On the outside, minivans don’t seem to be all that diverse. For many, it seems to be a simple choice between black or white. But there is a grey area. When they are broken down by category and displayed for the world to see, minivans are more diverse than buyers may believe. Like any other type of vehicle they all have their strengths and their weaknesses, and they each offer something unique to their brand. Here’s a peek at where you should be looking if you’re shopping for a minivan.

Size

Okay, so this may not be the most diverse of all the categories, but it is still a choice that must be made. Minivans come in two basic sizes: compact and regular. Compact minivans can seat five to six people comfortably and have less cargo space. Regular minivans can seat up to eight people and have slightly more cargo space in the rear of the vehicle.

Powertrain

There are models out there which operate on four-cylinder engines, but not many. Most minivans are going to come equipped with V6 engines. This is the middle child of the powertrain family. It offers a little more power than a four-banger and better fuel efficiency than a V8. They contain decent acceleration and can still range from 18 to 25 mpg at the pump. If you’re shopping for a minivan, the V6 is probably going to be your most common option, though there are those out there, like the Mazda 5 and the Toyota Sienna, which still offer a four-cylinder engine.

One of the biggest choices you’ll face in powertrain is the option of all-wheel drive. If you live in a temperate climate, there really is no need for this luxury. However, if you deal with harsh winters and muddy summers, the all-wheel option may be the perfect thing for you. After all, this is a family vehicle and there’s nothing worse than being stranded in the dead of winter with your kids in the car.

Safety

Driving doesn’t get a whole lot safer than in a minivan. Many come equipped with an array of airbags and some have luxuries like backup cameras and blind-spot warning systems. Consumers should always check the crash test scores of any vehicle they’re going to purchase, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration did adopt more strenuous testing procedures for the 2011 year. That could cause a gap in crash scores between this year and previous model years, so make sure you take that into account.

Passenger/Interior Space

This is typically the category that drives people to purchase a minivan in the first place. Families outgrow their cars, trucks don’t have enough seats, and minivans offer a more economical alternative to SUVs. Most vans will seat seven to eight people comfortably, aside from the compact models, and many offer removable seating to enhance cargo space. One thing you want to watch for is the ease of seat movement. How accessible are the rear seats? Some vans offers wide-swinging rear doors and sliding second-row seats to ease access to the rear. Others can be rather cumbersome when it comes to climbing into the third row. If you’re a parent who needs to have a car seat in the rear, or a large teenager, you’ll definitely want to look for a model with convenience seating. Either way you go, a minivan is going to offer better seating and cargo than an SUV.

Family-friendly Features

Since it is truly a family vehicle, a minivan will usually offer more available family-oriented features than any other line of vehicle. Rear-DVD entertainment systems are fairly commonplace options now, as well as iPod interfaces, rear climate control, power-sliding doors, storage containers, and Bluetooth. Some models offer a nice feature in the second-row seating, where the center seat will actually slide forward closer to the front seats, allowing for easier access to children in car seats. Another nice feature you may find is a rear-facing center-mounted vanity mirror. This allows parents to keep an extra eye on kids in the back seats.

Price

Minivans start in the neighborhood of $19-$25K for the base models. Options and trim levels can run those models up around $35-$40K. Luxury models with all the trimmings will end up costing closer to $45-$55K. The real highlights in cost come in reliability and fuel efficiency. Minivans are going to be cheaper to repair, maintain, and insure than SUVs.

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