Why are Minivans so Boring to Drive?
Minivans, those incredibly utilitarian multi-passenger vehicles, have earned a bad rap. As much as they are praised for being the ultimate family transport — loaded with entertainment systems, power-sliding doors, and insanely configurable interiors — they are just as frequently damned for being absolutely boring to drive.
But why is their reputation so bland? What makes a minivan so boring to drive? Is it possible to make a minivan that is fun-to-drive?
Engineering a vehicle to be “fun to drive” isn’t very difficult. In the most basic sense, it requires nothing more than constructing something with agile handling and a responsive engine – without oversimplifying, that is all takes to put a smile on the face of the average enthusiast.
A minivan, however, is designed to carry upwards of eight passengers conveniently and comfortably. By default, any vehicle with eight seats will be large and heavy and the seemingly obligatory dual-sliding doors and panoramic glass windows don’t help the cause (most minivans weigh about 4,400 pounds, or half-a-ton more than a five-passenger sport sedan). Furthermore, to ride comfortably, minivan suspension has been tuned to be soft and compliant — meaning there is typically plenty of body roll during spirited maneuvering.
A minivan is also engineered to be fuel efficient. With that goal in mind, most of today’s minivans have perfectly adequate six-cylinder engines making about 250 horsepower (delivering about 18 mpg city and 25 mpg highway). That equates to a power-to-weight ratio of about 17 lb/hp (which means each horsepower is tasked with moving 17 pounds of minivan). Compare that figure to the average sport sedan, arriving with a power-to-weight ratio of about 12 lb/hp, or lower.
And herein lies the truth — minivans are boring because they are simply not engineered to have agile handling or responsive engines.
But what if a minivan was truly designed for the enthusiast? Just for fun, let’s theoretically “build” a fun-to-drive fantasy minivan using the Nissan Quest as a starting point and its sibling, the Nissan GT-R, as a parts donor. Out goes the standard 260-hp 3.5-liter V6 engine, continuously-variable transmission and front-wheel drive powertrain. In goes a 545-hp twin-turbocharged 3.8-liter V6, dual-clutch gearbox and an all-wheel drive powertrain. The suspension gets upgraded with active damping, the brakes get upgraded with Brembos and the wheels get bumped in diameter and width to accommodate the much larger tires. To cut weight, we’d replace the steel panels with aluminum, removed the drive motors in the side doors and leave the entertainment system on the curb. Our guesstimate says the power-to-weight ratio drops down to about 8 lb/hp.
Our theoretical Speedy Daddy-tuned minivan would sprint to 60 mph in about 5 seconds flat and corner as if on rails. The engine would be loud and thirsty (fuel economy would be about 10 mpg city and 15 mpg highway), and the ride rather harsh. Of course the cabin would be loud, as we would have pulled most of the heavy insulation from the floor. If you aren’t already turned off, we estimate that our gussied-up minivan — capable of hauling both families and ass — would sticker at about $90,000.
Yikes! That boring $30,000 minivan — brilliantly engineered with the sole purpose of lugging your family around — is beginning to sound more appealing, isn’t it?
– Michael Harley
As Harley posts this, I have a 2012 Toyota Sienna SE sitting in the driveway. Yep, the Swagger Wagon. It’s not a Quest GT-R by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s not a sloppy pig, either. Among minivans — and I’ve spent plenty of time driving the current crop — the Sienna SE is my favorite because the suspension and steering are tuned differently than a standard model, it gets gunmetal-finish 19-inch wheels wrapped in 235/50 Michelin all-seasons, and features a swaggerier look inside and out.
I’m driving this because I have family visiting from out of town, and I need something that will carry seven people all over Southern California. I’ll have a full review of this vehicle on Speedy Daddy soon, but so far, the Sienna’s sliding and reclining second-row seats are a hit with the teenagers, and the pre-schooler loves the view out of the enormous side windows. Nobody is screaming “Shotgun!” when approaching the Sienna.
In addition to the Toyota Sienna SE, Dodge makes an oft-overlooked version of the Grand Caravan called the R/T (and dubbed “The Man Van”), and the Honda Odyssey is enjoyable to pilot right out of the box with no special tweaking required. It just doesn’t have the same kind of visual swagger and alleged manliness of the Toyota and Dodge.
– Christian Wardlaw