Minivans: Practical, economical family haulers

Red car in shopping cart

Minivans are still the most practical and economical way to get your family and all their stuff around town or across the country.

The best adhere to a formula that has satisfied buyers for two decades spacious interiors with room to move around, seven or eight seats that fold, stow or come out, lots of nooks, crannies and beverage holders, front-wheel drive for car-like ride and handling, V6 engines that deliver decent fuel economy, headphone jacks, DVD players and satellite radio to make road trips more pleasurable, and conservative styling that blends in at the school parking lot.

Our favorites -- the Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna and Kia Sedona -- provide all of those of family-pleasing features. What sets them apart is durability, refinement, price and warranty.

Honda Odyssey

 Honda is known for top-notch quality and impeccable craftsmanship, which is particularly evident inside the Odyssey. The exterior styling, while similar to other minivans, exudes a little extra class.

Honda was first to invent the deep well in the rear cargo area, a feature we really like. The third-row seat folds flat into the well in an easy, one-hand operation, or, with the third-row seat upright, it holds grocery bags upright.

The Odyssey is equipped with a powerful engine paired with a modern, fuel-saving five-speed automatic transmission that allows it to get 18 miles per gallon in the city, 25 m.p.g. on the highway. As with all Hondas, the powertrain is quiet and smooth, handling is superb, and seats are extremely comfortable.

Honda provides every major safety feature as standard fare. The list includes anti-lock brakes, front side air bags, side curtain air bags, traction control and stability control.

Unfortunately, the Odyssey is one of the priciest minivans and, because they're so popular, dealers don't do a lot of dickering. Although prices start at $26,240, we recommend the mid-level EX model at $29,290, which adds a second-row seat that folds flat into the floor or, with seats upright, has storage in the floor well, power sliding doors, fancier wheels and a premium audio system.

Toyota Sienna

The Sienna is best for heavy haulers. It can carry seven or eight passengers, depending on which seating configuration you buy. It has the most room behind the third row seat and behind the first row seat with all the seats folded or removed. It has the most power and the best fuel economy (19 m.p.g. city/26 m.p.g. highway).

The Sienna also delivers a quiet, comfortable ride, good handling and maneuverability. It comes with Toyota's reputation for reliability and the broadest range of options and prices.

The barebones CE, which requires cruise control be ordered as a cost-extra option, starts at $24,890 while a Sienna Limited with all-wheel drive and fancy amenities like a power folding third row seat and back-up camera will cost more than $40,000. Indeed, many versions of the Sienna are as expensive as the Odyssey and you should expect to pay close to sticker price.

While all models are equipped with standard side front and side-curtain air bags as well as antilock brakes, traction and stability control are standard equipment only on the most expensive models and aren't available at any price on the base CE.

We'd recommend a middle-of-the road seven-passenger LE with the Option B Package, which includes power sliding doors as well as traction and stability control, for a total of $28,250.

Kia Sedona

The Sedona is an unabashed, unapologetic knock-off of the Odyssey. Almost every dimension and performance specification, including engine power and fuel economy (18 m.p.g. citgy/25 m.p.g. highway), is spot on with the Odyssey. Kia even calls the least expensive version of the Sedona an LX, and the more expensive version an EX, just like Honda.

The Sedona further matches the Odyssey in offering the full complement of standard safety features, including anti-lock brakes, front side-air bags, side curtain air bags, traction control and stability control. Sedona also scored the top five stars in government crash tests.

What the Kia lacks in refinement -- the seat levers, for example, work more smoothly in the Honda it makes up for in price. You can afford to splurge, so we recommend the well-equipped Sedona EX, which has more seat adjustments than the LX and an upgraded sound system. We'd throw in the optional power sliding doors ($1,000) for a grand total of $27,495. Kia will throw in the best warranty on any minivan five years or 60,000 miles bumper-to-bumper protection, and 10 years or 100,000 miles on the engine and transmission.

If you don't live near a Kia dealership, but a Hyundai showroom is just down the street, then everything we just said applies to the Hyundai Entourage. It's identical to the Sedona with only a few cosmetic changes, such as a different grille.