Minivan versus SUV: The struggle is real
Over the years, my family has owned its share of vehicles. Some were enormous, like the Chevy Caprice Classic. Others were sporty, like the Ford Mustang. Then there were the economy cars, like the Toyota Prius. I used to own a PT Cruiser, too. Don’t laugh… Chrysler sold 1.35 million of these things, which became famous for blurring the classification between a car and a light truck. Or was it an SUV? Whatever you refer to it as, I liked having a “hatchback” for storage and the ability to fold the back seats down. It was also a fun car to own because of its retro styling, which wasn’t like any other car I had ever owned before. But, the PT Cruiser was also famous for its lack of safety, poor handling, and low fuel economy. I wanted to like the car, but I realized I was in love with the idea of being a PT Cruiser owner rather than with the car itself. It was fun to wave to fellow owners while passing them on the road, (yes, that was a thing!) and there was room to pack for an overnight trip, but I wanted more space, higher safety ratings, more flexibility with the seating, better gas mileage, and more convenient options.
I hate to admit my foolish attitude, but back then, I was indeed one of those women that was on the fence about being a “minivan mom”. Many of our friends raved about their minivans, but I just couldn’t see myself driving such a large vehicle. every. single. day. of. my. life. So, like many young families today, I checked out a few stylish SUVs, including an Acura MDX, Toyota Highlander, and a Honda Pilot. I was impressed with the way the Acura MDX handled and I loved the safety features. I knew I had to make a switch, but they were considerably more expensive than my PT Cruiser and the third-row seating lacked space and comfort. In addition, I am only 5 feet tall, so the SUVs sat too high off the ground for me. It would have been strenuous to strap my children into their car seats and I had difficulty getting in and out myself. I reluctantly remembered how my friends were completely satisfied with their minivans and I wondered if a minivan might actually make more sense for me, too. A minivan isn’t flashy, fun, or sexy, but I decided to bite the bullet and see what all the fuss was about. I took a Toyota Sienna and a Honda Odyssey minivan out for a test drive. The result? I was instantly over my identity crisis. I fell in love with minivans! My misgivings went right out the driver’s side power window and I’ve never looked back. I still own our 2012 Honda Odyssey Touring Elite minivan and I have no regrets. I drive it every. single. day. of. my. life.
So why did I decide to buy a minivan and not an SUV?
Here are the things that I considered:
The first thing that swayed me toward a minivan was the fact that it felt like I was driving a mid-size passenger car, not a large vehicle. Before test driving a minivan, I was certain that I would feel as if I were driving a rig, so I was pleasantly surprised with the comfortable ride, the ease at which turns were executed, and the precise steering. It featured a 248HP 3.5L V-6 engine with variable cylinder management, which was powerful, but still offered 19 mpg city and 28 mpg highway, the best of any minivan on the market at the time. It had front-wheel drive, but so did most, if not all vans on the market at the time. The Toyota Sienna with its V6 engine is currently the only minivan on the market with all-wheel drive. SUVs also had the benefit of all-wheel drive, but I live in the suburbs of a large metropolitan area where front wheel drive with a good set of tires is all that is needed in the ice and snow. While AWD would certainly help with acceleration and traction, our streets are regularly plowed and maintained, I don’t tow anything, and I don’t go off-road, so all-wheel drive was not really important.
I was able to see the road much better from a higher seat position in the minivan than in the sedans I had owned – a significant benefit given my short stature, but the SUVs gave me an even better view of the road. The SUVs handled well, too, but I felt that the minivan hugged the road more. The seating in the minivan was higher than what I was used to in the PT Cruiser and I liked the balance that the minivan offered. The SUV felt a bit top-heavy, like I was driving a truck, while the minivan felt more like a mid-size car, which I preferred.
The first and second row seating width and height of the minivan and SUV are comparable. Both provide plenty of room for a comfortable ride, however the minivans offered almost a foot of additional leg room in the third-row seat compared to the SUVs. This was an important feature because I would be transporting pre-teens on field trips and to sporting events. The third row was also used by my soon-to-be-teenager on road trips and needed to be both roomy and comfortable. The difference is in the quality of the seating. The space available in third row seating in the SUV did not compare to that available in the minivan. And while I rarely have 7 or 8 people in my minivan, I occasionally do, and during those times, available space and comfort are important. The 2019 Honda Odyssey has 160.1 cubic feet of passenger volume compared to 132.7 cubic feet in the 2019 Acura MDX, so the difference is noticeable. The 2012 Chevy Traverse offered 116.4 cubic feet of cargo space and was considered among the best in its class.
Since I also had a child in a car seat at the time, it was important that I could seat two people comfortably next to a car seat. Both the SUV and the minivan offered plenty of room to seat people next to a car seat or to install several car seats simultaneously, but it was much easier to get to the third row of seats in the minivan than it was in the SUV. The extra leg room and the wide, sliding doors in the minivan provide plenty of access to a child in the third-row seat.
