These minivans keep the faith

The Town & Country comes from Chrysler, which pioneered the modern minivan.
The Town & Country comes from Chrysler, which pioneered the modern minivan.
Posted: December 01, 2013

An old country song laments the fact that "my hot tamale has gone chili on me." It could have been a song about minivans.

By the dawn of this century, minivans were selling at a million-a-year clip. Since then, their sales have been halved. The crossover SUV did to them what they had done to Ozzie and Harriet's station wagon.

The decline in minivan market share is a reminder of the power of self-image in the auto arena. While it may be roomier and more useful than your typical crossover, a lot of men see the minivan as less macho. Many suburban women soured on them because of their perceived "soccer mom" image. They then got into crossovers whose more "adventurous" image would make the case that they were really not yet over the hill.

But while the minivan sales glass is now half-empty, it is also half-full. As Tennyson's aging Ulysses put it: "Though much is taken, much abides."

"A Lot of people have asked if the minivan is going away," said Bruce Velisek, marketing manager for Chrysler minivans. "The answer is, absolutely not."

The downturn in sales has pretty much leveled out at 500,000, he noted, and that's enough to create "a viable market." That point of view is supported by the fact that five automakers are still in the minivan game. Yes, Ford and GM got out because of the sales decline, but Chrysler, Dodge, Toyota, Honda and Nissan still build them.

I've driven the 2014 editions of three best sellers, so let's take a quick look at that trio.

Honda Odyssey. Refreshed for 2014, this comfortable, roomy, and attractive Percheron starts at $28,825. But if you want the top-of-the-line Odyssey Touring Elite that I tested, the sticker is rewritten to read: $44,450.

And what do you get standard for $44,500? Just about anything you can think of, and some things that probably wouldn't come to mind. Such as a built-in vacuum cleaner. Developed with the help of Shop-Vac, this powerful little guy lives in a compartment on the left wall of the cargo area, and has a hose long enough to reach the front floor. Think about it: You can park your $44,450 mobile vacuum cleaner next to your mother-in-law's car and spruce it up for her.

The recessed cargo area floor acts as a compartment into which you can fold the third row of seats. A DVD screen folds down from the ceiling to quell noisy juvenile insurrections in the peanut gallery.

All this and a peppy V-6 with a nifty note.

Toyota Sienna. The Sienna starts at $26,920. The XLE model I tested started at $33,510. Unlike the Odyssey (or any other minivan) the Sienna is available with all-wheel-drive.

Like the Odyssey, the Sienna is solid, comfortable, nicely realized transit that tries its best to be useful. The tester's second-row captain's chairs slid back and forth to adjust legroom in the second- and third-row seats, and afford easy access to the third row. The third-row seat can be folded flat to make the cargo area even more cavernous.

Chrysler Town & Country. The T&C starts at $30,765. The Touring-L model I drove based at $33,995.

Chrysler pioneered the modern minivan, and its minivan brands account for more than half the market. Chrysler builds an excellent vehicle with clever innovations like Stow'n Go, in which the second and third row of seats fold into a compartment in the floor.

Chrysler also builds the Dodge Caravan, which is a down-market version of the T&C, which starts at only $19,995.

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