By on December 6, 2011

Chris writes:

Dear Sajeev,

Love the website and love your reading your column. My question is I am looking to get a minivan within the next 6 months to a year. I am only looking to spend around 8 grand on one. I am leaning heavily towards Chrysler’s vans, and found some really great deals on older ones with low miles. But then I read your article about how it’s not always good to go with older, low mile automobiles. So would I be better to get say, a 2002 model Town and Country, with a little over 100 hundred thousand miles? Or should I not even bother with Chrysler at all? I was leaning towards a Windstar as well, but then there’s that whole rear axle breaking thing, and I quite enjoy living. In your personal opinion what is the best minivan for my budget.

Sajeev Answers:

I’m gonna try something different: give reasonably decent advice in the beginning, then let out my crazy.  Because there’s more variety to your minivan choices than what you see: multiple opportunities to dance before dating in the Homecoming Dance of Minivan Life, as it were. So let’s do this thing.

That said, buying a used minivan is a tough nut to crack.  Usually a higher mile vehicle with ample service records is the way to go, but perhaps their Achilles’ heel (transaxles not worthy of such a large machine) will fail much sooner on a high mile rig versus a low mile creampuff.  After all, new tires/belts/hoses/brakes on a 30,000 mile rig is much more palatable than a new gearbox after 110,000 miles. Speaking purely in generalities, ‘natch.

Chrysler’s hit or miss quality control with transmissions is almost legendary.  Rebuilt units are just as troublesome, depending on the Pentastar-savviness of the shop involved. Windstars were recalled for rusty axles, and perhaps the replacements should also be coated in 90-weight gear oil to keep the problem from resurfacing, so to speak.

That said, 90-weight oil does smell like a gigantic ass, so perhaps not. But this isn’t the point.

Look at what’s in your budget, I suspect the recall free (fuel system aside) Ford Freestar is up your alley…they definitely trade under your budget in the auctions, so why not find a desperate seller ready to take a low ball bid? And with the “big block” 4.2L motor, they are rather quick too. I kinda like them, in a bizarre CUV-hating kinda way. Then again, you might find plenty of clean Chrysler vans with ample service paperwork and a clean transmission dipstick. How am I to know what you will find first?

Even though the last gen GM minivans are uglier than sin, they are also a worthy choice. Especially the Buick of Minivans, the Terraza. And maybe you’ll get a sweetheart deal on a Toyota/Honda minivan from a friend who could care less about their price premium on the market. So what’s my advice?

Let the service history, transmission fluid condition, and status of normal wear items (interior, brakes, paint, power-operated gizmos, tires, etc) be your guide.  Or be nuts like me, and hold out until you find a fully loaded Mercury Monterey and tune the hell outta that big block 4.2L for maximum minivan hotrod goodness.

Mercury lives: come and dance with me!

Send your queries to [email protected] . Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry.



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71 Comments on “Piston Slap: Come and Dance with…who???...”

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Terraza – get a rare Versatrac version and add the knobbiest tires that will fit without a lift kit. Wait for your neighbors to ask what the name of that new Buick SUV is. :P

    I’ve only seen one Mercury Monterey in the flesh in my entire life. An elderly couple here in town owns it and the rest of the family is hard core Ford so I’m guessing it was a good deal on a tarted up Ford.

  • avatar

    I know that Chrysler products get a bad rap, but everyone I know with a Chrysler minivan seems to find it reasonably reliable. Of course, the transmissions are a weak spot in most minivans, but proper maintenance and a transmission cooler can solve that problem.

    On the other hand, I have only heard horror stories about Windstars, and they have rapidly disappeared from the roads in my area.

    These are just anecdotal observations, though.

    • 0 avatar
      fred schumacher

      The bad rap of Chrysler products is a boon to us cheapskates who buy their minivans and know that we can take them to high miles, especially ones with the bulletproof 3.3 liter, with very low maintenance costs. I’ve taken four of those versions past 250,000 miles at a purchase price plus repair cost of 3 to 5 cents per mile. And this is mostly in northern Minnesota, with its temperature extremes and salt-covered, frost-heaved roads built on muskeg.

      The major problem with the 4-speed tranny was the o-ring letting fluid drain out of the hydraulic pump. The solution is to just wait on first start-up in the morning until the pump reprimes. You’ll feel a clunk.This is a problem that usually shows itself at temperatures under 20 below. If you drive off before full pressure, the transmission goes into second gear default. Just stop the car and turn the ignition off, and the computer will reset. I’ve driven 150,000 miles on a transmission doing that. That van went 305,000 miles, and I parked it because the A-arm bushings went soft. The engine was still strong as new and didn’t use oil.

