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Second-hand 1999-2005 Minivans worth a look

Canadians' love affair continues unabated despite a definite cooling off south of the border (where the sport-utility remains all the rage).

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It’s been blamed for everything from lowering testosterone levels to making people’s bottoms larger.

Yet for all the supposed vitriol aimed at the minivan, Canadians’ love affair continues unabated despite a definite cooling off south of the border (where the sport-utility remains all the rage).

What’s not to like? Sensibly driving its front wheels and offering seven seats accessible through a pair of unobtrusive sliding doors, the minivan’s format hasn’t really changed since Chrysler unveiled its groundbreaking “Magic Wagons” in 1983.

Still, finding a good, used example is not easy.

In the 1990s, many of the domestic vans had flimsy transmissions that coughed up metal splinters. The second-generation Honda Odyssey appeared to set the industry quality standard – until it too chewed up its transmission. The Toyota Sienna’s V6 engine had a documented sludge problem.

So what can a cautious consumer buy today for under $10,000 that will faithfully ferry his or her family to those countless hockey and dance practices, and south to Florida for a winter respite?

Here are four pre-owned minivans that come recommended by owners, all of them affordable, garageable and quite likeable.

2003-05 Chevrolet Venture/Pontiac Montana

Beyond their distinguishing grilles and trim, the Chevrolet Venture, Pontiac Montana and Oldsmobile Silhouette were virtually identical and benefitted from a long production run – they were released for 1997 – and some improvements along the way.

The Georgia-built vans came in two lengths – regular and long – but both configurations could seat seven or, optionally, eight. All had dual sliding doors and clever seats that could fold or be removed altogether without much grunting.

The interior design was executed on a budget, but the Magna-supplied seats were plush and comfortable. The extended-wheelbase models provided plenty of legroom and good cargo capacity to boot.

The front-drive platform used GM’s pushrod 3.4 L V6, good for 185 hp and 210 lb.-ft. of torque, coupled to a well-matched four-speed automatic transmission. This motor is not particularly refined, but it pulls with vigour and returns class-leading fuel economy.

But the GM triplets suffered from a leaky intake manifold, so look for evidence of a repair with the new gasket and bolts. Most of the 2003 and newer models were factory upgraded.

Other complaints have to do with short-lived wheel bearings, air conditioners, body control modules, ignition coils and other electrical bugaboos. The transmission has been known to slip and fail, so a transmission flush is a good idea.

The GM minivans provide a better ownership experience than any other domestic van – and the steep depreciation is a bonus.

1999-2002 Nissan Quest

The Nissan Quest never earned big sales volumes, but it proved to be one of the most reliable workhorses around.

The offspring of a joint venture between Nissan and Ford, the Quest (and near-identical Mercury Villager) was assembled in Ohio by Ford UAW workers. The van was an amalgam of Nissan and Ford parts; principally, the V6 engine and four-speed automatic transmission were plucked from the bulletproof Nissan Pathfinder.

Enlarged to 3.3 L in 1999, the engine produced just 170 hp and 200 lb.-ft. of torque – not big numbers for sure, but the motor was quiet and refined. The Quest also gained 12 cm in length, most of it assigned to the rear cargo area where it was put to good use.

This generation of the Quest was not chock-a-block with smart features. The rear bench was permanently installed, relegated to sliding forward and back on its tracks. Then again, because the chairs did not fold away they were especially supportive and comfortable.

Despite the lack of innovation – a rear parcel shelf was the extent of it – the Quest acquitted itself nicely on the road and asked little in the way of upkeep.

Owners praised the Quest’s smoothness and Maxima-like neutral handling. Unfortunately, the V6’s power is a little underwhelming – and fuel economy could be better, too, especially in the city.

2002-04 Mazda MPV

After a decade of selling a minivan based on a rear-drive truck chassis, Mazda distinguished itself by imbuing the new-for-2000 MPV with some international DNA in the form of a smaller and narrower front-drive platform.

Clever features included a third-row bench that folded into the floor or flipped backward to serve as a tailgate couch, sliding doors with windows that rolled down, and middle-row seats that functioned as captain’s chairs or slid together to form a bench.

In 2002, the MPV adopted a Ford-supplied DOHC 3.0-litre V6, making 200 hp and 200 lb.-ft. of torque. A Jatco five-speed automatic transmission replaced the previous four-speed unit.

Find an ES model with its big 17-inch alloy wheels and tires and it can surprise you with its almost sports-sedan-like handling. The MPV, however, is surprisingly fond of gasoline.

In terms of reliability, the most common complaint has to do with a hard-shifting transmission between second and third gears. Owners mentioned software upgrades as a cure, but sometimes the problem would recur.

If you don’t need the stretch-out room, the Japanese-built MPV is a sensibly sized city shuttle that knows how to reward the driver with good road manners.

2002-03 Toyota Sienna

The North American-market Sienna was slightly larger than the short-wheelbase Dodge Caravan when it debuted for 1998, built on a version of the Camry floorpan.

Cramped by today’s standards, the split-folding rear bench required the seventh passenger to sit askew two chairs, which made things a little uncomfortable. Seating could be folded or removed completely, requiring some muscle. None of the seats could simply collapse into the floor.

The Kentucky-built Sienna distinguished itself with an independent rear suspension – a rarity in the segment – employing trailing arms with an integral transverse member and coil springs. The setup gave the Sienna a car-like ride not far removed from, well, a Camry.

The all-aluminum 3.0-litre DOHC V6, making 210 hp and 209 lb.-ft. of torque, was lifted from the Camry and Lexus ES 300. Noted for its unparalleled refinement and quiet strength, the engine is a treat in a workaday van.

Unfortunately, the motor is reputed for its sludge problems – excessive heat would cake up the oil inside the engine’s smaller passages, compromising oil flow and longevity – although revisions in 2001 made the motor less prone to sludge. A steady diet of synthetic oil is recommended.

Like the Mazda, this generation of Sienna isn’t the most accommodating space-wise, but it’s swift and exhibits some Lexus-like refinement.

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