Popularity may be waning, but they keep getting better
BOSTON — Is the family sled feeling a little small?
Try today's Conestoga, the minivan.
By now, almost every manufacturer has copied Chrysler's proven minivan formula: a V-6 engine up front, front-wheel-drive, and seating for seven behind.
And even though sport utility vehicles have driven off with some of their market share, minivans are still the most family-friendly vehicle on the road - lots of space, plenty of seating options, and more cupholders than a Red Sox game.
And who says minivans are boring, anyway? They handle and brake well, and many boast plenty of power and can even be fun to drive. Most have added a fourth door behind the driver's seat.
The four minivans reviewed here are among the most popular on the market: full-length, front-wheel drivers.
Pontiac Trans Sport
The Trans Sport and its twins, the Chevrolet Venture and Oldsmobile Silhouette, are much-improved replacements for GM's earlier vans, which were short on room and visibility and long on repair bills. Views over the hood are manageable, interiors roomier, and seating more flexible.
Like Chrysler's minivans, the new GMs come in short or long versions, a choice of one or two sliding doors, and five seating configurations. Unlike Chrysler, the only engine is a V-6 engine.
The $1,164 Montana option package uses big tires and a tough-looking exterior to turn the Trans Sport into a pseudo sport-utility vehicle - but with more room and better handling.
The vans sport a welcome attention to interior detail, and GM apparently understands how families use minivans on long trips. These "living rooms on wheels" offer up to 17 cupholders, a net between the front seats (for a purse or cell phone), and an electric sliding door on the right with controls at the driver's seat.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the Voyager must be glowing. It set the standard for minivans and has led the class in sales for 13 out of 14 years.
In 1996, Chrysler raised the bar with a trio of redesigned minivans - Voyager, Dodge Caravan, and Chrysler Town & Country - that added roll-out seats, a sliding door on the left, and car-like handling.
While base Voyagers go for as little as $19,210, demand is steepest for the top bracket Town & Country - with all-wheel-drive and leather seats for $35,000-plus. This luxo-box has stolen sales from some prestigious luxury cars.
Only the Town & Country and the Caravan offer all-wheel-drive, a nice plus for winter ski trips. Likewise, the Voyager comes only with a four-cylinder or small V-6 engine, while the Caravan and Town & Country offer a big V-6 for towing.
Voyager and Caravan come in standard and extended lengths: the standard with room for a row of grocery bags behind the third seat and tight knee room in the back. The Grand Voyager and Grand Caravan seem worth the extra price.
Handling is razor sharp and not the least bit truckish.
Since its introduction, Windstar has given Chrysler the toughest run, but this year it plays catch-up - still no fourth door.
Instead, the '97 Windstar gets an extra-long driver's door and a driver's seat that slides forward for access to the back. But It's a long door that comes up short.
While children and nimble adults can make the rearward trek, the driver's door is cumbersome. And how many drivers want to leave their seats to let back-seat riders climb through?
On the other hand, Windstar owners don't seem to mind having only three doors. And having the solid wall instead improves safety. Windstar is the only minivan to rate five stars in government crash tests.
It also offers the most powerful engine in the class, a 200-horsepower V-6. The ride is comfortable when the van is empty, but tall passengers in the back complain of hitting the roof going over bumps. And compared with its competitors tested here, the steering feels sluggish.
The Honda has always been the stand-out in this crowd. It began life with four doors in 1995. But, in a break with tradition, the rear doors don't slide; they swing out like a car's.
The Odyssey both looks and functions more like a tall station wagon than a minivan. But it's enough of a van to satisfy most suburban tribes. It seats seven comfortably and is tall enough for parents to move around and tend to needy children.
And none of the seats need to be lifted out or stored to carry cargo. The rear bench folds flat into the floor. The middle folds forward in halves - ideal for quick trips to Home Depot or an impetuous stop for sale prices on lawn furniture.
The Honda comes in only two versions, the standard LX or luxury EX, and four cylinders. Nevertheless, the Odyssey (and its Isuzu twin, Oasis) has plenty of power around town. Keeping up with traffic on the freeway is no problem, though passing, and towing, power is limited. And it gets the best mileage of any minivan.
But that doesn't mean the Odyssey's no fun. In EX trim, it's the only minivan tested with a sunroof to let in the summer rays.
It may be neither true minivan nor true station wagon. But the Odyssey combines the best of both worlds.
Pontiac Trans Sport
Miles per gallon: 18/25*
* Power sliding door
* Lots of convenient interior storage
*Well balanced overall package
* Noisy engine
* Poor crash test results
* Wind noise at sliding door
* Thumpy rear suspension
Miles per gallon: 18/25*
* Best seller for a reason
* Easy to drive
* Available all wheel drive
* Reliablilty still a problem
* Dim headlight
* Uncomfortable gas-pedal angle
Miles per gallon: 21/26*
* Best handling minivan
* Interior versatility
* Fuel economy
* Lacks passing power
* Less overall cargo room
Miles per gallon: 17/25*
* The right size
* Vague steering
* Cumbersome "King" driver's door
* Ride comfort when loaded