4 modern minivans that are better for families than an SUV

Ah, the minivan.

As much as some of us (me) would hate to admit it, it’s the best form of transportation for a family, 'cept maybe a wagon (but that’s another story for another time). All of these people buying SUVs really need a minivan, they just don’t want to admit it (or drive a minivan). For those willing to embrace parenthood, here’s your minivan primer.

We’ll start with the newest entry from Mercedes. The R-Class, including the sweet R63 AMG minivan, is long gone. In its place is the Metris, a smaller, passenger van reminiscent of the big Sprinter. The Metris starts at about $34,000, but that's before you start adding things like a regular rear liftgate, as opposed to the bifold 180-degree cargo doors. It offers five-, seven- and eight-passenger seating, and the five-passenger model with a bunch of cargo space looks like a pretty good setup for hockey/football families.

The Metris isn’t just an also-ran, though. We road-tripped one a few years ago and found it perfectly acceptable for a trip across the country. Mercedes offers a cold weather package, multifunction steering wheel, stop/start and a nearly full suite of safety features like blind-spot warnings, collision prevention and lane keeping. Maxxed out, it’s a $50,000 vehicle, but as you'll discover below, most of the competition is too.

The rest of the pack, Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna, includes the more standard and steadily improving minivans that have been with us for nearly a familial generation. And then, of course, there is the Chrysler Pacifica (formerly the Town and Country), which started it all and returned with a redesigned vengeance in 2015.

Like the Metris, these minivans aren’t cheap transportation anymore. Our long-term Pacifica Hybrid stickers for $49,375, the Toyota Sienna Limited Premium is $48,800 and the Honda Odyssey Elite can go up to about $47K. Three start in the $30K range; the base Pacifica L is about $28K.

These new vans aren’t slow, either. We’ve been heaping praise on our long-term Pacifica for its 287-hp, 262-lb-ft, 3.6-liter V6 and electric motor. It’s not just “not slow,” it’s “pretty fast.” The Honda uses a nine- or 10-speed trans with its 3.5-liter V6, and that combination is good for a very respectable 280 hp and 262 lb-ft. The swagger-wagon Sienna gets 296 hp and 263 lb-ft of torque, also from a 3.5-liter V6. That one was so good, Toyota built a race car out of it — for promotional purposes, of course. The Metris is actually the least powerful of the four, with a turbocharged I4 making 208 hp and 258 lb-ft.

The Honda Odyssey can tow 3,000 pounds (and about 1,500 pounds of payload); the Sienna is rated at 3,500 (about 1,300 pounds payload); the Pacifica can tow 3,600 pounds (1,725 pounds payload); and finally the commercially oriented Metris wins this battle at 5,000 pounds of capacity (2,500-pound payload).

Moving from power to efficiency, the Sienna clocks in with an EPA rating of 19/27/22 for front-drive versions and 18/24/20 for all-wheel drive. The front-wheel-drive Odyssey is rated at 19/28/22 with either transmission; the Pacifica is at 19/28/22, as well (the hybrid has a combined average of 32 mpg, as long as you charge it regularly); the Metris, with the smallest engine, is surprisingly not the best, rated at 20/23/22.

All four are within a few inches of each other, about 200 inches in length. The Metris has the most overall volume at 186 cubic feet; the Pacifica is next at 165; the Sienna has 164.4; and the Honda comes in at 163.6. So the Metris has the most space inside, and the Mercedes badge in front, if you care about such things. But it would be tough as an enthusiast — or even, enthusiast-adjacent — with less power and an average gas mileage number.

Exterior looks are really subjective, so you can make your own choice there. I will say the Metris, even in its passenger form, looks a little too work truck-y for me. Maybe that’s because I’ve seen too many Sprinters. I think the Pacifica has the best overall sheetmetal; the Odyssey second, Sienna third. But again, I’m not looking for something to set the world on fire, just something I can stand to see in my driveway next to Big Rhonda and Margaret.

Inside, you might be surprised that I would put the Metris in last place there, too. Mercedes can build a hell of an interior — check the S-Class, AMG GT, E-Class, C-Class and pretty much every car it does. The Metris needs an upgrade if it wants to be cross-shopped with these other three, though even Mercedes will admit the Metris straddles the commercial/consumer line. The Pacifica is probably the winner here too, though the Sienna and Honda are about 85 percent as nice as the Chrysler.

As for features, again the Pacifica leads the pack, but if it’s a 10, the Sienna and Odyssey are 9s. The Mercedes-Benz Metris is probably a 7 or 8. For instance, our Pacifica came with heated and cooled seats, an 8.4-inch infotainment screen, premium audio, 360-degree cameras, parking assists, forward collision warning and intervention, adaptive cruise, wireless streaming, power outlets and about a hundred other things. It did NOT come with the “stow-and-go” seats because of the battery in the floor (nonhybrid Pacificas do have a stowable second row). The Honda and the Pacifica both have on-board vacuums, making cleaning up kid messes easier. They all have power sliding doors, which is a must-have in today’s world. The Metris doesn’t offer rear-seat entertainment; the other three do.

So there you have the three powerhouses of the minivan world — and a Mercedes trying to get in on the action. There are a few more that I would also suggest checking out before you buy: The Kia Sedona ($27,000 to start) is as good-looking as ever. There’s the Ford Transit Connect passenger van, though that suffers from the same thing as the Mercedes — looking too much like a work van. Same deal with the Nissan NVs. They’re all good for work, I just don’t know if you’d want to live with one in your driveway.

Bottom line: If you need real space for a family, kids and cargo, get a minivan. They’re as exciting and technologically advanced as they ever have been. If you need space for a family, kids and cargo, and you still want decent driving dynamics, get a station wagon — they too are as cool as ever. Or just ignore me and get a crossover or SUV like everyone else.

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