As long as there are families, says Rebecca Lindland, chief auto analyst at consultant HIS Global Insight, there will be minivans.
But don't get too sweaty over the impending renaissance of minivans. Keep calm, still your beating heart. We are not on the cusp of a new golden age of minivans. They have their place, but the fact is, says the sharp-tongued and ever-astute Lindland, young adults are generally not interested in becoming minivan owners. They were hauled around in little milk trucks as kids, "So there's resistance, because that's what their parents drove," she says.
Toyota and Honda, however, are far from giving up on minivans. Toyota launched a new 2011 Sienna in February and Honda has a replacement for the Odyssey coming later this year.
What customers want: Quality, quality and quality
On the other hand, Ford, General Motors and Hyundai have axed vans from their lineups and are banking on crossover wagons of some sort or another to fill family hauling needs. Nissan is planning replacement for the Quest and Mazda is readying a new Mazda5, so there is still some action in minivan-land. But for a certain segment of the car-buying public no amount of action will spur interest. For them, minivans are dorky, they lack cachet and that's that.
If there is any big-picture hope for the beleaguered minivan, it might be empty nesters, not hockey moms. Grandpa and grandma can use the space for hauling around the grandkids, not to mention other grandpas and grandmas. After all, getting into and out of a minivan is easier than with the most functional passenger car. As we age, we start to appreciate ergonomics more and more. Those sliding doors are also magic in skinny mall parking spaces.
So we can make the case for minivans. Sexy? Ahhh, no. But astonishingly practical and eminently affordable compared to most crossovers? Oh, yes.
That is part of Toyota's case for its revamped 2011 Sienna, the third-generation version. Make no mistake, after months of taking it on the chin for quality glitches and recalls in the millions, Toyota wants desperately to talk about the new look, the new driving manners and the new comfort and utility of this Sienna.
The Sienna is a standout van - clearly the best of the current crop, though there is that new Odyssey waiting in the wings. On top of that, Chrysler is updating its minivans later this year and Nissan will have a new Quest early in 2011.
That will be then. For now, Toyota is on top of the heap and for all sorts of reasons. Take safety. The Sienna is loaded with airbags, including one for the driver's knees, and safety features like electronic stability control. As a result, the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rates it a Top Safety Pick.
And quality? Well, the bad news has taken a toll on Toyota's reputation. In J.D. Power and Associates latest Initial Quality Study, Toyota's ranking plunged to 21st (out of 33 brands) from sixth a year earlier. But - and it's a big but - the Sienna still won the minivan category for having best-in-class quality - ahead of the Kia Sedona and Dodge Grand Caravan.
Get it before it's gone
When it comes to a family room on wheels, Toyota can also offer buyers all sorts of choices with this new Sienna: five trim levels, two engines, front- or all-wheel-drive configurations, regular or sporty suspensions and a wide range of prices starting at $27,900, topping out at $49,100. If nothing else, give Toyota kudos for being committed to minivans bottom to top.
Personally, I'd simply buy the budget-friendly four-cylinder base model. Its 2.7-litre four is also used in the Venza and Highlander crossovers and it's a good engine rated at 187 horsepower and 186 lb-ft of torque. You will only run into power troubles when your van is fully loaded with six or seven people and all their gear. You might struggle to zip in and merge onto busy highways, but once you're up to speed, this Sienna has no trouble keeping up with traffic.
Here's another surprise: for a big box on wheels, it's quite a pleasant ride - handling bad pavement quite nicely, in particular. The body feels solid and, despite being front-wheel drive, the Sienna is not excessively nose-heavy. The electric power steering is light and at times vague, yet overall, driving this van hardly rates as a chore.
If you must insist on more power, there is the 266-hp V-6 which is carried over from the second-generation Sienna. Who needs it? I mean, who races around in a minivan? Besides, the new six-speed automatic transmission (replacing a five-speed) is pretty deft at managing available engine power.
Most impressive of all is the Sienna's interior. Seven-passenger Siennas come with two plush captain's chairs in the second row. In eight-passenger versions, a very narrow seat is wedged in between.
Whatever seats you get, they slide forward or backward. This gives you marvellous seating/cargo-hauling flexibility, while also making it easier to slide into the third row - which tumbles down into the floor at the rear if you don't need it. Alas, the second row cannot be folded flat into the floor, though Chrysler has managed that trick for years with the Stow 'N Go feature.
Which brings us to storage and there's lots of it - trays, bins and compartments, two glove boxes, a tray on the floor for a purse or briefcase, a centre console with a rear portion that can slide back to make the cup holders more accessible to second-row passengers; Toyota's designers have invented all sorts of clever ways to hide any manner of stuff.
There is no more practical ride than a minivan and there is no more practical minivan than the Sienna. Sexy? Don't be silly. But if you're watching your budget and still have a herd of youngsters to haul, nothing tops this new Sienna.
Oh, and did I mention it's possible to fit a bathtub in back? Another story.
How much does that new car cost?
2011 Toyota Sienna LE seven-passenger
Base price: $27,900; as tested, $29,460 (including freight)
Engine: 2.7-litre, four-cylinder, DOHC
Horsepower/torque: 187 hp/186 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 10.4 city/7.5 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Honda Odyssey, Dodge Grand Caravan/Chrysler Town & Country, Kia Sedona, Mazda5