Christine Park

Monday, May 23, 2011

Swagger Wagons

There are two types of moms. One who refuses to get a minivan and one who embraces the minivan.

I am the former. I'm not going to lie. It's an image thing. My ride is the last vestige remaining of the non-mom realm where I once resided. That place where I once dined out without cutting meat into bite-sized pieces, went to movies on opening weekends instead of waiting for the DVD, and jet-setted to exotic locales like Italy and the Bahamas without packing more diapers than my own dresses. It's not that I don't love being a mom. The gleeful giggles on Saturday morning during tickle time when they invade our bed. The flowers they pick from our yard and place in my hair. The sloppy wet kisses and how they never seem to have bad breath. But the minivan is so PRACTICAL. And sometimes, I reserve the right to be impractical for the sake of preserving some of that sexiness, that edginess, that mystery that came before motherhood. Look, it's not like I'm cruising around in a two-seater convertible. But my SUV, as "mommified" as some may see it, is still technically an SUV. And to me, that says I can pretend that I don't have kids if I want to. (After I remove the two car seats in the back and the cheerios wedged in the cracks, of course). But the minivan... there's no reason you would have that car unless you had kids. So there's no escaping. Does this make sense?

Well... carmakers know my and other parents' aversion to the minivan, so they've worked hard to try to make the minivan cool. The Toyota Sienna Family's Swagger Wagon music video is stinkin' hilarious. "Where my motherfathers at?" If you haven't seen it, take the time to do it now. Even if that means you don't finish reading this blog entry. The Nissan Quest campaign "Moms have Changed" commercial shows cool moms that surf, kayak, and play the cello using their minivan. The Honda Odyssey created a lot of buzz with their fire and fireworks commercial "The Van Beckons" featuring a 30-something dad who sees a black panther in place of the van. Well, I'm still not sold, but I do have respect for the minivan... with all it's bells and whistles that can keep the kids quiet and occupied for road trips. In fact manufacturers report most of the vans they sell are priced above $35,000! That's a lot of swagger for your wagon!

So... being the Consumer Reporter that I am, my job is to point you in the right direction if you ARE considering taking the leap. My colleague (who is a father of 3 and lover of minivans) showed me this article in which USA TODAY, and the MotorWeek TV show convened the Ultimate Minivan Shootout, a comparison test among well-equipped vans priced from about $34,000 to $43,000. Here's how the six tested scored:


No. 1: 2011 Honda Odyssey Touring Elite

Price as tested: $43,250 (most expensive)

Mileage rating: 19/28 mpg; 22 mpg combined (best rating)

Mileage in shootout highway test: 25.9 mpg (first place)

Pros: "It doesn't look like such a Mommy car," Heather said. "The outboard seats in the second row are the comfiest seats in the shootout, and the expandable second row seats three car seats," Newman noted. "By far the best handling of the bunch!" Robinson enthused. "This face-off proved … just how good the Odyssey is," Thomas wrapped up. "It does everything very well."

Cons: That look. It's angular, it's different and our reviewers loved it or hated it. "Crossover-like styling fools no one," Robinson said. "Looks atrocious … distressingly ugly in profile," Healey said. The Weatherbys and Thomas were happy with the looks, though. For Newman, "A lot of road noise crept into the cabin." And, she noticed, "the Odyssey has floppy seat belt buckles, which are a major annoyance to older kids in booster seats." Finally, Varela pointed out, "For more than $43,000, I demand power folding third-row seats. I'm also surprised at this price point that the Odyssey doesn't have push-button start."

Overall: The combination of ride, features and handling made this one the winner for our experts and our family. Odyssey was the highest-priced and scored first, but that wasn't a theme. Sienna, the second most expensive van, came in last.

Key additional features:

•16.2-inch video screen in 2nd row; HDMI input


•Only competitor with seats for eight

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration five-star overall safety score (2011 methodology)

•Second row has adjustable seat width to allow three child seats, removable center seat

•Leather seating

•115-volt house-style power outlet

•Blind spot monitoring system

No. 2: 2011 Chrysler Town & Country Limited

Price as tested: $40,835 (third most expensive)

Mileage rating: 17/25 mpg; 20 mpg combined

Mileage in shootout highway test: 23.2 mpg (third place)

Pros: "Generally excellent," Healey said. Thomas seconded that: "I couldn't believe how upscale the Chrysler interior was vs. the Dodge." Travis Weatherby said he wasn't sold on the Dodge version of Chrysler Groups' vans, "but I'm impressed by this Chrysler. You can't beat the horsepower." "The Stow 'n Go captain's chairs, combined with a power folding third row, easily make the T&C the most flexible minivan we tested," Varela said.

Cons: "Loud engine noise is inconsistent with the level of luxury on the interior," Robinson noted. "I felt a little claustrophobic and smooshed up against the windshield," Varela said. "The Stow 'n Go seat storage compromises comfort," Healey noted, while Newman said, "Seeing out the rear window was difficult" because of the second-row head restraints.

Overall: Our reviewers and test family liked the look of the interior, and the smooth ride, quick engine and overall flexibility.

