Soliciting Reader Feedback, Minivan Edition


So it’s official: we’re in the market for a minivan. Our legendary Passat has run its course and is no longer sufficient for conveying our burgeoning little family about town, so we’re looking to upsize (read: with two car-seats in the back and with an eye towards more some time in the next 3-4 years or so, it’s impossible to convey anyone else along with us, meaning in-law visits strain credulity. We’re in need of a third row, basically.). SUVs don’t have enough cabin room and generally tend to make even the minivans look fuel-efficient, so it’s the Daddy Van route for me.
We’re leaning towards a new Kia Sedona, what with its 5 star crash ratings, obscenely long warranty and far lower MSRP (when compared with other minivans). Yes, I know that one should generally look into late model vehicles so as to force the first owner to eat the depreciation, but unfortunately the older Sedonas were underpowered and lack the safety rating of the new model. Also, we’d lose out on the kickin’ warranty. We’ve looked around at the domestics (Chevy Uplander, Dodge Voyager, Chrysler T&C) on the market and have come to the conclusion that they are either 1) lacking in quality or 2) overpriced.
So, please, anyone with any minivan-buying experience, weigh in and posit relative plusses and minuses of our strategery.
Also, as a note to the major auto manufacturers: why are none of you producing hybrid minivans? If ever there were a class of vehicles that could benefit from a jump in efficiency with a lot of room to store batteries, it’s the minivan segment, so why no hybrids? And, why no hybrid turbo diesel/electrics? If TDIs can get 40+ MPG, why not slap an electric supplement on those badboys and take ’em to the 65+ range?

9 Replies to “Soliciting Reader Feedback, Minivan Edition”

  1. Greetings, oh minvan neophyte! Have a seat at the feet of the master……
    First off, your post is refreshingly free of minivan purchasing angst. Congratulations. Most of the blog entries that I read written by people considering a MV purchase are all about “there goes my youth, people will think I’m unhip, waah, waah, waah”. Get over it. Get a candy-apple red metalflake paint job, get flames on the sides, get a 1000 watt stereo, whatever. Perceived “cool” form over function (i.e., people who drive an SUV because it makes them feel rugged or safe) is dumb. Dual power sliding doors, now THAT’S cool.
    Second, as a gearhead and minivan owner, here are my recommendations:
    1- Forget the domestics. Leaving aside the fact that at least one and maybe all of the big three will be declaring bankruptcy this year, they are crap. The new Chryslers may be OK, although I find them ugly, reliability is iffy at best, and depreciation falls off a cliff.
    2- The Korean twins, Kia Sedona and Hyundai Entourage, are very nice, I’ve read very good reviews by owners and the price/warranty are right. The one reservation everyone seems to have is that the drivetrain is not a refined as the Toyota/Hondas and the mileage is definitely problematic. Most reviews that I have seen report that the mileage they get in the real world is much lower than the EPA numbers. These days, that is not good.
    3- Which leaves us with the Toyota Sienna/ Honda Odyssey. The gold standard. Consensus is the Honda gives a better driving experience, while the Toyota is more about isolation.
    The prices on these are pretty high (a loaded one will cost you $40K+!) Residual value on these is also high, so for us the way to go was, find a 2-year old, low mileage one that was owned by some empty-nesters (you’d be surpised how many of these are driven by snowbird types). The 2 years of depreciation have knocked a significant amount off the price.
    “Certified used” ones can be a good bet. These are typically the nicely equipped models (leather, DVD, etc.).
    Use every trick in the book to get the best price: shop at the end of the month, bargain like crazy, have your loan lined up before you visit dealership, sell your old car yourself, etc. You’re in luck, minivan sales (and all car sales) are way down right now, so consider a starving saleman your friend.
    Get an extended warranty. When we bought our used Sienna we got an extended warranty that, when combined with the remaining factory warranty, ran for about 7 years total. As I remember, it cost about $5-600 dollars, but with the high-tech nature of cars and what repairs cost, you will make that up if you have even one significant repair. If the motor for the power door burns out that would cost $3-400, I bet.
    You know what my main complaint is with these? No good color choices. It seems like all they have is variations on boring. Gold, silver, blue.
    One other model you might consider if you only have two kids and having the in-laws along for the ride is only an occasional thing: the Mazda5. Semi-sporty, good gas mileage, lots of interior room, sliding doors, seats 6. A little underpowered for use with 6 adults, but 4 adults and two kids should be fine. I have owned 4 Mazdas and have had good luck with them.
    As far as hybrid and diesel minivans go, the answer is simple: the price of gas is not yet high enough in this country to make them worth building/buying. Diesels usually cost 2-4K more than gas models since the engines are more expensive to produce. Add to that the fact that diesel fuel costs about 20% more than gas. Hybrids are 4K-10K more expensive than non-hybrids and 10 year maintenance costs are still an unknown. So on a strictly economic basis, people are not ready to buy them yet.
    The main thing keeping minvan mileage in the 18/25 range is the fact that Americans won’t take less than 200HP. The Sienna and Odyssey have about 250HP. That’s also a function of how large and heavy they are. If the manufacturers could dial it back to 150HP, mileage would increase significantly. Of course, performance in the suburban stoplight-to-stoplight drag race would suffer….
    Go to ford.co.uk and look at the vans that Ford sells in the UK that all get between 30-50mpg and weep.
    Anyway, that’s my two cents (or maybe more). You asked for it.