      • 0 avatar

        My dad had a 2006 Grand Caravan for a 27 month lease. 27 months shouldn’t really expose any major issues in a car, especially today but at about 7,000 miles the power steering rack failed for the first time. At about 10,000 miles the left sliding door failed. (must have been used a tiny bit more than the right.) At about 14,000 miles the right door followed. Since day 1 the rear hatch was very tough to close, and the dealer never wanted to touch it. At around 24,000 miles the rack and pinion failed for again. Before he turned it in the stow and go seats felt like they were starting to hang up a bit and probably didn’t have much left in them. This all happened in 27 months, I can’t imagine what failed later. I wouldn’t recommend one of these piles of garbage for my worst enemy. I can’t comment on the reliability of the newer van, but it sounds like the older one is in Chris’s budget.

  • avatar

    Windstar: Stay far, far, FAR, away. Between failing transmissions half-axles, and rust I’m going to have a rare disagree with Sanjeev. I have a couple of friends that tried this route – fail – epic fail.

    Chrysler/Dodge/Plymouth: Sanjeev nails it, the complete hit and miss tranny issues with these vans is really problematic. It’s a gamble.

    Second Gen GM U-Body vans Saturn Relay, Pontiac Montana, Buick Terraza, Chevrolet Uplander: Built 2005+ (careful there was overlap on the Montana in 2005 with some being the old death trap style with the 3.4L gasket eating V6 and the newer ugly as sin SUV wanna be look): You want the SUV wanna be square nosed looking GM vans. Accessory quality on these suck. Just rip the fuse out for the power sliding doors as step one if you buy one. Just give up on those ever working right. If you go this route (yikes) then try to find one with the 3.9L V6 – about the same MPG as the 3.5 but a lot more grumpf. I would go Buick, Saturn, Pontiac, Chevrolet in that order for interior comfort. Get leather (well they call it leather, I wonder how many naugas had to die to make that naugahyde in there) as it wears surprisingly well and better than GM cloth for the same period. Be aware the wheel speed sensors are crap on all the U-bodies, just start budgeting in your head $400 to $500 a corner for sensor and bearing replacement post 100K miles. No matter what, consider a GM U-Body a disposable vehicle and by 150K miles anything beyond that is just a bonus. Stay away from any GM U-Body built in 2004 or earlier (and early production 2005 Montanas) as these vehicles are complete, total, 100% death traps. They scored the worst every in IIHS crash tests and the 1997 Pontiac Trans Sport crash is the stuff of YouTube legend. Oh one last critical thing. There is a major wiring harness under the driver seat. If that harness gets wets from the inside (cabin side) where it is not sealed/insulated the whole assembly can rot out. This will cause problems with the throttle, fuel gauge, and a host of other issues as this harness connects all of the electronics running from the rear of the van, including fuel pump and all related sending units – to the front. This can be up to an $800 repair and hard to track down/diagnose as it tends to be an intermittent problem that gets worse and worse. There is plenty of directions on the web on how to build your own harness and seal it as a DIY repair.

    Honda: In your price range and age range stay far away from any Honda minivan with a 5-speed automatic. It’s really bizzare, its like all the minivan makers got together in 2000 (and Toyota didn’t show up) and decided as a group to put wonky fussy tend to die too early trannies in all their vans for the next few years – you know – just – because.

    Toyota: If you can find a deal – probably the best way to go. Minivans sell cheaper because of the total lack of mojo, but Toyota will carry the premium.

    Kia/Hyundai: Dabbled in minivans – you can get a REALLY good deal on really mediocre before they got their act together van. Think GM U-body above (but I couldn’t tell you about the more common problems) in that these are disposable, get to 150K miles and anything past that is a bonus.

  • avatar
    Felix Hoenikker

    My wife drives a 99 Odyssey. Here’s a thumbnail history of the major repairs

    73,000 mile: Catalytic converter failure. Fixed for free under consent agreement between Honda and the EPA.

    82,000 miles: Transmission failure. Replaced with rebuilt tranny for $1200 under a class action suit.

    91000 miles: Massive failure of the ignition system. Six coils and spark plugs replaced for $800 ( no warranty)

    So as far as major failures go, it is no better than Chrysler or Ford minivans. Thanks to the government and private lawsuits, Honda fixed their mistakes for a resaonable amount of money.

    I would not buy a used Odyssey that has over 70K on it if the tranny has not been replaced.

  • avatar

    Late model (2005ish) Astro/Safari. If RWD isn’t good enough, they came in AWD. Check the front seat foot leg room though, it’s none too generous and many complain about it.

    • 0 avatar

      Death traps in offset collisions. Avoid like the plague, because you can do much better for the same money.

      • 0 avatar

        You got proof of that? According to this report, Astros have the LOWEST death rate of any vehicle:

      • 0 avatar

        Here you go:

        From your link, it looks like the Astro has the lowest death rate because there are relatively few of them on the road. The platform itself is horribly out of date in terms of crashworthiness.

      • 0 avatar

        Read the link again. The data is “driver deaths PER MILLION registered vehicle years” so that would seem to account for the quantity of vehicles, wouldn’t it? Note also that the Astro’s number of 7 indicates that it is far safer than either a Crown Victoria or a Grand Marquis with numbers of 45 and 75 respectively.

      • 0 avatar

        The data is “driver deaths PER MILLION registered vehicle years” so that would seem to account for the quantity of vehicles, wouldn’t it?

