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ROAD TRIPS: TOP MINIVANS

Have space, will travel

Published July 4, 2014

If you’ve got a partner, children and a pet dog, you need a minivan

Is it time for a family road trip? Then it’s time for a minivan.

If there’s more than just you and a partner, then space is a wonderful thing. Kids don’t want to be strapped to some backbench seat, staring forlornly out the window or at your stern eyes in the rear-view mirror.

If there’s a dog in the mix as well, then minivans are unbeatable.

We travelled all over the east coast with our two boys and Buddy, a 70-pound. Labrador-cross. We couldn’t have done it in a sedan because Buddy didn’t make a very good fifth passenger.

In even the largest SUVs, Buddy’s dog bed took up half the back cargo area. The other half couldn’t be packed too high in case the bags fell over on him.

On camping trips with SUVs, we used a cargo bag on the roof to carry stuff because there just wasn’t the space inside when Buddy came along.

There wasn’t the space, of course, unless we were driving a minivan. Then Buddy would just lie down between the second- and third-row seats, leaving the entire back half of the van for luggage.
A Chrysler Town & Country and Kia Sedona minivan BOTH offer plenty of space for luggage when camping.

Often, we could keep all our bags in the deep cargo well behind the third row of seats, and the boys could stretch out in a row of their own with Buddy finding his place at their feet. Everyone was content.

There’s lots of space in minivans because, officially, they are classified as trucks, not cars. They were introduced 30 years ago by Chrysler and immediately improved the Detroit manufacturer’s fuel-consumption ratings for its truck fleet.

They were always intended to blend truck utility with car comfort. Somewhere along the way, though, they found a style all their own.

It’s not the iconic style that makes the Captain America chopper so ideal for a loner’s Easy Rider journey, or the cool style of a Ford Thunderbird that suited Thelma and Louise so well.

No, they found a limousine style that adds comfort and practicality for the whole family.

They’re not great vehicles for making the most of the actual drive because their soft suspension and physical bulk is more suited to gliding along the 401 than carving through backwoods roads.

Mind you, my wife has still not forgiven me for the time I suggested a scenic detour on the long drive down to Florida, and then took the family onto the famously twisting Tail of the Dragon road that cuts between Tennessee and North Carolina.

Minivans are comfortable to drive on the highway. Not so much on backwoods roads.
We were in a Hyundai Entourage minivan at the time and I paused before attacking the first of its 318 curves to turn off the video player and empty some of our coffee.

The Entourage held up well for several hours until we found ourselves back on the Interstate north of Atlanta — certainly better than my family, who were queasy from rolling around so many corners.

Hyundai stopped selling the Entourage in Canada because even the bargain-priced Korean maker just couldn’t compete with the low price of the Dodge Grand Caravan and its more luxurious sibling, the Chrysler Town & Country.

The Chrysler minivans are still in production and still made at the Windsor assembly plant, although the Grand Caravan will cease production next year.

SUVs long ago cut into the minivan’s initial popularity, contributing in large part to its current reputation of dull suburban conformity. Even on the Tail of the Dragon, a minivan will never be exciting to drive. But it will be comfortable and long-legged and reasonably frugal in its fuel consumption.

The Town & Country I’ve been driving recently, for example, is a loaded seven-seater that includes drop-down video screens for both second and third rows, and shows an average fuel use of 12.7L/100 km.

Its official consumption improves to 8.0L/100 kilometre on the highway, although I’ve not seen anywhere near to that.

The basic Grand Caravan lists for just under $20,000 while the next least expensive Canadian minivan, the Kia Sedona, starts well over that at $28,695. The Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey both begin at less than $30,000.

Canadians like their luxuries and these vans include the features buyers want, such as powered seats, powered sliding doors, Bluetooth and DVD screens.

The prices all go up from there. The Town & Country begins in price where the Grand Caravan leaves off. The van I’m driving lists for more than $50,000 with all its options, which include an exceptionally refined cabin with leather and suede seats that power themselves into the floor.

Each maker has its own unique feature at the top end of the listing. Honda’s Odyssey offers a fitted vacuum cleaner that keeps everything tidy on the road. I used it every day to clean up the crumbs of a family road trip to Montreal and my long-suffering wife lamented that I don’t give as much care to our house.

And the Toyota Sienna’s options include twin sunroofs, lounge seating worthy of a business-class airplane cabin and all-wheel drive.

The AWD once rescued me from a snowy rural parking lot when I drove my extended family out for a Christmas Day hike. The Toyota pulled all eight of us uphill through 15 centimetres of snow and then home after to a turkey dinner. No other minivan would have made it out in those conditions.

But you don’t have to spend so much to get the best option of all, which is only available on the Grand Caravan and Town & Country — Stow ‘n’ Go seating. This patented system folds the second row of seats flush into the floor, allowing for a completely flat cargo area behind the driver without physically removing the seats.

On a road trip, this is invaluable. Other second-row seats can fold up against the front but are still always there, taking up room. Or you can take them out and leave them behind in the garage.

With Stow ‘n’ Go, however, you can change the configuration on the fly, altering the layout as you pack or unpack more things.

Kids love to ride way back there and Buddy was right at home at their feet. In 15 years of road trips with kids, I’ve never yet heard, “Are we there yet?” in a minivan — except that one time, on the Tail of the Dragon.

The vehicle tested for this article by freelance writer Mark Richardson was provided by the manufacturer. Email: wheels@thestar.ca.

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