The best minivans: Kid-tested. Parent-friendly.

Red car in shopping cart

Minivans have always been the most practical way to get your family across town, or across the country.

But over the years they've gone far beyond the basic box-on-wheels we once knew, to become rolling theaters and living rooms.

The big news for 2008 is the all-new minivans from Chrysler and Dodge. Packed with innovative new features, these minivans underscore the differences that define our three favorites.

The best minivans drive very much alike, provide all the same, comprehensive safety equipment, have backseats that fold flat into the floor. They also deliver about the same fuel efficiency.

That means the choice really comes down to overall refinement, comfort and convenience features, or cost.

Do you want the most refined, most stylish minivan? It's the Honda Odyssey. The minivan with the latest, greatest amenities? Look no further than the new Dodge and Chryslers.

The best value without sacrificing comfort or safety? Go for the Kia Sedona and you can save thousands.

Dodge Grand Caravan, Chrysler Town and Country

It's always an event when the company that invented the minivan redesigns its best-selling models, so there's plenty of buzz about the 2008 vans from Chrysler, LLC.

The new look is a little blocky compared to some of the swoopier competition, but it's a style that quietly endears itself by being clean and simple without being boring.

The Chrysler minivans unquestionably offer the best new features. There's a soft LED "glow ring" around the headliner to provide soft ambient lighting, a backseat TV system from Sirius satellite radio that streams three channels of youngster-oriented television, and the novel "Swivel 'N Go" seating that allows the second row bucket seats to turn rearward to face the third row seats, creating an interactive passenger section complete with a folding table. A special fabric treatment called YES Essentials repels stains and odors.

There are lots of options, so the best thing to do is get the best version and select, ala carte, the features that best suit your family.

Start with the Dodge Grand Caravan SXT and the "M" option package to get the 4-liter V-6 and six-speed automatic transmission. You'll get a respectable 16 miles per gallon in the city and 23 mpg on the highway.

Trust us. You don't want the weaker 3.3-liter and 3.8-liter V-6s and less sophisticated four-speed transmission.

Once you've got that, at a price of $30,590, you can add the dual-screen DVD entertainment package for $1,720 that also nets the wonderful backup camera. But you also must add $495 if you want the Sirius TV service.

The only other choice, as far as we're concerned, is Swivel 'N Go for $495. If that doesn't suit your needs, specify the excellent Stow 'N Go option that allows the second row seats to fold into the floor, just like the third-row seat.

Get all those features and you've got a minivan that's as much limousine as everyday hauler, for $34,165 including destination charges.

Honda Odyssey

Odyssey has been considered top of the heap for years now, and with good reason. It's roomy, efficient and offers superb power and handling --not to mention what many believe is still the best styling in the segment, a combination of minimalist detailing and sharp, crisp lines.

For 2008, the Odyssey's exterior is updated a bit, mainly by using the assertive six-sided grille that Honda is beginning to use on all its cars and trucks and a smoother bumper.

Inside, there are some better-looking materials but what could Honda possibly do to improve one of the most functional and well-designed instrument panels in the industry?

Honda's famous for engines and the Odyssey's 3.5-liter V-6 continues to be the best you'll find in any minivan. The system that shuts down some of the cylinders when they aren't needed to save fuel has been improved for 2008. Combine that with the seamless standard five-speed automatic transmission and enjoy 17 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway.

We recommend the EX-L version for $36,445 with satellite navigation and DVD entertainment system to pacify kids in the rear seats. This package also includes a rearview camera -- a feature we wouldn' do without -- that really removes the guesswork from reversing such a big box.

Yeah, it's a little more, for a little less, than you get with Chrysler's new minivans. But we still think the intangible Honda qualities make the Odyssey worth its premium price.

Kia Sedona
Okay, we mentioned that one of the three key factors in minivan buying can be getting the most for the lowest price.

The Kia Sedona's got that covered: totally loaded you're out of the showroom at $32,020, including the destination charge. That's $2,000 less than the Grand Caravan (that has many more features, admittedly) and a giant $4,000-plus less than Honda's Odyssey.

But the best thing is that, apart from name recognition, you're giving up virtually nothing. The Sedona is giant inside -- about the same as the Odyssey, a little smaller than the Grand Caravan -- and has anti-lock brakes, full-coverage side air bags and traction control and stability control as standard, just like its pricier competitors.

All Sedonas, use a gutsy 3.8-liter V-6 and a refined five-speed automatic transmission that deliver 16 mpg city and 23 mpg highway -- same as the Chrysler vans but a touch less than the Honda V-6 that can shut down some cylinders.

Start with a top-of-the-line Sedona EX and add the Premium Entertainment Package to get, among other features, the rear-seat DVD system. Select that and you must also opt for the $1,000 Power Package that opens the side doors and liftgate automatically, and the $2,400 Luxury Package that includes leather seats, a backup warning system -- no full-fledged backup camera -- and a lot of other comfort items.

Want to save even more? If you can forego the rear-seat entertainment, you can pick either the Power Package or Luxury Package individually, getting the price under 30 grand.

As the lack of backup camera proves, the Sedona isn't the minivan with the mostest. But it's a fine choice if you can survive without the numerous features and somewhat superior refinement of the Dodge and Honda.

Even loaded to the max, the Sedona's pricing means you can divert thousands in savings to the kids' 529 account or some similarly productive investment.

If a Kia dealership isn't handy and you're closer to a Hyundai showroom, everything here pretty much applies to Hyundai's Entourage; it is mechanically identical to the Sedona, with a few cosmetic differences (mostly a different grille) and similar pricing.