        You are correct, it does.

        But this sort of data can have its limitations. Relatively speaking, there are few fatal accidents compared to the total population of vehicles, so I would be hesitant to claim that a given vehicle was the “safest” or “most dangerous” based upon a single data point.

        Your comparison of the Panthers provides an example. The Grand Marquis and Crown Vic are essentially the same vehicle, yet the fatality rate of one was 67% greater than the other (or, if you prefer, one was 40% lower than the other). In that case, I would guess that the difference is largely a matter of a difference in driver’s demographics, mixed with a bit of luck and statistical noise.

        I would use this sort of data to make generalized statements about classes of vehicles. But I would be hesitant to use it for drawing very many specific conclusions about individual models.

      • 0 avatar

        Both TR4 and PCH101 are right. If only something, anything was ever black and white.

      • 0 avatar

        Maybe Astro owners know they’re doomed if they’re ever in a collision so they all drive extra carefully?

    • 0 avatar
      Ian Anderson

      My boss won’t even buy an Astro for a work van. The 4.3 is thirsty and coarse even with a balance shaft, the 700R4- sorry 4L60E is clunky, and they have the same ride quality as a diesel 1 ton pickup. Not to mention GM quality around that time period in general and the whole safety thing.

  • avatar

    As an owner of a 2004 Monterey base model, I would have to second that option. I got the van for $11k off MSRP in 2005 and it’s been great, when viewed from the proper perspective. The outward visibility is better than the Chrysler vans – something my wife really liked, and the “beep beep” backup / fwd sensors are super handy. The van is a bit truckish, it’s true, but in a good, torque-y way. I always appreciate a rare/interesting vehicle and this certainly qualifies, so that also makes me happy. It’s done yeoman’s service in transporting my three girls around the Seattle area since 2005.

    We currently have around 65k miles on it in 6.5 years and no big problems to report. I did replace a fuel rail pressure sensor myself for around $30 after a CEL light – that was a few years ago. The inside rear brakepads needed to be replaced after 35k miles, did that myself too…maybe the brake bias is off a bit since the front pads STILL look good?!?

    BTW – we average around 16.5 MPG in mixed driving.
    Good luck,


  • avatar

    FWIW – just traded a 2004 Nissan Quest with 72k on it. Did all my own maintenance on it and it was solid as a rock until the day we handed over the keys. Never one single day in the shop and nothing more than a serp belt, oil & coolant changes, air filters (no fuel filter to change), one battery and tires. My wife was hard on it and it might have exploded as soon as we walked away, but it was a good soldier for 7 years.
    P.S. – she wound up getting a loaded 2010 Chevy Traverse LTZ. As an owner – all this talk of GM quality improvements is not evident to me. The truck has spent 5 full days at the dealership with 3 different issues. It just turned 13k miles.

  • avatar

    It’s strictly one data point, but–
    since you were looking in the early 2000’s, my brother-in-law has had incredible success with a Toyota Sienna, 2002 model. It’s been on countless trips between the bay area and LA, and has been very good to him, requiring little more than oil changes, one timing belt and brakes. I beleive it’s at 170K on the original engine and transmission.
    I’ve been in it on one of those trips and found it to be capable and comfortable.
    If you can find one with low miles and service records, it would be worth looking into.

  • avatar

    My mom bought a 2005 T & C minivan….

    Trans at 25K
    Power steering pump at 37K

    AC evap went at 39K
    Lots of little things along the way.

    She bought a 2011 Chrysler van because it has all the gadgets. I would not have. She also could not find a Toyota Sienna in Red because of the earthquake.

  • avatar

    My brother used to drive minivans as company vehiles. Their leasing company went with cheapo “American” made models and his driving was 75% city driving. A lot of starts/stops in a day visiting many accounts.

    If you ask him his opinion of all the vans he had the Freestar (not windstar) was his favorite. He says hands down the Ford was the most reliable and had the most power. He also says it felt the most “solid.” That says something since vans in general are huge rattle traps. He claimes that van did over 100mph on a rural WI road and went airborne over a bump. These vans were abused to say the least.

    The Caravan was his most despised van. It was pure garbage, i.e. cheap build quality, failed tranny, cheap, cheap, cheap. He also liked to floor it, literally, to show how the engine made a lot of noise but did nothing. To date if anyone asks him minivan advise he says, and I quote, “whatever you do, don’t buy a Chrysler.” Those vans literally turned him off the entire brand. From riding with him, I understand why as he was doing 50k miles/year in that POS.

    The Chevy Uplander (or whatever it was called) just looked hideous but was slightly better than the Dodge in terms of reliablity. He didn’t mind it. The company switched to the Traverse which looks more mainstream, but is awful in comparison regarding cargo capacity and ease of getting stuff in/out. Sliding doors are great.

