Is there a minivan in my future?
August 14, 2019 11:57 AM   Subscribe

We are a family of four, including two little kids in car seats. For four months every year, we become a family of six, when grandparents stay with us for an extended visit. Our current car situation can't fit six people. Help me wrangle a car-buying decision.

We have two cars, both of them too small for the six-person family. When grandparents are visiting, we end up leaving one adult behind for most of our family outings. I'm not happy with this as a long-term solution, so I'm exploring the idea of getting a bigger car. There is probably an obvious solution, but I'm not really thinking about it clearly. I need some AskMe Perspective™ to help weigh the choices.

We currently have two cars:
  • The SUV. A compact luxury SUV. Seats the family of four comfortably, or five people uncomfortably.
  • The Commuter. An old economy sedan. Used for last-mile commuting (4 miles/day) and errands. Our quasi-suburban neighborhood is not well-served by transit. Paid off, reliable, low cost of ownership.
Options under consideration:
  1. Buy a minivan, trade in one of the cars. This could be either a nice new minivan to replace the SUV, or a relatively inexpensive used minivan to replace the Commuter.
  2. Buy a three-row SUV, trade in the little SUV. Less practical than a minivan in every way, especially considering car seat arrangement, but it solves the "coolness" problem. I don't like this option at all, because it's expensive and because I don't want to park a behemoth SUV or pay for its gas.
  3. Make do with our current two cars, through a combination of two-car caravaning, occasional use of Lyft (grandparents do not drive, partner can but is not a very experienced driver and is uncomfortable with lots of driving), and renting a minivan for long trips (approx. once per year, $150/day rental). This is a crappy solution for many reasons, but it's only four months per year, and it lets us keep the cars we're happy with for the remainder.

Other factors:
  • Cost. We can technically afford any of these options, but they range from $7-10k/year (lease or buy a new, nice vehicle) to maybe $3k/year cost of ownership for a mid-range used minivan, or considerably less for inconvenient options like renting only when needed. However, renting comes with a sticker shock that makes it unpalatable---for example, we're looking at a week-long road trip right now, and a rental will cost $900 for the week. It's hard to swallow that, even though it's less expensive than any "buy it" options if we only do it once a year.
  • Partner loves the SUV because it is their first "nice" car, and is sad at the prospect of replacing it with an uncool minivan.
  • Car seats. We like to leave them installed, so seats that need to fold down to let passengers into the back are a big hassle. Adults should not have to climb into the vehicle to access the car seats.
  • Sentimentality. I guess we're just kind of attached to the current cars and having trouble letting go. Silly, I know. Anecdotes of how great your family minivan is might help.
  • Brand loyalty. I have a strong preference for Toyota and Honda, but if somebody tells me there's a spectacular other-brand minivan, I'll listen.
What would you do? Or what did you do, and how did it turn out?
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl to Travel & Transportation (33 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I liked my minivan and I would take it over an SUV any day. More seating, much better trunk space, easier to get in and out of, especially for older folks. My vote is to trade in the SUV for a nice minivan, maybe splurge a little on some features that make it feel more special.
posted by metahawk at 12:09 PM on August 14, 2019 [5 favorites]

Some 6 passenger SUV's are very similar in size and mpg to mini vans. I would do a comparison before i rule that out. I am thinking of an Acadia or possibly a crossover like a Subaru. However, they may cost more.

Once your kids get a little older and bigger and want to have friends go along, have extra room is a bonus at that point as well.
posted by domino at 12:10 PM on August 14, 2019 [6 favorites]

We were in a similar situation and traded in the beloved Toyota Highlander for a Chrysler Town and Country minivan. We haven't regretted it one bit.

The T&C can seat 7 without folding down the second row to move people in and out. Entry and exit is very easy. ALL of the 2nd/3rd row seats fold into the floor which has been a total lifesaver in some events where we had to move large things quickly and didn't have the time or resources to get a rental van. That alone gets a lot of jealous looks from our Honda and Toyota owning friends who need to pull the bulky benches out of the van ahead of time to move cargo.

I'm sure the Honda and Toyota products have somewhat better quality and engine performance, but my personal experience has been just fine. The 3.8L engine gets lousy mileage in-town (like 17-18 MPG) but does better on long trips, like 27.

Since the T&C has been discontinued and replaced by the almost identical Pacifica, you have two routes to explore: a used T&C or a spankin' new Pacifica which is pretty freaking awesome if your budget allows. There's even a hybrid model.

