Once it was the king of the road, so to speak, at least in terms of family versatility and popularity. But the minivan, which debuted in the mid-1980s with the introduction of the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager, is definitely on the decline, according to the editors of Consumer Guide. Although it’s been replaced by more popular crossover vehicles, the minivan still serves the needs of many families across America. It costs less to buy, less to insure, and less to maintain than full-size vans, SUVS and some crossovers.

Minivans come in three sizes: compact, regular and large. For 2009, there are 8 minivans available: Chrysler Town & Country, Dodge Grand Caravan, Honda Odyssey, Hyundai Entourage, Kia Sedona, Nissan Quest, Toyota Sienna and Volkswagen Routan.

If the prices of brand-new minivans is not in your reach and you’re looking to buy used, you may well ask what the best used minivans are. Consumer Reports, in their Best of the Best lists of various vehicle segments, lists only two: Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey. Their research includes vehicles from 1999 through 2008 and includes only vehicles with multiple years of above-average reliability. Listed here are the major design and/or equipment changes for these two minivans, along with pertinent EPA fuel economy numbers and crash-test ratings.

Toyota Sienna

First introduced in 1998, the Toyota Sienna is a good choice, new or used, according to Edmunds.com. Posting good crash-test scores, Sienna has exceptional reputation for both long-term overall dependability and overall quality, Edmunds’ editors say. A look at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reveals Toyota Sienna scored 5 stars for driver frontal and 4 stars for passenger frontal and 5 stars for driver and passenger in side-impact tests from 2000-2003. In 2004, Sienna earned a 5-star rating in frontal and side impact testing. From 2005-2009, Odyssey’s NHTSA ratings were 4-star driver frontal, 5-star passenger frontal and 5 stars in side-impact testing.

First-generation Toyota Sienna (1998-2003) models seat up to 7 passengers. There was no fold-flat seating in the 3rd row. The first-generation did post excellent crash test scores, had a great ride and a respectable 210 horsepower 3.0-liter V-6 engine. Consumer Reports says the first-generation has “refined design, cut tight space in the 3rd row.”

The right side power door appeared in the 1999 model year. Front seat airbags and stability control became optional in 2001. Also in 2001, dealer-installed rear-seat entertainment system was available, although it was VHS. If you’re looking to buy a Toyota Sienna from that time period, you’re better off to install your own DVD system.

The second-generation Toyota Sienna debuted in 2003 as a 2004 model, powered by a 215-hp 3.3-liter V-6 engine. Consumer Reports hails the redesigned model as “roomier, more powerful, with available all-wheel drive (AWD), and overall good reliability.” You may want to buy a 2005 and newer Sienna, since Toyota strengthened the side structure in 2005 and revised the side airbags to improve performance in side-impact crashes. Side airbags were standard on all Sienna models in the 2006 model year. Before that time, side airbags were standard only on the XLE Limited, and optional on other trims.

Edmunds.com lists used Toyota Sienna dealer retail prices ranging from $4,785 (1998) to $28,743 (2008). For 2009, Toyota Sienna base prices range from $24,540 to $37,865. Offering 7- or 8-passenger seating and a 230-hp 3.3-liter V-6 engine, the 2009 model is well-equipped and benefits from Toyota’s reputation for strong resale value. EPA fuel economy range for 2009 models is 17 to 23 mpg. Toyota Sienna is the only 2009 minivan available with AWD for better traction control on slick roads.

Honda Odyssey (2001-2006)

While Honda Odyssey has been around since the first-generation (1995-1998), Consumer Reports lists the second-generation (2001-2006) as the best used minivans. From 1999 to 2004, Odyssey was available in front-wheel drive (FWD) only in LX and EX (EX featured the dual power-sliding doors). Power came from a 210-hp 3.5-liter V-6 engine (240 horsepower from 2000 to 2004). Anti-lock brakes (ABS) were standard, 2nd-row seats folded or could be easily removed, and 3rd-row seats folded flat into the floor.

In 2005 models, Odyssey was redesigned (its third-generation model), with only minor changes through 2008. Available in EX, EX-L and Touring, Odyssey boasted a 244-hp V-6 that still qualified as an Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (ULEV-2) by the California Air Resources Board (CARB). EPA fuel economy was 20 mpg city/28 mpg highway – the highest in the segment, according to the 2005 EPA Fuel Economy Guide. Touring trim included the Honda DVD rear entertainment system.

In NHTSA testing, Honda Odyssey from 2001-2009 achieved a 5-star rating in frontal and side-impact tests.

Edmunds lists used Odyssey dealer retail prices ranging from $2,913 (1995) to $33,341 (2008). For 2009, Honda Odyssey dealer retail prices range from $24,214 to $37,355. Consumer Guide lists 2009 prices ranging from $26,255 to $41,605, and EPA fuel economy at 16 mpg city/23 mpg highway.

What To Look For

Using these two minivans as a starting point, compare other available minivans out there. Consider their NHTSA crash-test ratings, EPA fuel economy, costs to buy, insure and maintain. Also check the vehicle’s maintenance records to ensure it’s been serviced properly.

As for features: look for good V-6 power, seats that are easy to adjust (reconfigurable 2nd-row seats, 3rd row that folds flat), rear air conditioning, entertainment system, storage containers, power sliding doors, and overall comfort.

Are there other really great used minivans? You bet. Consumers have their favorites, as indicated by blog postings all over the Web. But you have to start somewhere, so use these two that Consumer Reports list as the best and go from there.

For more unbiased tips & advice on car buying and selling, see http://blog.iseecars.com.  To start your car search, visit http://www.iSeeCars.com , a leading search engine for finding over 2 million cars for sale from more than 11,000 websites with ONE SEARCH.

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