  • avatar
    Rental Man

    Add the U-Body van to the list of cars that make people swear they will repeat buying any American car.
    The U-Body vans from GM deserve hate crimes. As a rental car manager I would get rid of any of those death buckets when they would turn 20,000. I did not trust anything about those vans, even when new. Everything would break down or stop working. I could not look at a customer and tell him it was a good reliable ride. It is not. We would have to finish & break off the little ceiling mounted storage units as they would self-destruct. Depending on what incline/decline the van was parked the gas gauge went from full to empty. We had electric issues, Crazy dash boards, cheap padding falling off the rear seats and so much more. What a piece of sh*t.
    If in the minivan low end market I would try to find a Toyota or the 7/8 sized minivan, the Mazda MPV. In the rental fleet the Toyota is king. It is the best van. Just because Mopar shoved their product everywhere including as VW’s does not mean they are that good. We had some rental Honda vans yet did not run into high miles transmission issues. Value leaders the money are the current 2006+Kia Sedona or Hyundai -1-year-only-Entorage. Another approach is the Lego one. Find a Chrysler van with a bad transmission. Buy it cheap and get a rebuild tranny with a warranty.

    BTW Consumer report hates the 2004-2010 Nissan Quest yet we did not seem to suffer issues. Does anyone knew?

    • 0 avatar
      Rental Man

      U-Body AKA Chevy Uplander and Ponticac, Saturn and Buick sisters.

    • 0 avatar

      My sister has a 1999 or 2000 Mazda MPV. She lives in NYC, so it basically comes out for road trips. The rest of its years are spent being shuffled around in a multilevel parking garage by valets who are apparently blind drunks, to judge by the number of dents that sprout while it is in their hands. I believe that it has close to 100K miles now, and it hasn’t had much in the way of mechanical issues. It has been cosmetically restored and painted once, although the parking attendants have trashed it again. Provided a nice one can be found, I would take a look at it if I were looking for an affordable minivan.

      • 0 avatar
        Rental Man

        NYC Valets fly with the to-be parked cars. They have the beep-before-corner-system that works most of the time. They also keep paint thinner & little suction cups. Valets have also shown me use of heat guns / Hair dryers. Another discovery channel special that valets use is just leaving the damaged vehicle on the roof after the attempt fix and letting the sun bake the plastic bumpers back into place with little notice from customers.

  • avatar

    Used minivans are like restaurant high chairs. The less you think about the germs, viruses, piss and poop that covers them, the better. If you end up buying a used minivan, don’t be surprised if it smells like a Diaper Genie on hot days. Minivans are the shared bathroom drinking cups of automobiles. Bathroom drinking cups stained with spit and old toothpaste, that is.

    Wear a Hazmat suit when test driving a used minivan. Don’t stick your hands between seats, under seats, into map pockets, rim the cup holders, or breathe while you are in them or you may end up with a pox or a herpe.

    Now, your plight.

    Have a 2005 Saturn Relay with 94,000 on it.
    The pros – nice interior, nice captain’s chairs, lasted longer than I had thought it would last. Good gas mileage and the Saturn has a nice Volvo-esque looking front end which still looks nice. Although I know folks claim there are electrical bugs in them – we haven’t had any in the six years we’ve been driving it. Doors still slide, DVD player still works great, haven’t had any problems.

    I would say we definately got our $22,000 worth out of it over the past six years. No expectations on trading it in for another two years, and I have a hunch that it will last two more years.

    The cons – just got transmission replaced, $2000. The torque converter was starting to fail, so expressway speeds were out of the question until it was replaced. That’s four months worth of new van payments, and it was worth it. We were surprised with twins and the captain’s chairs were incompatible with our additional need to put toddlers in the third row. With infant car seats, you can’t fold up the captain’s seats to buckle in toddlers in the third row. The Relay was definately designed as a Oldsmobile empty nestmobile in that respect. But that was our individual challenge.

    Now the guys at work bought Hondas when I showed up with the Saturn and they all hooted at the decision to buy American. They don’t hoot anymore, because those Hondas haven’t been much good. Those transmissions and braking systems all failed years ago. The only reason their resale value is higher than mine is because they paid $10,000 more than me and there are still millions out there who believe Hondas walk on water or something. Hondas are not a good value.

    I recommend spending as little as possible on a minivan. They are disposable like snotty tissues, but with more germs. The idea of spending real money on them makes me ill. To me, spending the money Honda or Toyota thinks you should spend on a minivan, you might as well just cash in your paychecks and use the dollars as toilet paper – minivans are a waste of money because most of them are used as rolling porta potties, except porta potties are usually cleaner.

    Your family needs a vehicle you can use up, then park into the back yard and burn. Buying a used minivan is like sharing spoons at Dairy Queen.

    • 0 avatar

      “If you end up buying a used minivan, don’t be surprised if it smells like a Diaper Genie on hot days.”


    • 0 avatar

      Thine poetry hath caused in me a snorting in the nostrils.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m thinking “don’t buy a used van from VanillaDude” would have been a bit more succinct. Not everyone treats their car (and yes, vans too) like an outhouse. At the price point in question, you’re more than likely to find vans that have been used up, beaten up, and slapped back together for a quick sale. The folks who don’t abuse the equipment are more likely still driving theirs, since it isn’t a disgusting, mechanical mess.

