Tell me what it's like to live with a minivan.
October 2, 2015 4:48 PM   Subscribe

I don't have time to go out on test-drives right now, but I'm stuck on the idea of owning a minivan - tell me what it's like if you own one.

This the the specific problem to be solved: I do not have time to go out on test-drives right now, but I'm into the idea of a mini-van. This is probably a poor choice for a two-adult household with no kids. Yet I still want one.

I need to hear from some mini-van owners (e.g., Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna) what they're like to live with on a daily basis.

Here is what I find appealing:

- Big white brick (Toyota Sienna!) looks SAFE to me - way safer than other cars.
- They have rear-view cameras so I think I would feel comfortable reversing in parking lots and such.
- TONS of room - you can go out and buy awkward items and not worry about fitting it in your car trunk. I bought a cat tree recently and it barely fit in my car. BARELY.
- They seem like big sofas - like you'd be in your livingroom, but on the road. Is this perception correct?

What are they like to drive?

I don't actually need the tech like TV monitors in the rear, I just love the idea of driving a big minivan around that can handle *anything*.

About me: live in an apartment complex, one designated covered spot (husband's), and I park in whatever uncovered spot I can find; parking can be a bit competitive at times but I've never not found a spot. Current car: Ford Focus four-door (2004? I think). Very fun to drive and a lively chassis but maintenance has been a bear. (I would not buy another Ford because of the high maintenance costs compared to, say Honda.)

I know on some level that it really doesn't make sense for me to own one, and I want to emphasize that I am just thinking about trading in my car; there would be a whole set of hurdles to go through if I did.

Should I think about SUVs / stationwagons instead? Hope me, metafilter.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome to Travel & Transportation (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: So I don't drive a minivan day-to-day but I've rented them in the past.

Most of them drive fine. They drive more-or-less like a car. A big car. A big car with mediocre performance in terms of stopping and acceleration.

They get mediocre mileage. They're not as bad as a truck, but it goes through more gas than a car.

They're indeed comfortable. We drove 4,000 km in a rented minivan and it was pretty comfortable for a family of four and a dog. It's indeed like a living room on wheels.

I don't think they're really much safer than a new car. You're slightly higher up which gives the perception of safety but I don't think crash tests show minivans to be any better.

They're not cheap. They're not like luxury European car expensive, but a basic minivan is more money than a basic car.

They're harder to park than a car, but not that much. A lot easier than a truck. You can park pretty well with the side mirrors once you get used to it. The sliding doors make getting in and out of the back easy.
posted by GuyZero at 4:58 PM on October 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

I learned to drive on a minivan in the 90s, and I've driven them periodically for work over the years.

1. No idea if minivans are actually safer than other cars in a way that will be meaningful to childless adults. Frankly, a lot of the ones that are built like tanks are unwieldy and a pain to park, so this might be a serious tradeoff.

2. Are backup cameras actually standard in most minivans these days? It seems to me that it would be cheaper to get that option in a sedan rather than getting a minivan only for that feature. Also, again, they're unwieldy and difficult to park in ways that a sedan is not. Which is why the backup camera is useful. I drive a compact car now and pretty much have no problems backing it up without a camera. Frankly I don't know what I would even do with one.

3. How often do you actually buy stuff that doesn't fit in your car? Again, I drive a compact and this has literally never happened for me in 3 years driving a small car.

4. Uhhhh, no?

When I learned to drive on a minivan, ours was considered quite easy to drive, "handles just like a car", etc. but it wasn't, quite, and I was much happier when I got my own wheels in the form of an economy sedan. Minivans I've driven more recently have handled like tanks, probably because the popularity of SUVs in the intervening decades has inured people to driving more unwieldy vehicles. YMMV (literally?) on something like a Mazda 5, though?

What about a 5-door hatchback?
posted by Sara C. at 5:02 PM on October 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: We have a 2005 Honda Odyssey. We love it, but we also have 4 kids. Not sure if it's necessarily safer than a really safe passenger car. I do really enjoy having all that space to haul large items, but that is such a rare event for us so I'm not sure that should be a top reason to buy one. Sitting in the driver seat doesn't strike me as any more or less comfortable than our '06 Accord. The extra space is great when you're trying to deal with a big family on the road, but if it's just you and your plus one, I don't really see the need for a whole lot of room to move. I do enjoy being high off the ground when I drive it, I guess. The biggest downside is the decent hit in gas mileage vs. a passenger car.
posted by puritycontrol at 5:04 PM on October 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

My base model Civic has a reverse camera. Bog-standard at this point. No reason to buy a minivan.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 5:05 PM on October 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

My wife and I are a kidless couple and we've had a Grand Caravan and a Grand Voyager (both longer wheelbase) for forever. I like them. Lots of room. You can load full sheets of plywood (without the seats in). You can sleep in them. They drive like tall cars. I never consider them anything but easy to drive.
posted by humboldt32 at 5:07 PM on October 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you notice ride quality enough that you know the Focus has a nice chassis, driving a minivan may well drive you insane. They are numb, numb, numb. I think the Mazda5 is a little better, but also smaller.

