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What's the best minivan for a family of five?

2012 Nissan Quest

Mike Ditz/Nissan

Dear Gentlemen: What is the best minivan in today's market? We are a family of five so we need a full-sized minivan and our eight-year-old Toyota Sienna LE is ready to be traded in. Should we go with another Sienna? The popular and less-expensive Dodge Caravan? I also see that Nissan has come out with a new version of the Quest. We are interested mainly in the base to mid-level models and would appreciate your advice. – Andrew in Belleville, Ont.

Vaughan: Depends on what your definition of best is, Andy. Best driving? Best looking? Best fuel economy? Or – in my way of thinking – best value for money?

Based on the latter criterion, I say go for the trusty Dodge Grand Caravan ($27,995 base). What a deal they're offering – at least $7,500 in factory cash.

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For the dough – around $20,000-plus – you can't beat it. The design has been cleaned up, the new interior is the best ever and it even has a much improved new engine. It has no snob appeal, but a penny saved is a penny earned.

Cato: Vaughan, did you read Andy's letter? He's been in a Sienna for eight years. Eight years!

Andy is all about quality – could be a fetish with him – and that's why he loves his Sienna. In fact, the Sienna finished first in its class in the latest J.D. Power & Associates long-term Vehicle Dependability Study.

Vaughan: The price, Cato, the price.

Sure, there's nothing wrong with the Sienna; in fact, it might have the best driving qualities, be the best looking, have the best fuel economy – but it's not the best value for money.

I like it and I'm sure Andy would be happy with a new one. If he wants all-wheel-drive, it's his only choice, as well.

But he should save a few thousand dollars by going with the Dodge.

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Cato: You are correct about the pricing issues here. The Sienna starts at $28,120, and Toyota Canada doesn't have any cash on the 2012 model – though if you can find a 2011 kicking around, there is at least $1,500 in factory money in play. The 2012 does have 0.9 per cent financing for three years available.

Quality is not an issue with the Sienna, but I don't think this is the best riding, best handling minivan out there. The Honda Odyssey wins that crown, hands down – and at $29,990 to start, it's in the ballpark price-wise. The Sienna is well equipped, but it's a bit plastic-y in the cabin and all that hard plastic makes the cabin noisy at highway speeds.

Vaughan: The Odyssey has always been well made, too, and is a runner-up in that Power VDS study.

Cato: Glad you returned to the quality story. Because I want to steer Andy to a look at Chrysler's Town & Country. It's the poster child for Chrysler's dramatic improvement in Consumer Reports' annual reliability survey in 2011.

Jeep may have jumped seven places to become the top-rated domestic brand, but the Chrysler brand jumped 12 places and Dodge (including Ram) jumped three spots.

Chrysler's move was based on just two models: the 200 sedan and Town & Country minivan. The T&C won Power's latest short-term Initial Quality Study, with the Odyssey a runner-up – with the Grand Caravan also a runner-up, by the way.

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Vaughan: But the Town & Country starts at $40,995.

Cato: Don't dismiss the $7,500 in incentive money on the T&C. Luxurious, superbly equipped, very quiet – an almost ritzy minivan with pretty decent quality, if you believe the research.

Vaughan: Too expensive. But on to the new Nissan Quest ($29,998 base). I find it the most interesting to look at. I like that wraparound rear window in darkly tinted glass; it hides the roof pillars. I like its gutsy, 260-horsepower V-6.

I don't like the fact that you can't bury the seats under the floor as in Chrysler's Stow 'N Go seats. If you're driving a box on wheels, you want to be able to turn it into an empty box on wheels.

Cato: The discounting on the Quest makes things very interesting. How about $3,000 in incentives on the Quest?

The Quest styling? This is an interesting rig – your basic two-box shape – but there are some nice bends and bulges and creases in the sheet metal.

More importantly, the Quest is very functional. We're talking about a giant box with headlights, endless cup holders and storage compartments, good seats and all sorts of high-tech features available. Passengers in the second row have room to stretch out and the third row is livable. Even the starter model has soft-touch materials all around and a nice mix of colours and textures.

Vaughan: True, but the dollars and cents argument makes it the Caravan for me.

Cato: The T&C has some appeal, but with $3,000 in discounts on the Quest, it's the Nissan for me.

*****

HOW THEY COMPARE



2012 Toyota Sienna LE 7-passenger

2012 Dodge Grand Caravan SE/SXT

2012 Nissan Quest S 3.5

Wheelbase (mm)

3,030

3,078

3,000

Length (mm)

5,085

5,151

5,100

Width (mm)

1,985

1,998

1,971

Height (mm)

1,811

1,725

1,816

Engine

2.7-litre four-cylinder

3.6-litre V-6

3.5-litre V-6

Output (horsepower/torque)

187/186 lb-ft

283/260 lb-ft

260/240 lb-ft

Drive system

front-wheel drive

front-wheel drive

front-wheel drive

Transmission

Six-speed automatic

Six-speed manual

Continuously variable transmission

Curb weight (kg)

1,900

1,960

1,987

Fuel economy (litres/100 km)

10.4 city/7.5 highway

12.2 city/7.9 highway

11.1 city/8.1 highway

Base price (MSRP)

$27,120

$27,995

$29,998

Source: car manufacturers

Jeremy Cato and Michael Vaughan are co-hosts of Car/Business, which appears Fridays at 8 p.m. on Business News Network and Saturdays at 11:30 a.m. on CTV.

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