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2010 Toyota Sienna

Toyota

2011 Chrysler Town & Country

($39,995 base)

Dodge Grand Caravan

($27,995 base)

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You might say that for 2011, the Chrysler Group had a look at its minivans and decided to think inside the box and under the hood.

Start with the engine. The all-new 3.6-litre Pentastar V-6 is going into just about every vehicle coming out of Chrysler these days. In the vans, this single engine replaces three V-6 engines. This engine provides lots of power - 283 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque - and is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. The Town & Country comes with lots of acceleration, and gear shifting is smooth.

Other changes for 2011 include upgrades to the suspension, tweaks to the sheet metal and a complete re-do of the interior. Here, we'll focus on the Town & Country, but the changes in the Grand Caravan are equally impressive.

The overhauled interior starts with the single-piece dashboard. It looks solid, feels well-made and creates a more dramatic interior. All told, Chrysler addressed nearly every touch point on this minivan to make it feel softer and more luxurious - from the armrests to the centre console to materials everywhere that feel higher grade.

Useful features include power outlets in the back to keep the juice flowing for a gaming device connected to the dual DVD entertainment system. Second-row Stow 'N Go seats are slightly bigger and a one-touch, fold-down function makes them easier to fold. There are also lots of little cubbies and storage places throughout the cabin for holding all of the things people bring on board.

Overall, a much better Chrysler minivan lineup.

*****

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2012 Mazda5

($21,795 base)

The redesigned 2012 Mazda5 looks great and seats up to six in three rows of seating. And unlike minivans such as Dodge Grand Caravan, Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey, the 5 is really and truly a minivan for a mini price.

How much? The 2012 Mazda5 is sold in two trim grades: GS ($21,795) and top-of-the-line GT ($24,395). All versions come with a 2.5-litre, four-cylinder engine (157 horsepower and 163 lb-ft of torque). A new six-speed manual transmission is standard, with a five-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission optional ($1,200). Air conditioning, Dynamic Stability Control, Traction Control and dual front and side airbags for first row passengers and side air curtains for all three rows are on every new Mazda5.

Aside from its nifty size (making it easy to park), the 5 most stands out for its handling. Based on the chassis of the Mazda3, a sporty compact car, the five's steering, braking and cornering are surprisingly sharp. Yes, this minivan is engaging and responsive.

Now for the "buts." The hard plastic trim in the cabin is not great, not at all. Some potential buyers will walk away because Mazda doesn't offer the 5 with power sliding side doors or a power tailgate. Up-market types won't like that and that's their loss.

For many Canadians, the Mazda5 might just prove right-sized.

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*****

2011 Toyota Sienna

($27,900 base)

Toyota launched a new 2011 Sienna a year ago, arguing its revamped, third-generation version has better driving manners and more comfort and utility than ever.

It's safe, too. 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? In J.D. Power and Associates latest Initial Quality Study, the Sienna won the minivan category for having best-in-class quality - ahead of the Kia Sedona and Dodge Grand Caravan.

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.

The budget-friendly, four-cylinder base model with its 2.7-litre four (187 horsepower) is the value choice, by the way. For a big box on wheels, the Sienna is quite a pleasant ride. If you must have more power, there is the 266-hp V-6, which is carried over from the second-generation Sienna.

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. For storage and there are 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.

*****

2011 Honda Odyssey

($29,990 base)

There is much to like about the 2011 Honda Odyssey and it all starts with the 3.5-litre, 24-valve V-6 (248 hp) mated to the six-speed automatic transmission. Great powertrain.

The exterior styling, however, is controversial to say the least. This is Honda being creative, though not everyone agrees this approach is successful. Take that "lightning-bolt beltline." Awesome? Or not?

Styling aside, the Odyssey is pretty great. Quiet, too. The better versions come equipped with acoustic front glass and all versions are generally better sealed and silenced than before. The cabin also has plenty of storage compartments and cupholders.

Honda also increased the middle-second-row seat in the total remake for 2011. The seat slides forward, too. The Odyssey remains the only minivan with seating for five adults, truth be told.

Overall, then, the all-new Odyssey has more space, more features and better fuel economy.

How to make minivans cool Full Story: Jeremy Cato explains how auto makers can make minivans hip - and keep minivan moms happy

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About the Author
Senior writer, Globe Drive

In 25 years of covering the auto industry, Jeremy Cato has won more than two-dozen awards, including three times being named automotive journalist of the year. Jeremy was born in Montreal and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. More

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