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The seismic switchover between laughing at the notion of buying a minivan and realizing its real-life utility comes at child #2 in the American household. The first generation of minivans many of us grew up in were brutal. But times have changed: a new wave of fun-to-drive vans might be the less-than-SUV-size answer to your ski-trip needs. And now they come with built-in vacuums. What will they think of next?
The originator of the minivan revolution, Chrysler looks to reinvent the genre with its new Pacifica, an eight-passenger minivan with crossover-SUV looks and more kid-friendly features than a theme park. It’s still a van, of course, but with 287 horsepower, the virtually effortless second-row Stow ’n Go foldaway seats, and smart bits like built-in electronic bingo for the young ones, the Pacifica is actually pretty cool. What’s more, a hybrid version contributes to a 530-mile range on a tank of gas. But a vacuum with a 12-foot hose may be the brightest idea yet for anyone wrangling the Cheez-It crowd.
For a snow-ready minivan experience, the stylish Toyota Sienna ups the ante with an optional AWD system, the only van to do so in the U.S. market. Like the Pacifica, the Sienna has become a sculpted piece of design, inside and out, though it will still carry eight passengers and boasts 150 cubic feet of storage if you drop the seats. With 296 horsepower and available 19-inch wheels, it’s also a classy machine, accentuated with dual moon roofs, a dual-view Blu-ray entertainment system, and the ingenious Driver Easy Speak—amplifying your commands so the kids will hear all the way in the third row.
The acclaimed eight-passenger Honda Odyssey has also continued to spruce up its looks and its performance, providing a smart and comfortable family hauling experience that drives with much more grace and style than in the old days. Similar to its competition, it’s got a 248-horsepower V-6 and 148.5 total cubic feet of storage—with additional cargo/seating flexibility offered by the stowaway third-row seats. The Odyssey was the first with the built-in vacuum option, and it also offers a roof rack that accommodates gear boxes for skiing families.
Should you want to take your whole neighborhood to the slopes, Ford has localized its international vans to create both the full-size Transit and the somewhat more city-friendly Transit Connect wagon as full-strength people movers. The Transit comes in three lengths and three roof heights, providing space for up to 15 passengers plus an unbelievable 487 cubic feet of max storage, in case you’d like your own tuning shop on wheels. Three engine choices, including a slick five-cylinder diesel, propel a vehicle that’s commodious but entirely contemporary and comfortable on the inside.
2017 Toyota Sienna
Base price: $28,850
Highway MPG: 27
Ski-trip nicety: Only minivan with AWD
2017 Chrysler Pacifica
Base price: $28,595
Highway MPG: 28
Ski-trip nicety: Hands-free side and rear door openers
2016 Honda Odyssey
Base price: $29,550
Highway MPG: 28
Ski-trip nicety: Honda Vac for cleanups
2017 Ford Transit
Base price: $31,610
Highway MPG: 19
Ski-trip nicety: Holds 15 passengers
Stow It on Top
Just as vans are now crammed with nifty new features, so are the latest roof-top gear carriers. The most advanced is Thule’s Hyper XL 612 ($970), with low-profile banana curves, front and back, to more easily slice through the air and also allow easier loading and access to gear. There’s even an integrated light inside. Yakima’s ShowCase 15 ($680), a 15-cubic-foot bin, features a rigid interior framework, push-button locking, and a tapered tail to better fit with your hatchback’s liftgate, plus glossy, aerodynamic lines.