There are 13 passenger van nameplates in the U.S. for the 2008 model year, down from 19 in 2007, and all the new models are featured on MSN Autos. Base manufacturer's suggested retail prices range from less than $20,000 for a Mazda5 and approximately $21,000 for a Kia Sedona and Chevrolet Uplander,to more than $39,000 for a top-of-the-line version of Honda Odyssey.
The minivan nameplates that were dropped during 2007 include the Ford Freestar, Saturn Relay, Buick Terraza and Mercury Monterey. Van offerings are reduced this year because American buyers have been moving away from vans, particularly minivans, for family vehicles and instead buying sport-utility vehicles and crossover vehicles.
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The good news: Current vans offer new features that improve comfort, ride and safety. And prices for the minivans at the low end of the price scale are moderating and can provide good value vis-à-vis the pricier crossovers.
For example, the eight-passenger Saturn Outlook crossover SUV has a starting MSRP of more than $27,000, while the Saturn Relay minivan, which could accommodate seven passengers, has a starting retail price of $21,570.
Generally, vans have a boxy shape and aren't eye-catching in their styling. But they offer affordable, commendable seating for at least six people, a bevy of amenities, lots of storage areas and acceptable fuel economy.
Buyer Benefit: Seating
All buyers of passenger vans get a major feature they consider most important: Ample seating for between six to 15 people that's stretched among three, or even four, rows of seats. The largest passenger capacity and four rows of seats are available in the full-size vans, which are the GMC Savana, Chevrolet Express, Dodge Sprinter and Ford E-Series.
Except for the full-size vans, which are built on full-size truck platforms, passengers don't have to take a big step up to get inside minivans. And, in the case of many, such as the Chrysler Town & Country, a second-row sliding door can be as wide as that of a standard entry door to a home. Indeed, early minivan designers at Chrysler in the 1980s specified the openings be 30 inches wide to match what people use to get inside their homes.
All passengers inside vans sit higher above the pavement than they would in cars, and get decent views out of the vehicle. Also, seating inside vans typically is very accommodating, with better legroom in the third row of an Odyssey minivan, for example, than in the rearmost seats of a large SUV like the Cadillac Escalade.
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Because of the box-like passenger compartment shape, vans can also provide good headroom for all passengers-not just those in the front seats. For instance, the headroom in a Toyota Sienna's second- and third-row is greater than the headroom in the second and third rows of a Ford Explorer SUV.
And when the second- and third-row seats in most minivans go unfilled, these seats can fold downward to provide a lengthy, wide and flat cargo floor. In fact, cargo space inside a Dodge Grand Caravan tops out at 144.4 cubic feet, which is considerably more than the 102.4 cubic feet found in a Dodge Durango SUV.
Oodles of Features
Besides leather-trimmed seats, power windows and tailgates, garage door and gate openers, and larger, sportier-looking wheels, vans today can be packed with features and amenities-some of which aren't found in other vehicles.
One example: Second-row captain's chairs in the Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country can swivel 180 degrees to face third-row passengers, and a removable, plastic table that can fit between the two rows of seats. This arrangement can serve as an impromptu lunch or dinner table during a hectic Saturday, a game table for the kids on a vacation trip and a homework spot at the soccer field.
The 2008 Nissan Quest offers an airy feel for second- and third-row passengers with its optional SkyView roof that puts window panels above these seats.
Many vans can be had with tri-zone air conditioning that makes sure passengers in the back are comfortable and have their own temperature controls. And most minivans provide more cupholders than there are seats.
Storage spots are plentiful, and entertainment systems that help keep kids occupied by playing DVDs and video games are widespread. In fact, a new, optional feature for 2008 in the Grand Caravan and Town & Country is SIRIUS satellite TV that delivers children-oriented programming to back-seat passengers.
A Range of Engines
Full-size vans like the Chevy's Express are available with V8s and have good towing capacity for trailers. An example: The GMC Savana, with its 250-horsepower 6.6-liter, turbodiesel V8 can tow as much as 10,000 pounds.
The smallest van on the market, the Mazda5, comes only with a 4-cylinder engine. But most vans are sold with V6s. The 244-horsepower V6 in Honda's Odyssey is available with Variable Cylinder Management that automatically deactivates two or three of the engine cylinders when they're not needed-say, when the van is coasting downhill.
Available on the Odyssey's upper EX-L and Touring models, VCM helps boost the Odyssey's official government fuel economy to the best of all V6 vans-17 miles per gallon in city driving and 25 mpg on the highway.
This just tops the Toyota Sienna's 17/23 mpg for a two-wheel-drive model. The Sienna comes with a 266-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 and is the only 2008 minivan available with all-wheel drive. The mileage rating drops to 17/21 mpg, however, with all-wheel drive.
But the van with the best fuel economy rating overall is the 2008 Mazda5 at 19 miles per gallon in city driving and 25 mpg on the highway with manual transmission. The Mazda5 comes with six seats spread across three rows and is just 15.1 feet long, which is just 6.7 inches longer than a Honda Civic Coupe. The Mazda5's only engine is a 153-horsepower 2.3-liter 4 cylinder. A 4-speed automatic also is offered.
Some large vans are offered with diesel power and they include the commercial-sized Dodge Sprinter, which can be had with a 154-horsepower 3.0-liter diesel V6 with a noteworthy 280 lb-ft of torque.
A Bit of History
Decades ago, automakers only made full-size vans that were predominantly used by businesses, shuttle companies and contractors, not families. These vans often couldn't fit inside home garages. America's families relied on station wagons and large sedans, instead.
But in 1983, the Chrysler Corp. launched minivans, with three rows of seats, car-like handling and a garageable size. Over the past 25-plus years, more than 12 million Chrysler minivans have been sold, and minivans pretty much killed off station wagons as the iconic family hauler.
Minivans grew in popularity through the 1980s and into the 1990s. But families later moved away from the "soccer mom" image that the minivans developed and toward the sporty, active image of SUVs. Today, with Americans more conscious of fuel economy and gasoline prices, they're moving away from traditional, heavy, truck-based SUVs toward car-based crossover SUVs.
But this didn't stop Hyundai from adding a minivan for the 2007 model year. Based on the Kia Sedona, the Entourage seats seven passengers and was the first in the segment to be named a "Top Safety Pick" by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Hyundai Motor Co. of South Korea owns Kia.