I had another child, thus turning us into a two-child family with one loyal, tag-along Boxer dog. So the real question everyone has been asking us is “Which minivan would you purchase for your family?” Inevitably, our answer to this question depends on several things. First, if money is not an option then I think my husband would want to buy the Honda Odyssey with the following options (which represent our “cannot live without” options!): climate controlled heating and air conditioning, power sliding side doors and tailgate, tinted windows, DVD entertainment system, and heated seats. I, on the other hand, would purchase the Toyota Sienna with the same options because it had such a powerful engine, was easy to manoeuvre and park, did not feel large and bulky, and was the most fuel efficient of all the minivans we tested. It is important to note that it would cost us over $50,000 to obtain the options we noted above in both the Honda Odyssey and the Toyota Sienna.
On the other hand, cost is an issue and we must cap the price at $40,000 (which was the upper limit defined at the beginning of the Minivan Challenge). In that case, we would agree to buy the Hyundai Entourage because it offers the most family-friendly features (the ones we cannot live without) and the longest warranty (5 yrs/100,000 km versus 3 yrs/60,000). A longer warranty is invaluable to us because we put a lot of kilometres on our vehicles, which is likely the case for most families.
In conclusion, I think that each of the minivans we tested as part of the Minivan Challenge represents a good option for potential consumers. At the risk of sounding a bit cliche, I think the real challenge is finding a good fit between a vehicle’s strengths and the specific needs of a potential buyer. I would feel very confident in recommending each of the minivans we tested to different people, depending on what expectations they have for a minivan!