      • 0 avatar

        I think VanillaDude is right on the money, and hilarious too. How many times do you see a parked minivan with one door open mid-way through a diaper change? ALL THE TIME! Kids reject their undigested Happy Meal or expel it out the other end before getting to a bathroom with amazing frequency, often in the family minivan.

        Kids are dirty, festering, snotty creatures (we are designed that way), and minivans are expressly designed to cart them around. Ergo, a used minivan is going to be a petri dish of residual crumbs, waste, and miscellaneous fluids.

        If your kids are the exception to this rule their birth must have been preceded by a very bright star and followed with gifts from three wise men. I hope the manger was comfortable.

    • 0 avatar

      +1 ‘Wear a Hazmat suit when test driving a used minivan”

      I put a biohazard sign on the back of my wife’s minivan and a sign that read, “Christine’s Composter”.

      Every time I got in the van, the cup holders were full of dissolving cups of coffee and hot chocolate, the carpets were dark brown with spilled liquids and you had to rearrange the piles of partially empty fast food bags to get seated.

    • 0 avatar

      “Hondas are not a good value”


      It’s not even worth getting into the discussion because it’s gonna go nowhere…but really the Odyssey’s only bona fide issue in these model years were the trannies.

      In comparison, Chrysler’s minivans might as well have been built by the Soviets.

      • 0 avatar

        For what they want for an Odyssey not only should it have been flawless, it should have come with a hooker.

        The fact that it is nothing more than a typical minivan selling for $10 grand more than another typical minivan, makes them a bad value.

      • 0 avatar

        Having purchased a brand new ’99 Odyssey and driven it for 150K miles I can tell you that the tranny wasn’t the only problem. Bad catalytic converter ($800), front springs that snapped in a parking lot, poorly ground strut towers such that the bearings never set right and provided miles upon miles of rattles behind the dash, power sliders that would sometimes latch, gas door mechanism that keeps the power door from opening broke, loud ride, hard flat seats, and tinny radio speakers. Finally, the one that catches 1st-time Honda V6 owners off guard everytime: the $1200 timing belt service every 105K miles. Chrysler minivans don’t cost as much to own and they feel like luxury cars by comparison (at least the early ’90s ones).

  • avatar

    I agree on the 2005 on up GM second gen U-body SUV vans. A good friend has a late build 2005 Buick with leather and it now has 130K miles and has held up remarkably well if you discount the power sliding doors being an occasional PITA. He actually still gets comments on the condition and the sharp medium blue paint and chrome wheels. I think the SUV look wore best with a Buick grille at the front IMO. He routinely averages 18.5 around town and 22-23 on the open road going around 75 MPH with the so far bullet proof 3500 V6 and 4T65 transmission. From what I understand the 3500/3900 series OHV GM 60 degree V6’s finally licked the intake failure issues of the 3100/3400 engines from bypassing the coolant away from the intake and totally redesigning the assembly. My 2008 Impala has the 3900 motor with 86K and has never seen a wrench and is as dry as a bone with not a single issue to date. This is pretty typical GM practice. During a vehicle run fix the problems towards the end of the shelf life and pull the plug. Well the plug was pulled but a few model years in meaning 2007 was the last year for the Saturn Relay, Buick Terazza and Pontiac Montana leaving only the Chevrolet version for 2008 which was the final year for these.

  • avatar

    I’ll echo Sajeev’s sentiments on the Freestar/Monterey twins. We have a 2005 Monterey, purchased new during the “Friends & Family” discount frenzy, that has been a pleasure to own. Just went over 100,000 miles last month with no major issues. My spouse flat out refuses to look at a new vehicle since it’s paid off and there’s not a suitable Ford-branded replacement at the moment.

    Look for a 2006 (17″ wheels look a little nicer) in the Premier trim level, which will get you the integrated DVD, heated leather, parking sensors etc.

  • avatar

    2006 Kia Sedona LX minivan = $7525 private party price in good condition at

    I have a 2009 Sedona LX, and it’s by far the best of 4 minivans I’ve owned (96 Voyager, 05 Odyssey, 98 Caravan previously). The Sedona is the “Jon Huntsman” of minivans – not much press, but possibly an excellent candidate for you.

    The 2006-12 is all the same body style, essentially.

    I’ve towed cross-country with mine, filled with 7 people. It’s a powerful car, good-looking, too.

    Don’t fall into the usual Chrysler-Toyota-Honda rut – you’ll pay too much for ToyoHonda, and possibly get burned on Chrysler quality. My Chryslers were OK until they weren’t, then they were very bad. I’d avoid GM and Ford minivans at all cost. My Odyssey was a lemon, even though I think they usually build a good product, but at $8k, you can’t afford one.

  • avatar

    From 1992 to 1995 the GM minivans were available with the Series I version of the 3800 V6.

    These vehicles today only cost like $3000 in mint condition, and many are available for less than the price of a rebuilt transmission for a Grand Caravan.

