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.
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.
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.
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
Continuously variable transmission
Curb weight (kg)
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)
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.