New or Used: Respect The Van

Sajeev Mehta and Steve Lang
by Sajeev Mehta and Steve Lang

David writes:

Hi Sajeev,

My family of 5 (1 spouse, 2 four year olds, 1 2 year old) shares 3 cars. A 2003 Passat Wagon, purchased used with 30,000 miles is our primary family car. It gets good mileage (33 mpg on the highway!), fits three kids seats across the back row, and carries a ton of luggage (more than many SUV’s). It handles reasonably well and has good driving dynamics and comfort (and a tight turning radius). Our second car is a 1996 Honda Civic two door hatch, which gets great mileage, was purchased with 8000 miles on it, and was recently declared a rolling hazard with the head gasket ready to fail at any moment. It gets driven 10-15 miles a week at speeds below 35 mph. Our third vehicle serves the dual purpose of track/date car, a 1995 BMW M3 Lightweight, purchased with 60,000 miles on the clock. These three cars have been more than adequate for our family’s needs for 5 years. Until now. We need something that carries 7.

Handling and fuel economy are important in our purchase of 7 seat vehicles. We prefer cars for ease of entry, efficiency, handling, and visibility out (too many vehicles and children can hide below the beltline of a SUV or van). With automakers showing renewed interest in higher fuel economy, we expect to be able to choose from higher mpg choices in a few years. So we want to buy used to minimize the depreciation loss of selling the vehicle in three years. Our intention is to buy a 7 seater to replace the Civic, then a used Prius to replace the Passat, resulting in an overall significant increase in fleet fuel economy. My first choice was a 1996 Camry Wagon with the rear facing seat (the extra two seats are for occasional use only, not normal transport). The middle seat seatbelt was only a lap belt, so no go. Then a Ford Taurus wagon from the early 2000’s, but again, only a lap belt in the middle seat. I looked at Toyota Siennas, but it is difficult to find one with a middle bench (we want three in the middle seat for 5 person use to maximize luggage space), they are expensive, heavy, unwieldy, and not particularly efficient. I have settled on the 2005-2007 Ford Freestyle, which is less expensive, more fuel efficient, has 7 seats, and would appear to deliver a more car like driving experience. In terms of vehicle amenities, safety features and power door locks are the minimum bells and whistles we need. Simpler is better.

Sajeev answers:

Actually a used Ford Freestar (not Freestyle) or Chrysler minivan is right up your alley. You sound like you know your stuff, so check the condition of the transmission fluid as they are the weak point in any minivan. and actively seek out a unit with a comprehensive service record. Yeah, I know you don’t want a Minivan, but you really need it. Slap on a set of good performance rubber, more aggressive brake pads, aftermarket shocks and (maybe) swaybars and you’ll forget about their handling deficiencies. You can get all of those goodies for a 2004 Caravan. Think about it.

Okay fine, the Freestyle looks more like a car. And it might get better mileage. But I will not relent, I want you in a Minivan!

Steve answers:

First off.. congrats on the brood! I think the two of you are going to have your hands full for at least the next 20+ years (if not longer). So in light of that my recommendation will be to minimize your overhaul hassles.

Find what you enjoy. Period. A minivan will more than likely be the best fit. CUV’s tend to have very tight rear seats (the Freestyle/Taurus X in particular) and I’ll be blunt in saying that a Mazda 5 is simply too small for the long haul.

If you are looking at used nothing will beat the long-term costs, safety, comfort, and spaciousness of a minivan. I particularly like the short wheelbase Caravan / Town & Country Sport models from the 05 thru 07 era. But they are more utilitarian vehicles in their base form than anything else. That is no power sliding doors or built in entertainment systems. I like that. Your wife may not.

Eight seat Siennas have a lot of trouble selling. You may want to look at one of those. What else sits at the lots? Well pretty much every minivan with the exception of loaded Siennas, Odysseys, and Town & Countrys. I would skip the now defunct GM and Ford offerings due to their abysmal mileage and reliability.

The Hyundai/Kia models are fine but not particularly economical. The Quest is a weird duck as is the MPV. Odysseys are overpriced and have a multitude of issues.You can also hold off and drive two cars whenever you need to, which wouldn’t be that often, until something truly piques your interest.

Take your time and find what you enjoy. End of story.

Need help with a car buying conundrum? Email your particulars to , and let TTAC’s collective wisdom make the decision easier… or possibly much, much harder.
Sajeev Mehta and Steve Lang
Sajeev Mehta and Steve Lang

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  • FreedMike Well, here's my roster of car purchases since 1981: Three VWsTwo Mazdas (one being a Mercury Tracer, full disclosure)One AudiOne FordOne BuickOne HondaOne Volvo I think I hear Lee Greenwood in the background... In all seriousness, I'd have bought more American cars had they made more of the kinds of cars I like (smaller, performance-oriented).
  • Kwik_Shift_Pro4X I'll gladly support the least "woke" and the most Japanese auto company out there.
  • Jmo2 I just got an email from the dealership where I bought my car and it looks like everything has $5k on the hood.
  • Lou_BC I suspect that since the global pandemic, dealerships have preferred to stay with the "if you want it, we will order it" business model. They just need some demo models on hand and some shiny bits to catch the impulse buyer. Profits are higher and risks lower this way.
  • Probert When I hear the word "patriot", I think of entitled hateful whining ignorant traitors to democracy. But hey , meant to say "Pass the salt."