    On the con side, amenities are going to be low compared to what you can get in a newer van, and I’m guessing there have been some safety enhancements in the last 15 years.

  • avatar

    Mini-minivan – Mazda MPV? Mazda 5?

    • 0 avatar

      Putting your most important assets, your children, into the back seat of a mini-minivan, inches from the rear window, the back bumper and the front bumper of a larger vehicle rear ending you, is a recipe for an epic family disaster.

      The minivan is about as small as one should go with this kind of seating arrangement.

      Collision testing on these vehicles in rear end collisions should frighten anyone out of these mini-minivans, Souls, Rondos, and other little cars.

  • avatar

    Well, I paid 8k for a 2007 Caravan with 60k km. It has been reliable for two years, I am always waiting for the tranny to go but hasn’t happened yet. I had been looking for a Freestar but Ford sold so few a nice one is hard to fine.
    For what I’ve got in the Caravan I couldn’t ask for better value. I don’t care if I impress anyone, including myself. Like restaraunt high chairs there’s just a time when you need one..

  • avatar

    For any minivan (not just Chrysler/Dodge/Plymouth and Honda but all of them) if you can find service records that showed they changed the tranny fluid then that is a good sign. Another one would be if they added or it came with a tranny cooler. If it doesn’t have it then add it when you buy it. If you have doubts about the interior cleanliness then take it to a reputable detailer and have the interior cleaned and sanitized. A reputable detailer will have an ozone machine that will nuke those germs.

    An orphan like the Plymouth or Saturn may be a good buy because it should have a lower price. If all the Mopar vans blew their transmissions then nobody would buy them. They don’t and they do. But regular maintenance is the key. So you have to know the history.

    • 0 avatar

      “If all the Mopar vans blew their transmissions then nobody would buy them.”

      This is quite true. My Mopars (see above) had good trannies, but their high mileage meant they each eventually needed some work (~$600 each).

      I think more people need Mopar transmissions because these vans tend to depreciate rapidly and become affordable ‘beaters’.

  • avatar

    Why stay clear of Honda minivans? If you factor in the eventual cost of a transmission but weigh all other positvie factors, including top notch safety scores, otherwise good reliability and build quality, and above average road manners for its class, it can be sensible choice if the right one is found.

    • 0 avatar

      Yes, but you will pay top dollar for a van on which the transmission may last another 100K miles, or crap out next week with no warning. And having a transmission replaced in one is a $3K-5K proposition.

      Do you feel lucky?

      I specifically shopped for a used Odyssey that had just had the transmission replaced. My 2001 was already on its THIRD transmission at 107K miles when I bought it. YMMV The 2005+ are better, but I’d go for the 2007+ ones which finally got a beefed-up tranny that apparently was also shared with the Ridgeline.

      Ford Freestar, maybe yes, but as others have already said, definitely, absolutely NO on the Windstar. Neighbor has one, and has spent MORE than he paid for it used, to replace everything in the drivetrain, exhaust/catalytic converter ($$$) included.

  • avatar

    I’d take a look at the Kia, it should have domestic-like depreciation and I haven’t heard of transmission problems.

    All things being equal, I’d take a Mopar van over the cynicially-engineered garbage from GM and Ford.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Since this bends towards the ‘New vs. Used’ paradigm, I think I’ll chip in here.

    The best values are LIKELY to be…

    1) Nissan Quest: A 2005 model with about 70k should go for right around $8000. They have excellent reliability. Far better than anything short of a FWD Toyota Sienna. Plus their ‘unique’ styling has coupled with a typical minivan’s depreciation to make it a strong deal.

    2) Chrysler Town & Country / Voyager / Caravan: The optimal choice is to get a 3.3 Liter short wheelbase V6 model. You should easily be able to afford a 2007 model with approximately 50k miles for the $8000 area. I currently use an 06′ as a rental vehicle. So long as you put in a tranny cooler this particular version should be good for about a decade.

    I would stick with these two. In the past, I’ve done well selling Freestars and Montereys. But they have horrific transmission issues. The reliability of the GM minivans is hit or miss. Some are great. Others not so much. The fact that they made five different versions of them has hurt their quality in my opinion. But the powertrain is fine.

    Kia’s from the mid 2000’s usually don’t wear well. But again, there are exceptions. These models actually go for surprisingly good prices at the auctions. The Sienna and Odyssey have ridiculous price premiums and the MPV was a lackluster vehicle.

    Hope this helps!

    • 0 avatar

      Sanjev, LWB Town and Country – The extra Foot will go a long way. I would not get one without Stow N Go Seats.

      The use of these comparisons is like Fine Russian Caviar and The ground up Pollack they sell for Lobster at 99 cents per pound. These are soccer Mom vans at best and unless very well maintained, 100K is time for struts and timing belt change.

    • 0 avatar
      fred schumacher

      I agree that the 3.3/short wheelbase combination is the best. The 3.3 and 3.8 are pushrod engines with no timing belt to change. They’re very tractable with good torque at low rpm. I used to haul dealer trades, mostly with an early 90s short wheelbase 3.3 caravan. Even pulling full-sized Intrepids, I never was short of power.

