By on October 27, 2011


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.

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20 Comments on “New or Used: Respect The Van...”

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    Ford minivan, really? I’m shocked you would say that. The last decent “minivan” Ford made was the Aerostar, all that followed, whatever name they carried, were crap.

    • 0 avatar

      Seriously. Those were garbage when they were new, I can’t imagine how awful they would be to own 5+ years later.

      This guy doesn’t want a minivan and it doesn’t sound like he needs one. Back in the ’90s, I remember plenty of family of families with three kids making do with short-wheelbase Caravans with wheezy Mitsubishi V6s. Most modern three-row crossovers aren’t as space-efficient, but they get the job done without the stigma of a dumpy minivan. The long-wheelbase barges that masquerade as “minivans” today are overkill unless you have a constant need to haul six people.

      Performance shocks and sway bars on an old Caravan? That’s one of the goofiest things I’ve ever heard.

    • 0 avatar

      +1. Holy Mary, stay away from the Windstar/Freestar. They will eat head gaskets and transmissions with equal abandon, they will rust to powder (including in frame and suspension areas). They are just pure, unadulterated crap. This is why they are so dirt cheap. Stay away. I have a lot of van experience, and am generally well disposed towards Fords (I had a great experience with a Club Wagon). I would sooner buy a Yugo.

  • avatar

    Quick test to see if the Mazda5 is right for you:

    Climb into all the seats and see if you can fit reasonably comfortably. It’ll be a decade till your youngest hits adult height; so if the seats are OK for that then you’ve got a clear first-place car.

  • avatar

    If gas mileage and 8 passenger capability is an issue may I suggest the Hybrid Highlander. We have a 2006 that we purchased used that we are very happy with. We only put about 6K a year on it but I track the mileage and we average just over 26MPG with mostly city driving (highway gets us about 29). Very comfortable and easy to drive / live with and also offers great visability for the kids. Added benefit is that about 10 days a year we need the ground clearance and 4WD option to get us out of the dirt road we live on. We also have a 2010 Prius that put about 18K a year on and are very pleased with. Calclulated average over 21K miles is 56.2 with about half the miles being highway.

  • avatar

    DId you know that the new 2012 Chevy Suburban gets 17/21mpg? That is SPECTACULAR for a vehicle that size, I would highly recommend it, they last forever.

  • avatar

    You mentioned the Sienna and that you were looking for a decent middle bench. The previous generation one that ended in 2010 had the best middle bench in the market. The newer ones still have a middle bench “insert” but the previous one was a robust mini captain’s chair. I agreed to let the wife buy a minivan under the condition that we get the eight passenger Sienna (They didn’t have trouble selling to me, but we could not find one easily). It was the only one with a decent middle bench/seat. You could even move the middle seat forward to reach the baby seat. Since you like “used”, do not buy a Sienna older than 2007 because that is when they changed to a much improved engine.

  • avatar

    I’m in a similar situation…also looking for a 7 person carrier.

    At the top of my list is the Sorento:

    Seats 7
    You have a choice of a 4 cyl (175hp), 4cyl with Direct Inject (191hp) or 6 cyl (276hp)

    If you get the low trim + convenience package ($24k MSRP) it seats 7 and EPA rating is 22/32 IIRC. I think the older 4cyl is 20/29.

    32 mpg in a 7 seater I think is unheard of…

  • avatar

    The Freestyle/Taurus X is a solid bet with your criteria. Beats the heck out of some bloated minivan when the third row really isn’t going to get used that much anyway. The Highlander Hybrid that was suggested above isn’t a bad choice, either.

    Since the 3rd row sounds like it won’t be used that much, maybe you could get that Prius first and squeak by with the Passat as a family hauler for another year or two until something more to your liking comes along. If you absolutely need the extra seats for, say, a vacation, you could always rent something – that’s way cheaper than the loss you’ll take on buying a vehicle you don’t plan on keeping.