I'd buy a roomy hatch unless you're planning on having kids. If you aren't planning on having kids but need to move a bunch of crap regularly, you probably want a truck.
posted by selfnoise at 5:08 PM on October 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have been enspousened to drivers of a Honda Odyssey and a Toyota Sienna (not simultaneously (either spouses or minivans)), and therefore driven them at times, often over very long distances.

Aside from the mileage issues -- and really, they're not that much worse than most cars -- if you want one, there is no good reason not to get one. They are in fact roomy as hell, and they handle just fine, and yes, they're just more comfortable than most cars. No, they won't beat anyone off the line at the light, but you won't have any problem getting into the next lane in a hurry, either.
posted by Etrigan at 5:32 PM on October 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

(would a leisure activity vehicle be a more practical solution while still addressing some of what you want? although the current crop are not that great-looking - a few years back there were some more "quirky", distinctive examples.)
posted by andrewcooke at 5:50 PM on October 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Are backup cameras actually standard in most minivans these days?

They're mandatory on all US vehicles as of May 2018. So they're getting very common.

I just wanted to put in for the Chrysler Town and Country (also sold as the Dodge Caravan and Grand Caravan). They're somewhat more affordable than the Odyssey and Sienna. I have a 2012 and yeah, it gets horrible mileage in town (like ~17), but I can easily get 25+ on the highway.

And the stow-in-the-floor seats. Oh, man, it's totally worth it. If you're moving large things, I would totally look into the Chrysler models.
posted by JoeZydeco at 6:04 PM on October 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

andrewcooke- There isn't really a LAV for sale in the U.S. The closest thing would be something like the C-Max or Mazda5.
posted by selfnoise at 6:09 PM on October 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: This probably doesn't apply to you, but as a short person I really appreciate being higher up in a minivan. My visibility is way better.

If you regularly drive around a lot of people (or animals), there's a lot more space between the back and front seats in the minivan. Nobody feels squashed and it's easier to watch videos if you want to do that. You can toss a large bag or box on the floor between the front seats -- it can be very useful to have that extra room on long trips.

It feels much larger than a regular car when parking and maneuvering, and I get nervous about backing up (ours does not have a camera), but otherwise handles like a regular car.
posted by chickenmagazine at 6:13 PM on October 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Much like owning a truck, you will be a go-to for any friend or acquaintance who needs to move stuff.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:37 PM on October 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

I also have a 2012 Town & Country and I love it. I never thought I'd want a minivan but we rented one on a trip and then I knew I wanted the T&C specifically. CarMax gets them in after they've been rental cars, so I got a great deal on a one-year-old van with 19K miles for about half what a new one would cost.
posted by candyland at 6:40 PM on October 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Good tip. Enterprise also sells a lot of used ones that aren't too old.
posted by JoeZydeco at 7:10 PM on October 2, 2015

The parking seems like the big drawback to me. A spot that's just barely viable for a Ford Focus is off limits to a minivan, and that eliminates more options than you might think. That said, I've owned several compact hatchbacks and 2 minivans and I basically think your perceptions are correct. We currently have a 2013 Toyota Sienna with a spiffy options package (leather seats, navigation, DVD player) and it is livingroom-like to an almost comical degree. Like, it has 12 cup holders and 3-zone climate control. It is a boatlike shrine to American excess. Previously we had a 2004 Oldsmobile Silhouette and it was not as fancy, a lot less like a living room.

Being able to take whatever the fuck you want on road trips is an absolutely spectacular feature of a minivan.

Pre-kids, I had a little mazda hatchback that was stolen. While I was waiting for $$ from the insurance company, I had a rental car which happened to be a minivan. At the time, I thought it was funny that I was "stuck" with the van because that's all the rental place had. However, my brilliant co-worker immediately realized that her SKIS would fit in that thing... and a group of us had 2 lovely ski trips courtesy of that van before I had to return it.
posted by selfmedicating at 7:18 PM on October 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh, and prior to purchasing the current minivan I did a bunch of research trying to find a vehicle that would meet my family's needs without being a minivan, and the expert consensus online appears to be just get the damn minivan already. That was even the title of one review. SUVs are Minivan Avoidance Machines for a lot of people, you actually get more features for the price with a minivan.
posted by selfmedicating at 7:21 PM on October 2, 2015