  2. @JJ Daddy-O
    You, sir, are a saint. That’s precisely the sort of feedback that I was looking for.
    I’ve always avoided buying Japanese imports out of respect for my grandfather — he holds fairly strong opinions about the Japanese and their treatment of his buddies in Bataan during WWII (“The Krauts even treated their prisoners better…!”). That, coupled with the high asking prices that the Toyotas and Hondas command, has ruled out any of the cars that would call themselves Nihongo-desu.
    So the price and the lack of historical baggage weigh heavily in the Korean brands’ favor.
    I dunno. Filial piety is a definite strong point for me, but is it short-sighted? My parents both drive Hondas and I recall it bugged my grandfather to no end when they bought ’em, although the Mitsubishi Galant my father drove prior was an even bigger (passive/aggressive) sore point. I’ve stuck to the Domestic/European commitment thus far in my adult life, and the domestics at least have treated me well.

  3. @Doug – On the one hand, I know where GrandDad is coming from- yes, the Japanese treated their prisoners and civilians terribly. Atrocity is definitely not too strong a word in many cases, and especially in what is generally called the “Baatan Death March”. So if I had personal experiences involving the Japanese in WWII, I would definitely have hard feelings.
    Then again, we did drop the Big One (two, actually) on them.
    On the other hand, the Sienna is built in Kentucky and the Odyssey is built in Ohio. The whole domestic/import thing is not very clear-cut these days. Do you want to support Korean workers over Americans, even though a portion of the profits go to Japan?
    If you are a “keep the money in the US above all” person, then a domestic company’s US-built product would probably be your choice.
    On a purely pragmatic level, you could ask yourself on a dollar basis, how much is a non-Axis product worth?* Leaving aside safety (and all minivans are pretty safe these days, with all the stability control, airbags, strong safety structure, etc. that they have), if the difference in total cost of Korean vs. Japanese can be quantified, where’s your tipping point?
    If you look at edmunds.com or intellichoice.com, you can see that they quantify the total cost of ownership for cars over 5 years. Your actual costs may vary, but it is a good way to see how one car compares to another. I am not sure if their numbers are taking into account yet the fact that gas is about $4/gal these days, which makes it a much more significant cost of ownership than it used to be, relative to repairs, insurance, depreciation, etc.
    So I don’t know where that leaves you, I guess like in everything else, you have to let your concscience, wallet and brain be your guide. But that’s the same as everything else, right? Do we shop at WalMart, even though they could be categorized as union-busters? Do we buy the organic milk even though it costs close to 100% more than non-organic? Which mutual fund do we pick for our 401K? Aieeeeee!
    Sometimes I feel like our parents and grandparents had it easy. Were they asked to choose between asain children in Nike sweatshops and a cool pair of shoes every time they went to the store?
    Good luck with that. 🙂
    *Because one thing I have learned as the father of three is that pragmatism in matters of personal finance is important.