    • 0 avatar

      +1. Your 4-year-olds are old enough to get into the back seat of a Freestyle/Taurus X on their own so they can sit there and let your additional passengers use the middle when you have them. These are good cars. I’ve had the sedan versions of these; both a 500 and a Taurus; and found that the older car’s mileage was better, though I think the Taurus is the nicer of the two.

      Make sure you take care of that CVT if you buy a Freestyle. It needs 60K-mile fluid changes, and it’s real pricey to replace if it dies. The powertrain in a Taurus X might be better, but when I bought the newer car it cost me 1mpg.

  • avatar

    Two points. First, avoid the Freestyle like the plague. There was a recent piston slap column about the CVT. This is not a good bet. These things fail, and are an orphan technology at Ford.

    Second. Bang for the buck: Gotta be a Grand Caravan or a Town & Country. You did not tell us your price range. I am still partial to the Gen3 (1996-2000) but good ones are getting harder to find. If you live in salt country, watch the shock towers.

    The Gen IV (2001-2007) are not bad, but had a lot of costs cut out of them. If you live in the north, pick a dark color so that the rust will not stand out so much when it starts blistering through the paint. But the engines will run forever, and the weakest point (tranny) is a part that is fairly cheap and easy to repair, as transmissions go.

    You can pay a lot more money for a Sienna or Odyssey, but (espeially with the Ody) will not necessarily have fewer service issues. A Chrysler minivan with either a good warranty or owned by a retired couple and well maintained will do everything you need.

    Edit – an off the wall idea: the 1st generation Odyssey. They are getting old and scarce (1995-98) but if you can find a pristine 1-0wner version at about 100K miles, BUY IT. It is more like a Freestyle than a minivan. The 4 cylinder is good on gas (around town) and there is enough room (but not an overabundance). I owned one of these for awhile and loved it. This car was the whole package. Bulletproof engine, transmission and body, even up north. Check out the forums. It is still a love-fest.

  • avatar

    Coming from the rental car perspective, a family owned franchise, I can only say positive things about the `07-`10 Sienna’s. We ran the CE/LE 8-seat models, which in fact were always in demand for that one extra seat from the rental and sale side. Great visibility, strong engine and smooth transmission, decent handling for what it is, super reliable and very comfy!

  • avatar

    Am I the only one still stuck on the ’95 BMW M3 CSL?

    What about a full-size GM passenger van / conversion van (not 15 passenger but 7 [4 captains + 1 back bench] or 8 [2 captains + 2 bench] and floor space)? Simple and inexpensive to repair, drivetrains are bullet-proof with preventive maintenance and at this point, their efficiency makes them hard to sell.

    Growing up in a family of 6 with car-pooling with other kids to and fro sports practices, school plays, and sleepovers, that extra seating will make a difference.

  • avatar

    We had a very similar situation — 2000 Passat wagon that we loved, more kids and kid-schlepping. We settled on a 2006 Mazda MPV 5 years ago. Bought it new. Has been pretty reliable overall. Fit 7 — much more room than the Mazda 5 which struck us as about the same size as the Passat wagon. More reliable than any of the Chrysler products, better driving, as well. I think of it as a sane alternative to mega-sized minivans with much of the same Japanese build quality of Toyota and Honda vans. Depreciation has made it possible to get one of these at a decent price — I would look for 2002+ since Mazda switched to the 3.0 liter Duratec V6 and had much more power.

    Face facts, you will have several years of needing a third row. Don’t overinvest, but don’t skimp either. And power sliding doors are a parent’s best friend.

    • 0 avatar

      I like the 2002-4 MPV, too, shopped for one a while back before ending up with an 04 Outback. As I remember, the 5speed automatic transmission was a weak link for the MPV in terms of reliability, so you’d want to look into that if looking at MPVs.

  • avatar

    Kia Rhondo? Cheap. Car Seats 7.

  • avatar

    Volvo V70 wagon? V70R if you want something sportier. It seats 7 (with rear facing seats for the third row).

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