And, speaking as a parent that once had young kids in a minivan, NEVER get cloth seats. =)
posted by JoeZydeco at 12:18 PM on August 14, 2019 [3 favorites]

Once your kids get a little older and bigger and want to have friends go along, have extra room is a bonus at that point as well.

Honestly, this goes for you too! One of my good friends had this same dilemma and ended up trading in the sedan for a newish minivan (the sedan was having trouble and the SUV was much newer, which is why they went that way), and it's GREAT, it fits like eight people so on nights out we can all go together. :) Very convenient for her to make plans with other moms and kids too.
posted by leesh at 12:18 PM on August 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

Seems like the only reason not to get a minivan is because it’s not cool. That’s silly, as you know. Especially since your partner wants the SUV but your partner doesn’t drive much.

Have you driven a minivan? They’re pretty awesome. I would go test drive a few nice new minivans, especially the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna, with your partner, and see how that feels. They’re so practical and have a lot of great features. Also the styling is more SUV-like these days.

Then sell your SUV because it sounds like you really don’t need two expensive cars.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:18 PM on August 14, 2019 [7 favorites]

We very much liked our 2001 Odyssey (yes!) and drove it until the transmission basically crumbled. When we outgrew it, we moved to a 12-passenger Chevy van. Everyone had plenty of room and there were scads of luggage space. When we downsized vehicles, we leaned on cool a little bit and went with a Pilot. Same seating as the Odyssey, but the cargo area is laughably small if all the seats are in use.

FWIW, the Odyssey drove well and rode comfortably. It was a very close call between another one and the Pilot, but some of the Pilot's features won out.
posted by jquinby at 12:19 PM on August 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

Buying a whole car—when you already have two you like—just to use its capacity a few times a year seems... odd to me.

Rent a minivan, hire a ride service, or take two cars and the minor inconvenience for these ultimately brief visits.

Spend the money you save not buying a car on things you can enjoy more often and agree are fun.

I don’t recommend spending big money on things that are only rarely utilized, YMMV.
posted by SaltySalticid at 12:27 PM on August 14, 2019 [11 favorites]

I had a Honda Odyssey and it was a pleasure to drive, held a ton of stuff, 7 people uncomfortably, 6 people comfortably. I removed the middle seats, threw in camping gear, took it on a big Road Trip. Mileage is decent, roof rack, it was great. I'd probably drive it still but a family member totaled it. The way back bench seat folds down into the floor, so it's kind of ideal for your use. I think Toyota makes a hybrid minivan, that might be my car to ave up for.

Then get a Prius as the commuter car. Just got a 2011 and it's nice to drive, and 50 mpg. Also great for camping
posted by theora55 at 12:27 PM on August 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

A 2019 VW Atlas gets better in-city mileage than a 2019 Odyssey. (Apparently the 4-cylinder Atlas gets 27 MPG which seems not terrible) So maybe a modern 3-row car-ish SUV would be fine for your uses. But it's still easier to get in and out of a minivan.

Maybe see if there's a local rental place that will give better rates for long-term rentals? I've rented a minvan for $500 a week which is a lot, but if it's just a couple months it's less than a new car.
posted by GuyZero at 12:29 PM on August 14, 2019

We have a Toyota Sienna mini van. My kids are 5 and 10. 5 year old is still in a car seat. I love the fact that the doors slide and I don't have to worry about the kids banging open their door into another car. Also the buttons to open and close the sliding doors are amazing. No more slamming doors. Kids can operate the buttons independently.

We have captains chairs in the middle row and my older daughter is able to get to the back row without putting down or moving a chair. Previous to the mini van we drove a Prius and the joy of not having my kids right on top of me is immeasurable. The distance between the drivers seat and next row is sufficient to make it sound like they aren't yelling in my ear.

And honestly, even if you aren't a mini van person, it's only for a brief period of life. 10-15 years while your kids are growing up maybe? If you get a minivan now it doesn't mean you'll be driving it forever.
posted by MadMadam at 12:53 PM on August 14, 2019 [4 favorites]

I know you asked for positive, but I have a Honda Odyssey and it blows. It's like the 2nd best minvan (Toyota has cool reclining rear seats), but it's not very reliable, not terribly comfortable, not nearly as useful as everyone says (especially with car seats) and filled kid crap, not fun to drive, it's turning radius is the same as a tank, and it's so big and out of place in anything but the most suburban of suburbia.

The gas mileage for such a large car is good, and the number of latch points for carseats is awesome. You will be moving those things around A LOT.

