New Cars 2011: What to Watch for in Minivans

Last Updated Aug 24, 2010 12:38 PM EDT

This is the sixth of a series. In addition to an overview of the 2011s and your money, MoneyWatch has broken out details for Small Cars, Mid-size Cars, Small SUVs and Mid-Size SUVs. We also will cover Luxury Cars and Hybrid and Electric cars.

The rapping suburban parents in Toyota's "Swagger Wagon" commercial cleverly spoof the uncool Mom-with-a-minivan image. But the commercial isn't all that's new in minivans. Toyota's Sienna (on sale now) and leading competitor Honda Odyssey (available this fall) are both getting complete redesigns as 2011 models. The two other big sellers, Chrysler's Dodge Grand Caravan and Town and Country, are expected to have some small design tweaks when they're out later this year.

The minivan buyer is changing, also. Although minivan sales have lost ground to crossover utilities (Ford and GM no longer even make minivans), the chief virtues of the vans-seating for up to eight, easy access with side sliding doors and low-level easy rear loading-are attracting retiring Baby Boomers. The auto site says 13 percent of minivan buyers now have no children at home and predicts the figure will grow due to easy access and comfortable seating for older drivers and the ability to haul adult children and grandkids in one vehicle.

Here's a look at the redesigns for the Sienna and Odyssey and whether these minivans are worth your money:

Toyota Sienna-The Sienna's stylish redesign has found favor with reviewers. Hey, you gotta have style if you're gonna swagger. New headlights angled upward give the front end a slightly edgier look and the rear corners are less boxy than in the previous design. Following the overall trend to higher mileage, the Sienna offers a four-cylinder engine with 19 mpg in the city, 24 on the highway, in addition to the minivan's traditional V-6 (18 city/24 highway). Some reviewers complain that the four-cylinder, which comes in the least expensive models, shows sluggish acceleration. With mileage nearly as good, the six-cylinder version is probably worth the extra $1,240 in list price (at $25,500).

As for safety, a major issue for minivan buyers, the Sienna comes with standard stability and traction control and seven airbags, including side and head protection. That is similar to equipment in the 2010 Honda Odyssey and likely the 2011 Odyssey. The 2011 Sienna hasn't yet been crash-tested by the federal government but received a "top safety pick" rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which does its own crash tests. The Sienna was not involved in Toyota's sudden acceleration recall.

The Sienna seats seven or eight depending on which version you pick. It has 39 cubic feet of luggage space with all the seats in and huge 150 cubic feet maximum cargo space with all but the front the seats out. The Sienna starts at a list price of $24,360 with the four-cylinder engine and, like most minivans, the price ranges much higher-up to $39,770 for the V-6 all-wheel drive Limited version.

Put it all together, add in that the previous generation of Siennas got top reliability ratings after three years of ownership in this year's J.D. Power and Associates rankings, and the Sienna looks like an excellent value-especially for its versions priced below $26,000.

Honda Odyssey-The Odyssey, the top-selling minivan, also gets a new look: a zig-zag body line that Honda says also improves the view for third-row passengers. The 2011 model is lower and slightly wider-which translates into more shoulder room inside for driver and passengers. Though the new version is available later this fall, Honda has yet to to release full specifications and safety equipment details or to provide test drives for reviewers (we expect to get a test drive in early September). Despite improvements by the Toyota Sienna, Odyssey is likely to hold onto its reputation as the most capable minivan in driving and handling.

Honda expects its improved V-6 engine-with variable cylinder management that lets the minivan use only as many cylinders as needed-to be rated at 19 mpg in city driving, 28 on the highway, making it more fuel efficient than the Sienna. No one has yet crash-tested the 2011 model, but the 2010 got top ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. While Honda hasn't yet released exact dimensions, expect seating for seven or eight (depending on which model you choose) and luggage and cargo space roughly comparable to the Sienna. Exact prices have not yet been released, but last year's range was $28,800 to $40,750. Family drivers who care if their van can corner smartly and maneuver smoothly along curving roads will probably want the Honda. And based on projections by Kelley Blue Book, the Honda Odyssey likely will hold its resale value slightly better than the Toyota Sienna.

Pictures courtesy of the manufacturers

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    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.