Both the SUV and the minivan offered fold-down seats with plenty of room for cargo, but storage space is where the minivan won hands down. Cargo volume to the first row of seats in a 2012 Honda Odyssey is 148.5 cubic feet compared to 83.5 cubic feet in a 2012 Acura MDX. The volume of extra space in the minivan really appealed to me because I not only drive with children in tow, I am also a homeowner. Some of my home improvement projects have me hauling large items like furniture or bags of dirt and mulch for my yard. We also regularly go on road trips and the minivan gives us a huge amount of room for our gear.
Neither the SUVs I considered or the Honda minivan had stow away 2nd row seats, however the minivan’s third row seats folded into the floor, creating a flat space to place large items. There were few large SUVs on the market at the time with third-row seats that folded flat. The Ford Expedition with the extended wheelbase provided the convenience of flat folding seats with 130.8 cubic feet of cargo space behind the first row, but that was still less cargo space than the minivan offered. The Ford Expedition was considered a full size SUV and featured a more powerful V8 engine that I did not personally need, and at a price of $40,000 –$ 60,000, it was more than I was willing to spend for an SUV with fold-away seats and less room for cargo storage.
All the vehicles I considered scored considerably well on side and front impact crash tests conducted by the International Institute of Highway Safety. The 2012 Honda Odyssey was among five minivans selected by the International Institute of Highway Safety as a Top Safety Pick. Four large SUVs also made the cut including the Chevy Traverse and the Buick Enclave. Each of the three mid-size SUVs I test-drove, the Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot, and Acura MDX, were also rated Top Safety Picks.
Many of the safety features were the same when comparing the minivan to the SUVs. All the vehicles tested had front and side impact air bags for bodily protection in the event of collision or roll over. Anti-lock brakes and stability control were standard features across the board. The SUVs and minivans also came standard with seatbelt pretensioners and anti-whiplash head restraints. All vehicles had some sort of a security system built-in, as well.
Both the SUVs and the minivans had driver aid options such as blind spot detection, front and rear parking sensors, and a backup camera.
From a safety standpoint, the vehicles were comparable. Some scored higher in one category or another in crash tests, but all vehicles I considered achieved a good rating.
One of the main considerations in selecting a minivan over an SUV is sliding doors. The top of the line Honda Odyssey came with two sliding doors and a tailgate that could be opened with the touch of a button, making it easy for me to drop my kids off at school without getting out of the vehicle or close the heavy liftgate. The sliding doors also made the third row of seats very accessible. Not so for the SUVs. It was difficult to get in and out of the last row of seats, especially with the limited leg room.
There were other convenient options in both types of vehicles including elaborate infotainment systems, heated leather seats, sunroof, and three-zone climate control, to name a few. I knew these nice-to-have features would sure make for a pleasant driving experience, regardless of which vehicle I chose.
Fuel economy was something that I found was lacking in the PT Cruiser, given the size and performance of the vehicle. The PT Cruiser rated at 21 city/29 highway. The SUVs I checked out ranged in value from 16 city/21 highway for the Acura MDX to 20 city/25 highway for the Toyota Highlander. The Honda Odyssey minivan came in at a close 18 city/28 highway while a comparable Toyota Sienna came in at 18 city/25 highway. There would be no savings in fuel economy by switching from my PT Cruiser to an SUV or minivan, however, I would get a much smoother ride, better safety features, a huge increase in storage, and the added convenience I wanted.
All in all, when I was shopping for SUVs and minivans in 2012, the things I was looking for were good handling, great storage, safety, and convenience. I got more bang for the buck with a minivan than I did with an SUV. Fully loaded, the Honda priced at $44,000 while the Acura MDX was $55,000. I also was fortunate enough to find a reputable dealership selling a used Honda Odyssey Touring Elite minivan with just 208 miles on it for $6,000 off the list price, so that was the vehicle I purchased.
Currently, sales of SUVs far exceed sales of minivans. SUVs sales have been on the rise for the last seven years, with growth just now starting to stabilize a bit. The demand for minivans has sharply declined during the same seven years. In fact, there are only five brands of minivans available for purchase today. Why has there been a shift in the marketplace over the last few years? Many people need the added acceleration and traction an AWD or 4WD vehicle offers. The seating and storage space has become more flexible in SUVs over the years with stow-away third rows. With safety ratings comparable to minivans, I believe car buyers put more emphasis on the style of the vehicle. It’s kind of like buying women’s shoes that are more likely to give you bunions rather than sensible shoes… sure, sensible shoes are more comfortable, easier on the feet, and higher quality, but they just don’t make me feel very attractive. An SUV is definitely more fun, stylish, and hip than a sensible, practical minivan. Image… the struggle is real.