We bought it to use in exactly the same way you are talking about -2 kids and playing taxi to relatives, kid friends, and grandparents. Which also sucks! Guess what, you have the biggest car, you will always be the driver. Make sure you can deal with that, vs having a fellow adult drive.

I can't wait to ditch it and get a normal car or small suv.
posted by The_Vegetables at 12:56 PM on August 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

Im literally headed to the airport in a minute to join my brother in law and his family (of 4). were renting a car this trip, on previous ones we've made due with a combination of lyfts and short term rentals (car 2go etc).

we visit several times a year but only for a few days.

re-reading your question you are functionally a one-driver family of 6 for a third of the year? yeah, get yourself the minivan asap.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 1:05 PM on August 14, 2019 [4 favorites]

... do you realistically NEED an SUV? Do you have snow, or rough roads, or anything that requires 4-wheel drive? Honestly? If the answer's yes, then keep the SUV. If not, a minivan seems more optimal, and more useful; you can take the back seats out and haul an entire rowboat in it, if you want (I have done) and it makes a nice camper (also have done).
posted by Pastor of Muppets at 1:07 PM on August 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Ok, you need to haul 6 people around for 1/3 of the year? Yes, a minivan is your best option.

Your 2nd best option is a step down from a minivan - the Mazda 5. They were last made in 2015, but there are used ones out there.

It's shaped like a minivan, but smaller. It's a mini-minivan. It's fun to drive, and fits in the space of a large sedan. There are 3 rows of seats, so it will seat 6. It's tight, but do-able. It's slightly cooler looking than a minivan. You will not fit 7 in this car though. I do not know where the child seats go.

But really, go with function over form, and make the logical decision.
posted by hydra77 at 1:39 PM on August 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

Our dog car (which gets a LOT of driving, like over 500 miles a month or so, plus trips of >2000 miles once or twice a year) is a Kia Sedona and I freaking LOVE it. It's powerful, comfortable, reliable, lovely to drive, and gets pretty decent gas mileage too. Plus, they cared about its design so it's nice looking for a minivan, and it has tons of really nice features and an awesome warranty.

I loved my CR-V, but the Sedona eats its lunch.
posted by biscotti at 2:22 PM on August 14, 2019

I love my Mazda5, still kicking 11 years later! Our one child's car seat is currently in the middle row captain's chair. The back seat is uncomfortable for two adults to sit in for very long, if they are very tall.

If I were in your scenario, with the Mazda5, I would put the two kid car seats in the third row (an adult would have to reach in to buckle them in), and have the adults in the front and middle captains chairs. For us, with just one child car seat, we usually keep it in it's middle row spot, and then an adult (usually myself or spouse as we are younger and more physically capable) sits in the back seat, with the rest of the adults in the captains chairs.

One thing is that if your luxury SUV is new or not paid off yet, it might not make much economical sense to trade it in for a different vehicle. There might be a loss there.
posted by jillithd at 2:28 PM on August 14, 2019 [3 favorites]

I have a mazda5. It's a minivan in the chassis of a sedan. It's very small. Seats 6. Back two seats are best used by children or adults who are under 5'4"/160lbs. I usually have them folded down.

With the back two seats up there's almost no trunk space - I can put groceries in that space, but that's it. But the back *4* seats all fold down completely flat, and that's been very useful. I used it as a moving van last year, and I was able to haul chairs, desks, and even a small sofa with the back 4 seats folded down. With the back two seats down, I've been hauling the kids' bikes and other outdoor gear in the trunk all summer.

Downside: I get 22 mpg city and 28 mpg highway. UGH. I used to have a Honda Civic before, ya know? But then again, I have a 2008 model which I bought used and it's likely that a newer car would be much more gas efficient.
posted by MiraK at 2:44 PM on August 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

I also absolutely love my Kia Sedona. When both my kids were in car seats, we were able to arrange it so they would both be in the middle row with easy access to the back. It drives great and we have hauled many family members and friends around, even an entire bachelorette party once. It was a former rental car that we bought used with less than 10k miles on it. The only issue I have is that it is kind of hard for me to park, but I’ve only owned smaller cars before. I’ve also driven an Odyssey and a Town and Country as rental cars and they both seemed a little more unwieldy, but I liked the hands free lift gate on the trunk. We just moved to an area with good public transportation and kept the minivan as our only vehicle.
posted by galvanized unicorn at 3:06 PM on August 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

I often drive rental vehicles for my debate team. The minivans are WAY easier to drive than the SUVs, and the kids think they're comfortable. So, I (and my high schoolers) are team Minivan.

