by Roger Garbow

››Rodney Dangerfield often said, “I get no respect.” The same can be said for the minivan. While Rodney’s claim was more shtick than reality, the minivan has been the butt of jokes and the recipient of unearned disdain since Chrysler launched the first modern minivans back in 1984. 

Today’s minivans are a far cry from those early boxes on wheels, offering rugged good looks and luxury-car amenities, yet the mission remains the same: the ultimate family vehicle. In that role, minivans are better than SUVs. Period. In reality, a minivan can handle much more than just family duty. Whether you need to haul people, pets, stuff, or even 4×8 sheets of plywood or drywall, these vehicles are impossible to beat. To check out the current van crop, I recently spent some time with Chrysler’s latest and two new competitors. 

The Chrysler Pacifica is one of the gems in the company’s portfolio. When it was introduced in 2017, the goal was not only to be competitive but to be the best minivan available. Offering a stylish exterior with Stow ‘N Go 2nd and 3rd-row seating that folds completely flat into the floor, the Pacifica was a hit-out of the box. It even had a built-in vacuum for those errant Cheerios. Plus, it was the only minivan to offer a plug-in hybrid option. For 2021 the Pacifica gets more handsome styling and an all-wheel-drive option which levels the playing field further against the SUV competition. 

My loaded Pacifica Limited AWD tester included Park Assist, a 760-watt, 18 speaker Harmon Kardon sound system, and the very attractive S Appearance package. Even minivan haters

 were giving it a look, with the blacked-out exterior trim and an interior swathed in black leather with contrasting trim. While all minivans drive like large cars versus the tippy nature of many SUVs, the Pacifica dials it up a notch. Acceleration from the 287 hp V6 is brisk, with handling leaning towards the sportier side of the equation. The seats offer plenty of support and include heating for both front and second-row passengers. The Pacifica is also available as a plug-in hybrid, delivering up to 32 miles of electric-only range, or 30 mpg on gas. Pacifica prices start at under $36,000.

Toyota’s Sienna minivan debuted in 1997 as a replacement for the funky Previa. While the Sienna was known for good safety ratings, its exterior design was forgetful at best. Tired of being the minivan with the “good personality,” Toyota last year unveiled an aggressively styled new Sienna. With muscular flanks worthy of an off-road SUV and a face befitting a masked superhero, it’s clear Toyota replaced the decaf in the design studio. All Siennas now come standard with a hybrid powertrain, returning 36 mpg average, with a choice of FWD or AWD. 

The Sienna’s interior is a wonderful place to spend time. Side doors open with a kick underneath, revealing reclining captain’s chairs with built-in ottomans. Those optional seats also slide delivering Shaq-level legroom. The materials and fit and finish are worthy of a luxury sedan, while the floating center console opens to ample–and accessible–storage below. The console also includes a built-in mini-fridge, a feature that should be standard equipment in any vehicle destined for road tripping. FWD Sienna pricing starts under $35,000.

Looking to attract folks who wouldn’t consider a minivan, KIA calls the all-new 2022 Carnival an MPV (multi-purpose vehicle). From the outside, it has a stylish SUV vibe with nicely integrated door sliders, an extended nose, and an interesting dimpled metal C-pillar. The overall look is really attractive and unique. Inside, the Carnival gets even better. KIA’s interior design department is crushing it with the perfect mix of technology, creativity, and luxury. 

The wide touchscreen leads into a digital dash that incorporates KIA’s Blind-Spot View Monitor. When you use your turn signal, a camera in the mirror displays a view down the side of the car. As a cyclist, I think this should be standard on all cars as it helps you see what can be easily missed. There is also Passenger View and an intercom system between the driver and rear passengers. The second row has optional VIP Lounge seating if you really want to spoil the kiddies. The best seat though is behind the wheel. The Carnival is a joy to drive with excellent ergonomics and the perfect combination of comfort and performance. Carnival prices start at only $32,100.

When you consider the advantages of a minivan, including the lower load-in height, power doors, better handling, and fuel economy, now combined with modern style and luxury, the choice versus an SUV seems easy. Let the arguments begin.