  4. We test drove all of the minivans by the Asian car companies (sorry, too many bad experiences w/ domestic cars…plus we have several friends who just *love* their Windstar/Freestars).
    Being 6′ 4″ tall, we eventually settled in on the Odyssey as the best fit and value. Bought as a model year closeout, we got it for several thousand less than a comparably equipped Sienna. Yeah, we did buy new…but also plan to keep it for 10+ years.
    I wanted to like the Kia (and Hyundai…same platform), but the front cockpit was too small for my long legs.
    The Nissan Quest seemed a little high priced, too, and didn’t have the same level of fit/finish as the Honda and Toyota. The seat was also too low to the ground and seemed squishy.

  5. @Scott , @JJ Daddy-O, you guys totally rock, you know that?
    I’ve NEVER had good experiences with Nissans, so the Quest wasn’t even in contention. Scott, I’m ~6’3″ and didn’t find the Kia to be confining at all — perhaps it’s a comparison thing. Anything would seem roomy compared to how far up I have to keep my seat in the Passat in order to not crush my son’s feet behind me. And JJ, I avoid Wally World whenever possible. I’m far more of a Tar Zjhay fanboy. Must be my Minnesota upbringing — Dayton/Hudson fo’ life!
    *grin*

  6. My sister bought the Toyota. She wanted the Honda, but got a better deal on the Toyota. After riding and driving the Toyota and the Dodge Caravans at work, the Dodge feels like driving a big van while the Toyota feels much more car like. They each have their own tricks and gadgets – again I say advantage Toyota. I dig opening doors and trunks automatically. The engine has enough go for the typically traffic we see. Have you thought of full size? Like the Ford E-150 or Chevy Express? They have diesels but are way expensive (like $30K I think) although with the gas crunch may have gone down in price. I think they may even come in AWD. There goes the MPG too. Bottom line: my suggestion is to go Toyota because it is the 2nd best to Honda but a bit cheaper.

  7. Another consideration is your local dealers (as you discovered with your VW experience).
    A good dealer can make up for a lot and definitely tilt the balance towards one brand or another.
    We own a Toyota van and a Mazda Protege5. When it comes time to buy a new car (hopefully not for years), I will seriously consider buying another Toyota, even though I find them incredibly boring, because our dealer’s service department is so good.
    For example, when you buy a used car from this dealer, they have a “free tires for life” deal where they replace the tires for free, as long as you do your scheduled maintenance with them.
    So I brought the car in for an oil change and minor maintenance check, and when I went to collect the car, the guy tells me “oh, two of your tires were worn, so we replaced them”.
    –Without even asking me or trying to upsell me or me even realizing that the tires were getting worn (they weren’t even that old). And they’ve been like that with all the service I’ve had done, even stuff under the extended warranty (which I bought through this dealer).
    Now THAT’S service. Why would I even consider getting a car somewhere else?
    In comparison, my local Mazda dealers are horror shows. Which is a shame becuase I LIKE Mazdas and have owned 4.

  8. There has been some comment about buying new VS buying new. Although I have not yet had the opportunity to buy any new car, I have long planned to buy used to save on depreciation. However, my thoughts on the subject were recently changed when I began to shop around. There are two reasons for my shift in opinion.
    1) A “good” used vehicle can still be expensive. Having looked at prices at CarMax VS prices at the dealerships, CarMax looked pretty good. But CarMax won’t haggle and dealers may be willing to cut you a big price break (or so I’ve heard).
    2) Interest rates on loans for used cars are higher than for new. If you have to finance a large portion of the cost of the vehicle, the extra interest payments can eat away all that money you saved on depreciation.

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