(Note: I personally own a Subaru. I used to own a Civic.)
posted by Ms Vegetable at 3:18 PM on August 14, 2019

Minivans seem a lot cooler from the inside. When we first started dating, my sports car-driving husband thought my van was lame—until he drove it for the first time. I think he fell in love on our first road trip.

Test drive a couple of the nicer minivans and see what you (and your partner) think. Some of them are really swanky now! Mine was on the chassis of a large sedan so it was still easy to park and handle. The gas mileage was better than most SUVs.

I bought a Nissan Quest in 1997 and drove it through last year. I didn’t even plan on having kids or anything, I just wanted the most functional, versatile, and easy to drive vehicle I could get. That van saved my sanity so many times. Nissan redesigned the Quest so I don’t know anything about how it is now. Definitely opt for captain’s chairs if you’re transporting adults.
posted by mrcrow at 3:39 PM on August 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

We have been car minimalists all my life (first 7 years of marriage - no car. Then the smallest possible car.)

I made the same decision you are making, got a used 2015 Odyssey. My kids are 13 and 8 and my MIL lives with us. I hadn't realized how much of my life was spent either coordinating /two/ cars, and also just not doing things or not bringing my kids' friends along. It's been a good choice for us. We have a Prius for the person who does the long commute. Once my kids are out of the house and I'm not rushing against the clock for 1334234 activities in a bad transit area, I'm going back to bus and biking. We've also just used it for a trip we would have flown for.
posted by warriorqueen at 4:35 PM on August 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

My advice is almost a generation old (my kids are now 27, 30), but I can say that the Toyota Sienna we bought ~97/98 - after much fretting over making the move to a dreaded minivan - turned out to be better than we dreamed it could be. A pleasure to drive, easy to get in and out of when dealing with car seats, and plenty of room for their friends when they got older.

Re the coolness factor - that ship sailed when you had 2 kids.
posted by she's not there at 4:37 PM on August 14, 2019 [4 favorites]

We're on our second Dodge Caravan and oh my golly the stow 'n' go seating is just a frickin' awesome; we can comfortably fit the kids & grandkids if we go out someplace, or we can stow the seats and haul 4x8 sheets of drywall back there. We bought a 6 burner Garland stove and fit it in the back without folding down the middle row (!) Yeah okay maybe some folks think it's deeply uncool, but it's much better as a utility vehicle than my son's SUV. And so comfortable to travel in.
posted by Mary Ellen Carter at 5:35 PM on August 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

full size Van, you'll never look back....
posted by patnok at 6:37 PM on August 14, 2019

The minivan is the superior choice in many ways, but let me focus on just one: doors.

Little kids have a tendency to swing open a regular door right into the car parked next to you. With a minivan's sliding doors, you don't have to worry about that.

When you drop them off at school, with many newer model minivans the driver can just push a button to open and close the sliding door. Watch a 1st grader futz around with a regular door while the whole dropoff line at the elementary school waits and you will truly appreciate this.

Also, so much easier to lift the car seats in and when you have the big sliding door. So much easier for your kid to wrestle his or her gigantic trifold science fair poster out of the car.

My old minivan had one automatic sliding door, my current Toyota Sienna has it on both sides. And it is magical.
posted by selfmedicating at 8:13 PM on August 14, 2019 [4 favorites]

Re the coolness factor - that ship sailed when you had 2 kids

Not necessarily...all the cool camping/kids/outdoor hipster families here seem to have imported Delicas, and to my eyes they are fantastic looking cars, in a Star Trek Shuttle meets Hot Wheels kind of a way. But...a pain to repair, they're older, and the deal breaker for me is the right hand drive. But I crave one more than a fancy sports car all the same, and you can fit an absurd amount of stuff and people in despite their relatively petite size.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 8:33 PM on August 14, 2019 [3 favorites]

The Delica is new to me and it does look interesting - bonus points for the name, i.e., "Space Gear", though I prefer "Starwagon", an earlier model.

Re cool - to my mind, the association with hipsters (and all the pretentious baggage) cancels the potential coolness factor. That said, I understand that the fact that I just turned 65 detracts from my credibility (in some circles, anyway) when it comes making this judgement.
posted by she's not there at 9:30 PM on August 14, 2019

I have to disagree with biscotti on one thing about the Sedona. It is not "powerful." It is "absurdly overpowered."

do you realistically NEED an SUV? Do you have snow, or rough roads, or anything that requires 4-wheel drive?