I learned to drive on a minivan (Honda Odyssey). I personally hated that car. The cons for me:

* The car is huge. Like, it didn't fit through the garage door for the attached garage of my house. It sometimes couldn't make the turns in tight city parking garages.
* They are not safer. In fact, I was always way more worried about it falling off the cliffy-road (see above re: wideness) than any compact car I've driven. But if you like sitting higher, then it has that.
* It got 17 mpg. All my other (compact) cars have gotten 30-33 mpg. So you're paying for twice as much gas. (I don't take road trips anyway, but if you do, take this into account.)
* If you are a larger/taller person, or if you're going to be sitting in the passenger part of the van, it is more comfortable. But if you want it to be an actual living room, you'll need to vacuum/clean it regularly. I don't know about you, but I'm not a regular car cleaner, and my cars had junk (usually just paper stuff) in it, and so it was never as nice as my actual living room.

That said, I would get a minivan if:

* You regularly haul a lot of people, such as kids or for church or whatever.
* You regularly haul a lot of stuff, especially if it rains where you live, so you want it covered. That said, we've hauled all sorts of stuff strapped to the top of our compact car, without issues. (By all sorts, I mean things like wheelbarrows, drywall, shower stall kits, christmas trees, etc. The last time we rented a truck to move stuff was to move a daybed, which I don't think would've fit in a minivan either.) You can also get roof racks, and some cars (like the Subaru Outback) let you tow a trailer up to 3000 pounds. That's a lot of stuff you can haul!
posted by ethidda at 9:07 PM on October 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

I drove my dad's '83 Vanagon a couple times. It's amazing. The visibility is terrifc and the driver's seat is right above the front axle. It's exactly like the "I'm the king of the world!" scene from TITANIC.
posted by chrchr at 9:10 PM on October 2, 2015

I've had lots of minivans as rentals and fleet vehicles. They are incredibly practical vehicles, way more useful and versatile than almost any other kind of vehicle. The only downsides are size (though they are a lot smaller than a full size truck or SUV) and image -- minivans are basically the antithesis of sexy. They drive fine, not sporty at all but not boat-like either, and it is a competitive segment, so car companies update them frequently with new designs and features.

I own an SUV right now and a minivan would be a better vehicle in every way except for actual offroad driving, which I do enough of to need the SUV. But a minivan would be safer, handle better, have a lower floor for loading people, pets, and cargo, and would get better gas mileage.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:23 PM on October 2, 2015

The only minivan I've driven that didn't (in comparison) feel like a friggin' sofa on wheels with a boat steering mechanism attached was a Mercedes Vito. That was a sweet car, no mistake, even for really long hauls.
Safety-wise, at least a while ago, most minivans actually scored lower than many normal-sized cars of decent brand.
posted by Namlit at 1:36 AM on October 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have a 2014 Sienna after ten years of driving a Corolla and I looooove my minivan. I find it as easy to drive and almost as easy park as my little car. It just moves really nicely. We've gone camping!! And to IKEA!!! Those things were impossible before. We get great mileage too, comparable to our little car. You don't have to have kids to have a van. Drive what works for your family.
posted by arcticwoman at 6:14 AM on October 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've had two, though not recently. Once you get used to roll when turning, they drive fine. Whether parking is an issue depends on where you live. I don't parallel park except when we travel.

In general, visibility out of vehicles is not what it used to be, so check it out.

I have a Mazda 5 now. It's really too small to be called a mini-van, but the rear doors slide instead of swing so some people call it a van. It's much sportier to drive than a mini-van, and carries a lot, if not as much as the real thing.
posted by SemiSalt at 10:59 AM on October 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Since you do not actually require the third row for multiple car seats, consider the Toyota Prius V. It is basically the Prius wagon. It has the comfortable ride you are looking for, as well as sliding and reclining rear seats, with over 30 cubic feet of storage behind the rear seats, or about 60 cubic feet with them folded. It’s easily as roomy as most midsize SUVs, but with well over 40 MPG in the real world, both city and highway, and without too much exterior bulkiness. It’s also close to $10k less than typically equipped Sienna or Odyssey minivans.
posted by musicinmybrain at 1:22 PM on October 4, 2015

Best answer: We recently bought a Toyota Sienna. We also have a Camry, and a pick-up truck. We bought the van because we have kids and we like to take road trips and take all of our kid-related gear with us. That wasn't possible in the pick-up truck (due to seating issues for the kids).

Okay, yes, it is awesome for hauling things, like the portable shade that we take to the soccer games. That wasn't going to fit in the Camry without folding down the seats, not possible with child seats. Totally possible when I didn't have child seats.