      The short wheelbase vans have better handling and have the best winter traction of any two-wheel drive vehicle I’ve ever driven. I’ve never been stuck in one, and I drive in Minnesota where winter is the longest season of the year. The benefit of the long wheelbase vans is that full 4×8 sheets can be put on the floor and the hatch will close.

      My brother-in-law bought a 2000 Honda Odyssey about the time I bought my 2000 Grand Caravan. He paid four times as much as I did for a vehicle with the same number of miles as mine. He gets poorer gas mileage than I get, and he now has to deal with a timing belt change.

    • 0 avatar

      Interesting…I thought that Ford had solved the transmission problems when it brought out the Freestar/Monterey. I guess not.

  • avatar

    Many say to avoid the GM U body from 1997 to 2005 . I am well aware of all there issues reported on these vans. But, I bought a 99 Pontiac Trans Sport brand new, and am still driving it at 140,000 miles, I think they are worth a look. (I did my intake manifold and 50,000 miles, and haven’t touched it since) This vehicle still has the original engine and transmission..

    Main piece of advice is check that intake manifold is good (leak down test) and have a tranny guy test drive, to ensure the tranny is good.

  • avatar

    I vote for the Kia as well. Relatively new and nice ones are available all over the place for bargains, the trade-in value is terrible and the Korean nameplate combined with blah styling keeps the retail pricing low too. There is less risk than with a Dodge too, although I know lots of people with Caravans who love them too.

    Also, I think the older low-mileage cream puffs can be great deals. Around here I see TONS of minivans owned by retirees who barely drive them yet keep them very well maintained. As Sajeev and Steve always say, when you shop used cars, you are looking at the previous owner more than the car. Shop private party and look for ones owned by older folks.

  • avatar

    “But then I read your article about how it’s not always good to go with older, low mile automobiles.”

    OK, what’s the issue there? Is there a link to the article mentioned?

  • avatar

    In 2006 we bought 2004 Monterey with under 30K miles. We put 100K miles on it since. All things considered, it proved a great buy. We took a bunch of family trips in it. On the road it feels like a large sedan rather than a metal box on wheels. No major repairs other than an accident when my wife on a highway ran over a spare wheel that, I bet, rusted off a Sienna (see recall). The only pain was locks. We seemed to have to replace either the lock or the actuator on every door and twice on the rear hatch.

  • avatar

    OMG with the posts / comments. A Caravan tranny rebuild isn’t that expensive. I’d get the 4 banger too–a used SE. Yup. “Just give me A/C–that’s it. 25-27 MPG HWY. You can get the SE with less miles in better shape for the same money as the 6 cyl.

    Either that or I’be be looking at the 1st gen. (1995-1998) Odyssey. Yup. That old thing. Beat the system–24 MPG City, underrated, undervalued, put the rest in your pocket for repairs or a better vehicle in 2 years. You got 6-12 months…be patient until you find the perfect example–15 year old, gently used vehicle. Or actually…here’s a Florida, rust-free example for $3000.

  • avatar

    Our current van is a 2008 Uplander, purchased used with 48k miles on it. Prior to that we had a 2006 version of the same van purchased new and put 67k on that one. Prior to that we had a 2003 Astro.

    The Astro was bad. Just awful. Rated at 20 mpg on the highway, we felt blessed to reach 17. 13 was pretty standard. Felt like it was breaking itself just driving down the road. So when we got the 06 Uplander it was a huge upgrade. It had the 3.5 engine and we would get 25-26 mpg on the highway. Had a little trouble with the power sliding doors, but that was fixed under warranty and never cropped up again. When we traded it a 67k miles, the rear wheel bearing needed to be replaced. Otherwise, it put in excellent service as a kid hauler. Got the ’08 Uplander in a pretty good deal, and got the 100,000k mile powertrain warranty and the 3.9 engine. The 3.9 has way more power but the mileage is not nearly that of the 3.5, usually 23 on the highway. The trade off in power is worth it, though. It sounds like a cement mixer when you start it up, but so far no problems of any kind. We just turned over 80k. I plan on having the tranny serviced early and often as I know that is one of the weak spots in minivans, and this one is putting a lot of power through it.

    Not sure what our next van will be. I’m hoping that Chrysler has learned how to make a transmission with their latest van. If so, I may buy a used one. Otherwise it’ll be a used Toyota.

  • avatar

    Regarding the Caravan. The weak point is the transmission. We have found out that if you change the transmission fluid twice as often as recommended they will last “forever”. A collegue of mine has a 1999 Caravan with 175000mi, frequent fluid changes and no issues. The Caravan is one of very few Chrysler product that I would consider to buy (and 300C and Crossfire).

