Beg to drive a minivan? It's not as goofy a notion as you might think.
Get behind the wheel of the Honda Odyssey Touring, for example, and you'll find a satellite link navigation system that operates with voice recognition and can respond to 637 commands and understand street names, numbers and destinations. It also includes a high-tech, full-color rear view camera that shows activity and objects that may not appear in the outside rear view mirror.
Then there's the Toyota Sienna XLE. It's the only minivan to offer standard front-wheel drive and optional all-wheel drive. It includes a roof rack, a removable center console with storage, front and rear intuitive parking assist and rear privacy glass with power-operated rear quarter windows. Drivers also enjoy a telescoping steering wheel and adaptive cruise control.
Both are examples of ways in which automakers are looking to luxury features to retain current minivan owners who might drift to stylish sedans and SUV or cool crossover vehicles. According to Stephanie Brinley, senior manager of product analysis at AutoPacific, a market research firm covering the auto industry, while "the minivan market is not dead, sales have slowed, the market has matured and there's some shrinkage."
Still, she says, "it is really the best space for hauling people and stuff."
The ability to lug groceries, soccer balls and camping equipment might suit some, but what about drivers looking for luxury?
The typical minivan buyer, according to J.D. Power and Associates, is a white, college-educated, married male, with a median age of 49 and a median household income of $85,000.
To make sure he doesn't opt for a competing vehicle, minivan makers are offering him driver comforts like eight-way seating options, power adjustable foot pedals and tilt steering columns typically found in luxury SUVs. Unique to minivans are smart storage areas under the floor, on the doors and in center consoles. Rear seat passengers are often treated to leather-appointed seats, air conditioning and heated seats and vents, and power flip-out rear quarter windows.
Take the Nissan Quest 3.5. It offers power sliding passenger- and driver-side doors, power lift gate, power flip-out rear quarter windows and power sliding glass moon roof with one-touch open/close and tilt feature.
Included in our list of ultra-luxury minivans are those with accessory options like solar-ray deep tinted glass for deflecting heat, a premium sound system with multiple speakers, rear swiveling reading and courtesy lamps and a power tilt and slide sunroof.
All score well in federal safety crash testing. The Hyundai Entourage, for example, has six standard airbags, including dual front airbags, dual front seat-mounted side-impact airbags and dual side-curtain airbags. This means that both front and rear passengers are protected in a collision. The Entourage also provides electronic stability control with traction control to help maintain vehicle stability in poor driving conditions.
Today's minivans are also easier on the environment than ever before. The Chrysler Group's minivans and GM's Uplander offer flexible fuel models using E85 where available. An 85/15 mix of ethanol and unleaded gas, it is one of the more popular fuel alternatives available to drivers. The small-body Mazda 5 gets 22 mpg city and 28 mpg highway.
All this comes at a price, of course. To determine how much a luxury minivan would cost, we took each brand's top-of-the line model, and added all luxury packages and options to create a fully-loaded set of wheels. Crossing the $40,000 mark are the $44,316 fully-loaded Toyota Sienna XLE, the $41,970 Chrysler Town & Country Limited, the $40,610 Honda Odyssey Touring, the $40,235 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT and the $40,115 Nissan Quest 3.5 SE.
High-end features with a low-end price tag? Seems like a good way to lure savvy shoppers.
"The minivan has a reputation of being stodgy, and that's an issue," says Tom Libby, senior analyst at J.D. Power and Associates. But "there will be customers for an upscale, compact van."
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