Dear John: Couple seeks truly mini minivan under $35,000

When did minivans become not so “mini”? That’s the question a retired couple from Calgary, Alta,, Glenn and Marianne Anderson, is asking in this month’s Dear John letter.

Enjoying the ability to cart both grandchildren and gardening supplies in the same vehicle, Glenn and Marianne are long-time minivan owners. They started with a Dodge Caravan in the 1990s, but after questionable reliability and service issues, the Andersons moved to Japanese-brand minivans about 12 years ago. Their latest minivan is a 2004 Honda Odyssey that they’ve now driven more than 180,000 kilometres and needs to be replaced soon.

Front air bags on the Honda Odyssey from the 2003 and 2004 model years can inflate without a crash.

While they like the Honda’s multiple seating arrangements, sliding side doors and near-car-like driving manners, the Andersons admit that a smaller people carrier would better suit their needs.

They drive less than 20,000 kilometres annually, but the price of gas has almost doubled in the decade since they bought their Odyssey, so better fuel economy is definitely on the Anderson’s new vehicle wish list. As well, a recent move to a condominium apartment from their suburban family home has left them with an underground parking space that can be tricky to squeeze into with their Honda. A vehicle with a smaller footprint that’s easier to park would be a benefit, too.

Both Andersons admit that even with the recent snowy winter in Calgary, they really don’t need all-wheel drive. They were also never keen to buy into all the luxury goodies you can now find on modern minivans, like on-board DVD entertainment or navigation systems. An automatic transmission is their only other “must-have” in a new vehicle budget that needs to stay “under $35,000.”

Luckily, since the last time the Andersons ventured into a new car showroom, the auto industry has presented a host of smaller, more fuel-efficient people movers. Putting the “mini” back into minivans, the Chevrolet Orlando, Ford Transit Connect Wagon and Mazda5 all offer three rows of seats plus a bit of space at the back for cargo (like the Anderson’s larger Odyssey) but in much tidier packages that doesn’t need a V6 to move them along.

2014 Chevrolet Orlando LTZ

2014 Chevrolet Orlando LTZ
Handout, Chevrolet

For example, the 2014 Chevrolet Orlando is a seven-passenger people hauler based on the Cruze sedan’s compact platform. And in a departure from the norm, the Korean-built Orlando is only sold in Canada in North America — not the United States.

Starting prices for the Orlando range from $20,195 to $29,295. All models come with front-wheel drive and a 2.4-litre four-cylinder gas engine that makes 174 horsepower, estimated to sip fuel at a rate of 10.6 litres per 100 kilometres in the city, 6.9 on the highway.

My next mini minivan recommendation is the 2014 Ford Transit Connect Wagon, the passenger version of the U.S. automaker’s compact commercial van.

Redesigned this year, the made-in-Turkey Transit Connect is available in two wheelbases with seats for up to seven in three rows. The base engine in the $30,499 XL model is a 169 hp 2.5-litre gas four, rated at 10.5 L/100 km in the city, and 7.1 on the highway. A six-speed automatic is standard. However, I’d pay the extra $1,400 and pop for the mid-range XLT (there’s also a topline, $35,699 Titanium), which gets you seven instead of five seats as well as a more powerful and frugal 178 hp 1.6L turbocharged-four, rated at 9.5 and 6.7, respectively.

Ford Transit Connect Wagon

Ford Transit Connect Wagon
Handout, Ford

Finally, there’s the familiar Mazda5, the Japanese-built small-minivan has been popular in Canada since it arrived in 2005.  With prices ranging from $21,995 to $26,005, the six-passenger vehicle combines the sliding doors of a minivan with a very athletic driving experience. The only power choice is a 163 hp 2.5 L gas-four. A six-speed manual gearbox is standard, but an optional five-speed automatic matches the Ford’s 9.5 L/100 km in the city and 6.7 on the highway estimates.

While all three of my recommendations would make worthy successors to your decade-old Odyssey, the first example to be shown the door is the Chevy Orlando.

While it seats seven like a minivan, the small Chevy people mover doesn’t offer the convenience of sliding side doors. As well, the Orlando’s interior feels the cheapest here, and its fuel economy estimates are the poorest, too.

Next to be eliminated is the Mazda5. Arguably the most fun-to-drive of the bunch, the Mazda can’t measure up to the Ford as a hauler. Its unique 2+2+2 seating arrangement is one seat less than the Orlando and Transit Connect wagon. And if you are using all of the Mazda’s seats, there’s only 857 litres of cargo space, the least amount here.

2014 Ford Transit Connect Wagon.

2014 Ford Transit Connect Wagon.

This leaves us with the 2014 Ford Transit Connect wagon as the more fuel-efficient and easier-to-park replacement for your aging Honda.

With its raised roof and twin-sliding side doors, the Transit Connect Wagon’s cabin feels airy and roomy. Legroom is excellent for all on board. There’s also lots of glass for excellent outward visibility. And the third-row seats split 60/40 and tumble, fold or can be completely removed to grow rear cargo space to a whopping 2,410 litres of garden supplies.

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