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October 31, 2010

News & Features

Comfort fit: Retooled 2011 minivans feature better looks and more technology

Special to NWautos

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The 2011 Chrysler Town & Country was improved inside and out.

Congratulations! The fact that you, most likely a harried parent, have even a moment to glance at a story about minivans is impressive.

You're smart to do so, though, because while many SUVs and crossovers can also hold seven or eight passengers, none of them are as supremely functional as the minivan. Fashion forward? Maybe not. But they're as comfortable as well-worn jeans.

Ford and General Motors have left the minivan party and, like kids who won't share their Goldfish crackers, the remaining players want more of the shrinking market. But unlike quarreling children, the competition is a good thing for buyers. Tech toys, storage nooks and cabin materials are getting big upgrades.

Minivans: The return of cool?

Six models will be available for 2011; three of the freshest are featured here. (Nissan's all-new Quest isn't included because it debuts at the Los Angeles Auto Show next month and details are embargoed until then.)

Chrysler Town & Country
Chrysler invented the minivan and, over the years, the Town & Country has evolved into a Swiss Army knife on wheels. For 2011, the exterior gets a refresh and the cabin gets a dramatic redo with upgraded materials.

No need to remove the seats to haul 4-by-8-foot sheets of plywood -- the exclusive Stow 'n Go middle row of chairs now disappears into the floor with just one touch. Those chairs are also more comfortable. Families can stash an endless supply of toys and snacks in a new "super" center console and watch Sirius and FLO TV.

An impressive bundle of features, branded SafetyTec, is standard and includes blind-spot monitoring normally found only on luxury cars. The new Pentastar V6 engine, with 283 horsepower, offers up better performance and fuel economy for 17 mpg city, 25 highway. Look for the new Town & Country in December starting at around $26,000.

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The 2011 Honda Odyssey sports a "lightning bolt" beltline for better visibility.

Honda Odyssey
Long considered the sports car of the bunch, this minivan gets a new shape that will have the kids talking. Lower and wider this time around, the Odyssey retains its fun-to-drive feeling. And its "lightning bolt" beltline -- which improves visibility for third row passengers -- means this Honda and Harry Potter now have something in common.

Parents will appreciate that the center section of the middle row slides forward for better access to the child sitting there. And everyone will enjoy the upgraded interior materials. Math skills can even be honed by getting kids to count the cup holders (up to 15, depending on the model).

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The Toyota Sienna gets a sportier look for 2011, influenced by the Vensa crossover.

The 248-horsepower V6 deactivates cylinders when cruising for optimal efficiency, scoring an EPA rating as high as 19 mpg city, 28 highway. Those watching the college fund will appreciate the base $27,800 LX model, available now.

Toyota Sienna
Available since June, the third-generation Sienna has received a sportier look, borrowing cues from the flowing Venza crossover. Families with skiers, take note: it's the only van sporting all-wheel drive. Another exclusive is a torquey four-cylinder engine option, and, yes, the 187 horsepower it puts out is fine.

Most will opt for the 266-horsepower V6 that gets fuel economy of 18 mpg city, 24 highway. Sienna's chief engineer is a go-kart enthusiast, and his baby is the SE model with a tuned and lowered suspension -- perfect for getting the kids to soccer practice right quick.

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Extra wide screens, like in the Toyota Sienna, are wide enough to play two different shows. (Toyota)

With seats that do a great La-Z-Boy impression and a video screen wide enough to display two different programs, Toyota has focused heavily on keeping those in the middle row happy. With prices beginning at $25,000, the drivers will be satisfied, too.

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