Parking/driving: pretty much exactly like the Camry. Turn radius is awesome. I like being a little bit higher up in the van as opposed to the sedan. As far as safety goes, you can read all the safety studies yourself, but I feel a little more forward in the van and therefore a little less safe. This translates to me driving slower, which pleases my husband as I tend to speed terribly.

Our van has bench seating in the back rows, as opposed to captains chairs, so not so much the living room feeling, but we can transport one extra person in that middle bench row seat. On a recent road trip we used the third row as a napping area for the non-driver. It was a little tight, but nice to have.

Overall I was happy with our sedan/pick-up combo, with the exception of hauling stuff on the occasions that we had to when the kids are with us. It's more expensive to drive the van. If you don't really need one on a frequent basis, I would stick with a zippy little sedan. It's cheaper to get things delivered than to own a hauling vehicle because you might need the capacity from time to time.
posted by vignettist at 9:43 PM on October 4, 2015

Best answer: When I worked for Edmunds a million years ago I got to drive a 1999 Honda Odyssey for a couple of weeks as part of their long term road test program. It looks like that was so long ago in car years that I can't even find my old notes on the site, but overall I really liked it in spite of being a guy in his twenties with no kids. This was in the days when side-curtain airbags and backup monitors were practically still science fiction, so I can't really speak to those features, but RE: your other points:
  • Lots of room, especially with the option to remove/fold rear seats down
  • It was surprisingly car-like to drive; although comparing it to a smaller car like a Focus is a little bit apples and oranges. I would liken it more to a mid or full-size sedan; pretty responsive and not as mushy/boatlike as I expected.
  • Fairly maneuverable, especially compared to the full-sized Ford Econoline I drove at a different job before that (but again, taking relative size into account; not as easy to parallel park as a Focus. And anyway, I'm not sure about your neck of the woods, but where we live parking is a non-issue in most places, which seem to have gone to extra-large parking spaces in the late 1990s when everyone in the country decided they needed to buy Ford Excursions.)
  • I don't remember it being particularly "couch-like", although it was comfortable enough. The front had bucket seats with a console between them, and I don't quite remember the back seat configuration; the second row was probably a bench and I think the third row might have been two separate removable seats.
More recently I've ridden in a Volkswagen Routan a few times and my impressions are much the same; it's a pretty nice, versatile vehicle with the trade-offs you'd expect in terms of performance and cachet.

As to minivan vs wagon vs SUV, I guess it depends on how much stuff/how many people you need to schlep around, over what kind of terrain, and how often. I'd be happy enough with using a minivan for a lot of the stuff we currently use our full-size pickup for, but I would really miss the 4WD during New England winters.
posted by usonian at 11:22 AM on October 5, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for sharing what you know; it's good to get some feedback on an idea that's been bouncing around in your head, from people with direct experience.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 12:54 PM on October 5, 2015

Best answer: I love my minivan. I've had a Plymouth Grand Voyager from 1996-2004 and a Toyota Sienna since then - love them both. Easy to drive, easy to see, comfortable, not too bad about gas. I'm about ready for a new car and I'm postponing the decision because I want another minivan but now that my kids are grown, I'm not sure I can justify it. Nowadays I use it to haul bicycles and Home Depot stuff, and I am the designated driver when there are more than 4 of us going to lunch. I like that I can keep the bike locked in the car and be ready any time I want to stop at the bike trail on the way home.

The last time we rented a truck to move stuff was to move a daybed, which I don't think would've fit in a minivan either.) Just FYI - I moved a daybed in my Sienna and had tons of extra space for the dresser too.
posted by CathyG at 2:30 PM on October 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

I love my 2011 Sienna. This last weekend I fit me, four of my Scouts, my co-leader, two coolers, nine sleeping bags, etc etc etc in it and took it camping. I can fit bicycles in the back. It has great features that maybe aren't relevant if you don't have kids, like how the front seat can control the back seat's temperature or choose to hand control over to the back seat, and it has built-in window shades for the back. I can fit an entire bouncy castle in the back (again, I recognize that might not be a relevant feature for you). The visibility is fine, and visibility is important to me. I've slept in it while camping. The passenger windows go down in the middle row, which isn't the case for all minivans. We've taken it on forest service roads that we probably shouldn't've and gotten stuck only once so far. It's comfortable, in any seat except the middle middle -- we don't use that one any more.

A friend has a minivan with the stow-and-go seats and those seem very cool. With the Sienna, at least with mine, you can fold the 3rd row into the floor but the 2nd row never goes away completely.

I'm terrible at parallel parking in general; I don't have a worse time than I do with my Scion xB, but that's not saying much.
posted by The corpse in the library at 3:59 PM on October 6, 2015

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