With very few exceptions, third-row "SUVs" aren't sport-utility vehicles by any stretch of the imagination. They're just minivans without sliding doors. They style them like trucks so that people who were driven around in minivans when they were 12 and knew everything don't associate them with their parents telling them not to do dumb shit.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 10:12 PM on August 14, 2019 [6 favorites]

Lots of good advice from Team Minivan! I couldn’t find a mention of the daily commuting miles. We have a Chrysler Pacifica Plug-in Hybrid and it fits our four-person fam perfectly! The battery gets us 30 min in summer, like 24 in winter. I can do the school-work-school-one errand loop on the battery and it recharges in two hours.

This means the miles I drive alone every day are electric so I feel less bad about dragging around so much vehicle for those miles.

You have to get the luxury package with the PHEV and it is swanky, and cleans up well.
posted by drowsy at 4:45 AM on August 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

[...] its turning radius is the same as a tank [...]
And that’s a bad thing? Most tracked vehicles can turn 360 degrees in place, albeit with a certain ... cost ... to the surface they’re turning on. That in fact is why I am not allowed to rent a Bobcat for landscaping chores at home any more.

More seriously, I wanted to point out that when the grandparents come you could try out a couple rentals for a few days each to see what works and what doesn’t. I’ve never had the luxury of a leisurely vehicle search, and there have been several times I’ve gotten a new vehicle and found some irritations that a few days—versus a short test drive—would have revealed. Might even be able to work out an inexpensive deal with a demo vehicle from a dealer if they realize you’re serious about your car shopping. Just a thought.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 7:14 AM on August 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

+1 for the Chrysler Pacifica Plug-in Hybrid train here. We've had one for a couple months now, and I love it.

We've been driving a 2004 Subaru Forester for the past 15 years, and I'd been holding out on any new car purchase in hopes that my next car would be cool new technology like an electric. Meanwhile, our parents are getting older and we've had 2 kids who are old enough for minivan-useful things like team soccer practices and group summer camp pick-ups while keeping a car seat in the car.

The Pacifica is by far the most technologically advanced car I've owned or driven, and the plug-in hybrid checks the electric car box. The 30 mile range means that most of our driving is electric. We've now gone about 2200 miles, and bought 3 tanks of gas (we're shooting to average 1000/miles per tank, but summer means more road trips). Gasoline mode is better mileage than the Forester gets, too.

As for cost - Chrysler had a $0 down and 0% financing for 5 years promotion, so payments are about $1000/month. The federal tax rebate for the PHEV means that it's in your $10k/year estimate (at least the first year, and not too high above if you average over 5 years).

Another plus: aging parents can get in and out of the minivan - no hope of that with the old Subaru.
posted by another_20_year_lurker at 1:07 PM on August 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Another vote for the T&C/Pacifica/Caravan. I have a 2012 T&C that I bought cheap from CarMax - it had been a rental for one year, with less than 20K miles, and was just slightly more than half the cost of a new model with the same features. I love it. The stow-and-go seats are great. We often have my senior citizen parents tagging along to school events, etc., and it is easy for them to get in and out. When it does finally die, I want to replace it with a Pacifica hybrid like another_20_year_lurker is driving.
posted by candyland at 3:50 PM on August 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

Thanks for the great answers everyone! We have now test-driven minivans and talked to salesmen.

No decision has been made yet, but I have learned many things.

1. The first place we went was a Honda dealership, to look at new Odysseys. Negotiation with the dealership ("let me get my manager...") was such an awful experience that I am now completely turned off buying new. We'll probably by newish from CarMax precisely because they have no-haggle prices.
2. My favorite used van so far is a 2018 Kia Sedona SX. Unfortunately, after test-driving, we discovered another CarMax customer had a hold on it and it's gone now.
3. Partner's favorite of the used vans we've seen is a lightly used Pacifica Touring-L, because it seems like a good deal compared to the used Odysseys and it checks all the feature boxes. I like it just fine, too. So that's the most likely contender so far.
4. Hertz no-haggle prices look good on paper, but in person we discovered all the Siennas have massive cosmetic damage. Hertz evidently uses their used car lot as a dumping ground for vehicles so trashed they can't rent them out anymore. They don't even bother to vacuum the interior!
5. We test drove a 2015 Mazda 5 and I really liked it, but it realistically it doesn't have enough cargo space for us when the back row is used for seating.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 1:33 PM on August 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

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