As far as I can tell, most Americans consider a minivan anything that has a sliding door(s), three rows of seats and removes testosterone from most men. Let’s dispense with the idea that all minivan drivers dislike cool cars. I know that’s not always the case. Many of us are victims of circumstance and have to haul lots of passengers often. That’s what minivans do so well – move people.
Minivans are some of the most family friendly vehicles on the road and they have been a part of our nation for decades. No, I’m not crediting Chrysler for creating the segment, Volkswagen did it back in the 1950s – but I do credit Chrysler for modernizing the theme for North America.
Are minivans fun to drive? Were they ever fun? Not really; not compared to a sports sedan at least. Still, there is an adage that driving slow cars fast can be a blast, and I agree with that sentiment. The thing is, if a minivan has a few necessary ingredients to enhance the driving experience, can it be fun and/or exciting?
The real question is: what are the top four most exciting minivans sold in North America?
You would think that any minivan that has a efficient 157 horsepower, 2.5-liter, 4-cylinder engine would be pretty mellow – right? I mean, this is one of the smallest minivans sold in the United States. It occupies that realm of smaller, efficient vehicles doing family hauling in a minimalist package.
Boring – right?
Ah-HA! You may not know that the Mazda5 shares many components with the sporty Mazda3 and a choice of 6-speed manual or 5-speed ‘Sport’ automatic transmission. That’s right folks, a proper, fun-shifting 6-speed manual transmission is available.
That 2.5-liter engine loves to rev and it doesn’t sound half bad either.
“With sporty performance, pure athletic style and a roomy interior, the Mazda5 defies category labels while delivering on versatility. The 6-passenger seating is easily accessible by two sliding rear doors, while the 2.5L DOHC engine delivers impressive power without compromising fuel efficiency. Because calling it a minivan doesn’t mean it has to drive like one.” – - Mazda USA
Sounds kind of cheesy, but I kind of agree.
With a low center of gravity, flat cornering ability, good steering feedback and that slick manual transmission – the Mazda5 (equipped with the manual transmission) is THE most enjoyable minivan to drive in anger in the United States. With prices starting just under $20,000, it’s a bargain too.
By the way, the Mazda5 represents the only vehicle sold the in USA that has three rows and a manual transmission.
1991 – 1997 Toyota Previa
James Cameron liked the Toyota Previa enough to feature as one of the baddie’s rides in The Last Action Hero… AND it had one of the most unique power-train setups out there. The engine laid on its side, on the bottom of the van while options like all-wheel drive (AWD), a five-speed manual transmission and supercharging were unheard of in the United States. Okay, so it only had a 135 hp normally aspirated engine and 160 hp supercharged option. It still handled better than most cars from the 1990s.
The problems were: the engine can only get proper service from underneath which made them expensive to service. You could not increase the displacement of the straight-six. The configuration could only allow for one sliding door. Finally, you could not mix the optional supercharger with the AWD and manual transmission.
Sure, the Toyota Previa had a few issues, but the interior still looks contemporary, the seating comfort is top notch and the optional AWD system works beautifully. It was a novel design and there are plenty of these vans still buzzing around today. They are cheap as chips to buy today and you might find a rare manual transmission if you look hard enough.
Volkswagen Vanagon Syncro
Check out the internet for this baby because it totally looks like it would tip over the moment it touches dirt. That’s where you would be wrong. The Volkswagen Syncro is almost military-grade capability when it travels off road. The four-wheel drive (4WD) system is call Syncro and its weigh distribution is nearly 50/50.
Despite having a water-cooled engine (the air-cooled engine was phased out in the mid 80s) it was still horizontally opposed like Porsche and Subaru. Today, some folks swap Subaru engines for the fairly anemic engines. The one I sampled had a 95 hp, 2.1-liter, water-cooled engine.
Despite low power and a typical Vanagon ride, the Syncro was truly impressive off road. There are Syncro van clubs out there and they are building these VWs up to take on some of the hardest terrain out there. The fairly stock model I rode in slammed through a two-foot-deep water hole, charged up a goat path and scaled big rocks loaded with six people and their camping gear.
Hell yes, the Volkswagen Vanagon Syncro is fun.
Good luck finding an affordable one.
As Yoda would say, “Collectors items the Syncro has become.”
2013 Toyota Sienna SE
The fact that Toyota has two vans on this list is praiseworthy, and I am not conjuring a place for this vehicle based on some bias. The SE version of the current Toyota Sienna is a performer – at least as far as minivans go. Toyota had enough balls to put a Sienna SE on a racetrack a few years back and let me at it. The fat, 19-inch sport wheels coupled with a sportier suspension and exterior visual enhancements makes this minivan a laugh to drive through the corners. No, it won’t keep up with the zippy Mazda5 and it can’t be had with AWD (other versions of the Toyota Sienna have AWD as an option), but you can take your family through the mountains and piss-off drivers in lowered Hondas all day long.
It grips nicely and the 266 hp, 3.5-liter V6 has good mid-range punch. In other words, enter a corner at a reasonable speed, exit that corner at speeds that would surprise you. With prices that start at about $34,000 – the Toyota Sienna SE is that one, big family hauler that has more led in its pencil than you may think.
Look, there are a few others that may or may not qualify for this list. I want to know what you think. Do you want to see the old Dodge Caravan Turbo on this list? How about the original Mazda MPV 4WD? I best some of you would pine for the Mitsubishi Expo too.
Let me know and maybe we’ll start a new list!
Here’s another van that has some potential… from the 2013 Detroit Auto Show!
Now, what if Ford put in the Focus ST’s EcoBoost and a six-speed manual in that van?
I’m getting all worked up just thinking about it!