  • avatar
    Andy D

    I use used ATF a quick coat, brush on rust delayer. I once had a ’74 Dart with a weepy out put seal on the 727. It lost a pint a month. The low level symptom was quite noticeable. Slippage on take off. The car was a 50$ beater with rust up to the door handles and a flapping vinyl roof. But the underneath from the tranny aft was pristine under a layer of congealed ATF and road dirt. I wish my Grand Wags had this option

  • avatar

    I have never been a Ford person, but when I bought a used mini-van in October, the Freestar was the right answer for my family. To be honest though, they were not on my radar until I pulled into a lot to check out a Mazda MPV.

    Unfortunatly, the Mazda was a rust bucket but parked next to it was a 2006 Freestar. The Freestar’s rust issues were more minor and the interior was good. It also had every mom friendly option you can name. I bought it for a song – $5300 – and spent another $900 at the body shop to excise all the rust and make it look new again.

    Overall, I like it. It runs smoothly and rides ike an luxury car. The interior is a little cheap looking and there are acres of hard plastic surfaces anywhere you care to touch but to be honest, I like that too. Hard plastic seems “cleaner” to me. It responds well to spills and cleans up easilly. We also use a lot of those bleach handi-wipes just to make sure everything is sterile.

  • avatar

    We own an ’06 Mazda MPV which now has about 71-72K miles. Aside from some body damage work which needed to be done, replacement of an idle air control valve ($50) and a front crank seal gasket ($150 incl. labor), its been very reliable. We just put on new rear brakes and the front brakes still have 1/3 of their life. Oh, and new tires about a couple of years ago. I think its about all the vehicle most minivan owners need. The quality of the other big name Japanese vans at a much smaller size and price. It would be a significant improvement over any Chrysler, Kia or Ford van of a similar vintage. And they have probably depreciated down to where you could get a reasonable deal on a 2004-6 model — my preference because of the improved appearance and larger 6 cylinder engine. I wish Mazda would have imported the Mazda8 replacement, but instead we get the very good, but much smaller Mazda5.

  • avatar

    I bought my wife a ’99 Plymouth Grand Voyager because it was a screaming deal, had the torquey and fun 3.8, and was basically exactly what we wanted for the amount of cash we had to spend 4 years ago.

    And I can’t wait to get rid of the hunk of crap. In that time it’s gone from 90k to 160k miles, and we’ve replaced the following:
    Water pump
    Serpentine belt
    Brakes x2
    Starter x2
    exhaust manifold gasket

    ..and I’m sure other things. Now, in December, in Nebraska, the heater doesn’t appear to be working. Which is, you know, COMPLETELY awesome when you have kids. My guess is another water pump, a repair that would push me over the edge because I’m not going through the hell of doing that again.

    It hasn’t been the most unreliable vehicle I’ve ever owned, but man is it up there. It’s probably #2. Maybe even #1.5.

    Thanks for the tip on the Freestar. We’ve been considering Suburbans and Expeditions, but I don’t like the fuel mileage (granted, not much worse than the 3.8..) and don’t like the added potential expense of the 4×4 drivetrain. I didn’t want a Honda or Toyota because I don’t think it’s justified.

    The Freestar seems to fit all bills. And a local dealer has a 2006 Limited for $9k with 65k miles on it. Damnit.

    • 0 avatar

      To be honest bdinger, aside from the transmission that sounds like a pretty reasonable amount of repair for a high mileage van over 4 years.

      Of course, the circumstances of the failure, the amount of spousal grief recieved and the amount of cash you have to pay someone else for towing and repair all factor into your feelings about the vehicle.

      Our old Windstar required an annual brake job, which was fine because I could plan for it, do it myself and it was a cheap fix for a reliable beater. Now about the time the brake lines rusted through while on remote wilderness vacation, following that event I started carrying a can of Coke and a small bottle of rum in my toolkit. If I couldn’t fix the van I could at least fix Mrs DougD..

      • 0 avatar

        @ I started carrying a can of Coke and a small bottle of rum in my toolkit. If I couldn’t fix the van I could at least fix Mrs DougD.

        Not only did this make me laugh out loud, it is the best advice I have seen in a long, long time!

  • avatar

    One more vote. I would give the Chrysler a try. Caveat: look for an elderly owner who has been good on maintenance and can prove it. Also, the fewer power options the better. I had a 99 Town & Country LX. 3.3 V6 and NO power doors. The transmission died at about 207K. Everything I have read about these trannies (going back to the late 90s) is that if you change the fluid regularly, they will last a long time. Unlike with the Hondas of the early 00s.

    The Sedona might be worth a look. I just bought a 2012. This version goes back to 2006, and I understand that the first year or two were more troublesome. I have been advised by my mechanic that there is a tendency for these to be bought by people who keep them through the end of the 100K warranty and do as little with them as possible, so that there is a lot of catch-up work to do. Avoid one of these.

    It is my understanding that Windstars, Freestars and Montereys are cheap for a reason. And even though the Odysseys are expensive, there are a lot of unhappy Gen2 (99-04) and Gen3 owners out there.

    I owned and loved a Gen1 Ody, but they are getting quite old and it is hard to find a good one. If you can find a really pampered version owned by the retired people with a neatly manicured lawn, it may be worth it. Slow as molassas, but a really, really good car.

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