Key additional features:

•9-inch video screens for 2nd and 3rd rows

•Power folding third row, tailgate seating

•Navigation system

•Remote start

•Leather seating

•Heated front- and second-row seats, heated steering wheel

•Flat-folding second row

•115-volt house-style power outlet

•Blind spot monitoring system

No. 3: 2011 Nissan Quest SL

Price as tested: $38,040 (fourth most expensive)

Mileage rating: 19/24 mpg; 21 mpg combined

Mileage in shootout highway test: 21.4 mpg (last place)

Pros: "This is a different level," Travis Weatherby said about the Quest's interior. "If there was a van I'd buy, this would be it," Thomas raved. "The fact that you can fold all of the seats flat in the Quest without having to remove any of them is fantastic," Varela added. "The Quest's mixture of chrome and faux wood trim was understated and looked luxurious," Newman said.

Cons: Healey was less impressed. "Odd-looking, pricey, not especially well-suited to the American market, but boy, those seats are great." Odd-looking was a common refrain. "I still don't care for its ugly squared-off rear that makes it look like a brick on wheels," Newman said. Robinson applauded the "big, boxy and minivan-looking" appearance but turned up his nose at "the smell of cheap leather." Robinson and Travis questioned why a $38,000 van wouldn't have navigation.

Overall: Nissan returns to the minivan game after taking a couple of years off, and the reviewers were largely happy with the results. The combination of a high-quality interior and quiet and comfortable ride helped it score well.

Key additional features:

•11-inch screen in 2nd row

•Dual moonroofs

•Only model without navigation system

•SUV-like folding second row

•Leather seating

•Removable second-row center console

•115-volt house-style power outlet

No. 4: 2011 Volkswagen Routan SE

Shootout score: 757 points

Price as tested: $34,750 (fifth most expensive)

Mileage rating: 17/25 mpg; 20 mpg combined

Mileage in shootout highway test: 25.1 mpg (second place)

Pros: "When they (the Weatherbys) saw it was priced the same as the Dodge, but added a second DVD screen and leatherette seats, it was easy to be swayed," Thomas said. Robinson liked the "European tuning" feel of the suspension, adding, "The Chrysler vans are already pretty good handlers, and this one seems a bit better." Healey said the Routan "has much nicer seats than the Chryslers." "It looks like a 10 all around," Travis Weatherby said, "because of the price." Newman called it "wonderfully quiet."

Cons: "Carries over the obnoxious center stack, rickety gearshift lever and awkward interior front-door handles of the previous version," Healey said. "Missing VW's legendary styling," Newman added. "How can this feel cheaper than the Grand Caravan?" Robinson asked. Varela noted: "No telescoping steering" column. And she said it "looks and feels like a really well-kept and clean rental car."

Overall: Interesting. Made by Chrysler for VW, it shares a lot with the Chrysler and Dodge minivans, including the powerful new V-6, but lacks the interior updates of the Chrysler/Dodge redesign. It doesn't have the Stow 'n Go seats. An intriguing choice, both for its value and its VW background.

Key additional features:

•Dual 9-inch video screens for 2nd and 3rd rows

•Navigation system

•Leatherette seating (simulated leather)

No. 5: 2011 Dodge Grand Caravan Crew

Price as tested: $34,055 (least expensive)

Mileage rating: 17/25 mpg; 20 mpg combined

Mileage in shootout highway test: 22.7 mpg (fourth place)

Pros: "Second-row cup holders that slide out of the back of the center console," Newman said. Several reviewers liked the high number of features for the lowest price. "Say what you want about the lack of comfort to the Stow 'n Go seating, I love the under-floor storage that it provides," Robinson noted.

Cons: "Disappointing," Healey said, "given that it's so similar to the (Chrysler) Town & Country. Seemed downscale, coarser." "While powerful, the new Pentastar V-6 is noisy," Robinson said, and mileage "is still not that great." "The cloth seats alone would make this a no-go, in my book, for families," Varela said. "It's "good at everything, yet excels at nothing," Thoms said.

Overall: Though No. 5, the Grand Caravan impressed with its many features for the price. "Price is a big bonus," Robinson said. It's "extremely well-equipped for $34,000." Still, it fell short. "For minivan drivers on a budget, this one is for you," Varela said, adding, "Just don't compare it to other minivans."

Key additional features:

•9-inch video screen in 2nd row

•Manual-fold 3rd row with tailgate seating

•Remote start

•Navigation system

•Cloth seating

•Heated front and 2nd-row seats, heated steering wheel

•Flat-folding 2nd row

•115-volt house-style power outlet

No. 6: 2011 Toyota Sienna XLE

Price as tested: $41,144 (second most expensive)

Mileage rating: 16/22 mpg; 18 mpg combined (worst in class)

Mileage in shootout highway test: 22 mpg (fifth place)

Pros: Thomas applauded "a strong engine and exceptional handling," Healey appreciated that the Sienna was the "only van available with all-wheel drive, a definite plus." Newman said the "exterior styling doesn't scream minivan."

Cons: The reviewers' disappointment showed in several ways. Many disliked the loud engine. Varela said the interior seemed of poor quality. Robinson noted, "lots of ways to configure the seats, they're not the easiest or most intuitive to figure out." Several commented that the "lounge-like second-row seats" were "gimmicky." "I'm just not that impressed with the Sienna," Travis Weatherby said. "I was expecting to be blown away."

Overall: The term "disappointment" came up again and again in comments from our reviewers. Several noted that while they enjoyed the "swagger wagon" marketing for the redesigned minivan, in reality it fell short of that title.

Key additional features:

•Only model with all-wheel drive

•Insurance Institute for Highway Safety top safety pick

•16.4-inch video screen in 2nd row

•Lounge seats with retractable footrests in 2nd row

•Navigation system

•Leather seating

•All windows have auto up and down

•Two 115-volt house-style power outlets

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