Safety, Comfort and a busload of Kids

By Ray Prince, NorCalCars Writer

Minivans are moving sentinels that revolve around one idea and one idea only: transporting small to large families from place to place. Vehicle configurations, from the telescoping steering wheels in the Mazda 5 to the Dodge Grand Caravan's tire pressure-warning systems, are made for a reason - to safeguard the family. In essence, these family centered vehicles have a larger laundry list of protective features than large trucks and sports cars. They include adjustable seats, power sliding doors, side curtain airbags, and more. Before checking for standard V6 power and children friendly features like rear seat entertainment, introduce yourselves to our highest ranking "safe" minivans.

Toyota Sienna - Most Safety Features

Toyota SiennaPound for pound, the minivan with the most safety features I've studied is the Toyota Sienna. The Toyota Sienna has quickly established a reputation as a workhorse, with the best crash test scores of any minivan and consistent high ratings in the interior and ride department. Plus, it accommodates up to eight passengers. Main nemesis Honda Odyssey would even pay tribute to its three trim designs from the affordable to luxurious ranges. Two critical safety features the Toyota Sienna has are conversation mirrors and tire pressure-warning systems. Conversation mirrors are actually convex type mirrors that let drivers see every seat around him without turning around, including the third row. Its advantage with wild children is self-explanatory. The Toyota Sienna's tire pressure warning system protects under inflated tires against blowouts with a beeping sound (similar to my friend's Alfa Romeo's rear bumper parking alert) as soon as it fails to meet factory standards.

Mazda MPV - Customizing the Seat Design

Mazda MPV

Another safety-first minivan is my undisputed kind of customized seating arrangement, the Mazda MPV. The Mazda MPV has both fold flat third row seats AND reconfigurable second row seats when every other popular minivan (champion Toyota Sienna included) has one. Fold flat third row seats allow drivers to take advantage of extra flat load surface, and the Mazda MPV offers a 60-40 split design that lets children sit upright while the adjacent seat lays flat. The Mazda MPV's reconfigurable second row seats add extra depth combined with flat third row seats, especially in forming a bench seat, which can store long material like plywood and ugly science projects. Plus, its second row seats can be pushed forward or backward to create more or less legroom between the second and third rows for optimum room.

Honda Odyssey - Traction and Stability Control

Honda Odyssey

A survey of minivan driver priorities would probably reveal traction and stability control as most characteristic of a family-oriented car. The Honda Odyssey is a proud owner of both features (most minivans have ONE of two, like the Chrysler Town & Country). Traction control works by configuring for the brakes to be applied and engine power reduced to the problem wheel and transferred to its stronger wheels. The Honda Odyssey's stability control complements traction control beautifully by kicking gears on slippery surfaces at high speed. Unlike traction control, stability control uses sensors to direct your car in the right direction based on driver behavior.

Other safety features to look out for with minivans are in-floor storage, reverse sensing systems, and side curtain airbags. Rolling apples, ice cream boxes, and children's toys can be avoided with an in-floor storage container that is found in the Honda Odyssey and Dodge Grand Caravan. Reverse sensing systems are almost a necessity, especially with small children when backing out of a parking space. Also known as park assist, reverse sensing systems install sonar sensors to track moving objectives up to fifteen feet away from the minivan. Audible beeps can be heard as you back up, increasing in volume as you get closer to the target. It’s a great tool for problem parkers.

Personally, I've had qualms over installing reverse sensors in my Mercury Mariner. For starters, drivers may use it as a full visual substitute and gain a false sense of confidence. Many manufacturers have proposed the idea of installing bumper cameras that project video onto a dashboard mounted screen that shows everything, perhaps with trajectory and distance-from-curb stats in a few years. Nevertheless, reverse sensing systems are ideal. Minivans with reverse sensing systems include the Dodge Grand Caravan, Chrysler Town and Country, Kia Sedona, and the Saturn Relay.

Don't overlook the last feature of side curtain airbags for all rows. All minivans carry airbags in the front, but the idea of full-length coverage has just entered the market for larger vehicles. All in all, minivans are the most safety conscious vehicles of any type and its drivers should be aware of the kinds of features available to them. You might never know when that third row side curtain airbag might come into use.