Do You Need an All-Wheel Drive Minivan?

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The main mission of a minivan is to haul people, more so than even the more popular SUVs that account for more than 30 percent of new-vehicle sales.

Yet, whereas more than half of SUVs are equipped with all- or four-wheel drive, Toyota stands alone among minivan manufacturers in offering all-wheel drive, which is installed on about 17 percent of Siennas sold in the U.S. In contrast, about 60 percent of Toyota Highlander SUVs are equipped with all-wheel drive.

2014 Toyota Sienna Cars.com Review

That percentage apparently is enough to satisfy the bean counters at Toyota, which has the all-wheel-drive minivan niche all to itself; the Sienna's main rivals seem to be in no hurry to try to crash that party.

Todd Breneiser, product planning director for the Chrysler Group, said Chrysler's minivan owners aren't clamoring for all-wheel drive. Chrysler offered all-wheel drive on its minivans starting in 1991 but dropped it in 2004 because the rear drive shafts interfered with the then-new Stow 'n Go seats that fold into the floor.

"There's a vocal minority that would really like to have the all-wheel drive, and that's in the same parts of the country where we see the high take rates for other all-wheel-drive vehicles, but for the general population, I wouldn't say it's in high demand," Breneiser said in a telephone interview.

"Every year we go out and we do research about what customers like about the vehicle, what they don't like. Our customers continue to return to us, and we don't have all-wheel drive," he added.

With front-wheel drive, minivans are well equipped to handle at least moderate amounts of snow, Breneiser said, and winter tires can improve traction, so all-wheel drive isn't a must for most drivers.

Cars.com Executive Editor Joe Wiesenfelder agrees that all-wheel drive, though good to have, may not be necessary.

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"My way of thinking for Chicago has long been that it's usually unnecessary, especially versus front-wheel drive, but that's because we have decent snow removal and practically no hills. I'm more likely to say go for all-wheel drive to people who have hills or inadequate snow removal," Wiesenfelder said, adding, "Here in Chicago it's the difference between getting around at all in one or two storms a year, and getting around a bit easier the rest of the season."

"I tested a 2014 Sienna with all-wheel drive during some of this year's worst weather," Cars.com Managing Editor David Thomas said. "I was impressed by how much traction I was getting from a standing stop on ice- and snow-packed roads. The Sienna just didn't slip. I drove a Dodge Grand Caravan in similar weather weeks before and it got me home, but it didn't have that grip."

Wiesenfelder noted that all-wheel-drive Siennas come with run-flat tires, which are more expensive to replace than conventional tires, and no spare tire.

In addition, all-wheel-drive versions of the Sienna lose the center seat in the second row and the second-row tip feature (though the seats still slide), and have a seven-passenger capacity. Cargo capacity is unchanged on all-wheel-drive models.

Chrysler created the modern minivan in 1984 and, as it marks its 30th year of minivan production, it continues to lead the industry in sales by a wide margin.

Combined sales of the Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan were 246,307 in 2013. Among other major players, Honda sold 128,987 Odysseys (making it the top-selling individual model), and Toyota sold 121,117 Siennas.

Honda spokesman Chris Martin said dealers in snowy sections of the country continue to ask for an all-wheel-drive minivan, but he noted that the Odyssey outsells the Sienna without it.

With Honda's SUVs, the Pilot and CR-V, all-wheel drive is an essential ingredient, accounting for about 65 percent of the mix. With the Odyssey, Honda doesn't want to mess with success.

"When you add AWD to a model, it affects packaging and fuel efficiency, two of the Odyssey's great strengths versus the competition," Martin said in an email message. Automakers can change their minds, but Chrysler's Breneiser didn't sound like someone who is losing sleep over the current situation.

"There are customers who do want it, and we continue to monitor that, but for the vast majority of minivan buyers across all manufacturers, that's not the loudest voice," he said.

Comments 

CTMechE

See, an AWD Odyssey option would potentially seal the deal for me (Although not if it's got those $$$ run-flat tires that the Sienna has) It would depend on the price and if it forced other options.

I live in southern CT, where I took my Outback (with Blizzaks) to work this morning, thanks to the 6" of snow we got overnight. I'd rather give up AWD than the winter tires if I had to choose only one... but I'd prefer to have both.(and I will continue to put winter tires on all my vehicles, regardless of drive configuration, because it's better for stopping/turning/overall control)

I do, however, like sliding doors and an easy step-in height of a minivan. Kid-friendly is a big plus, as our family is growing. And sliding doors help every single day with parking spaces and our garage.

CT has plenty of hills and steep driveways where AWD helps a lot, but it's not quite enough for me to rush out and buy an SUV, espeically when they have many other compromises. And if the Odyssey doesn't offer AWD convenience, I might as well get something a tad smaller and MUCH less expensive, like a Mazda5. (The most expensive Mazda5 costs $2k less than the cheapest Odyssey...) Sure it's a good deal smaller, but there's very little compromise.

The big shame, though is if you make a side-by-side list of the Honda Pilot and the Honda Odyssey, you start to wonder why the Odyssey can't manage to have AWD. The two vehicles have the same engines, similar weight, and similar fuel economy (Pilot is 1 worse combined MPG, 3 worse on the highway by EPA reckoning)

But the Odyssey has WAY more cargo an seat space. In fact, the Odyssey nearly TWICE the interior volume behind the middle row as the Pilot. Sure, the Oddy is a foot longer outside, and has a 9" longer wheelbase than the Pilot, but the point is that the only thing the Pilot offers better than the Odyssey is AWD and 1000 lbs more towing capacity. (And given that most Pilots I see don't even have a tow hitch, I don't think the towing issue is a big deal)

I see a LOT of Pilots serving family duty around town, and I have to seriously wonder - how many Pilot drivers would have preferred a hypothetical AWD Odyssey instead? Does Honda ask Pilot buyers that question?

No, I don't *need* an AWD minivan. But I also didn't ask for one of the legions of short-wheelbase, jacked-up mini-SUVs that everyone seems to love, either.

But I guess I'm a practical engineer who wants to pick and choose car features, and isn't hung up on vehicle image.

DL

agree with CTMechE.

I got the Sienna for its AWD availability, and I refuse to get a less practical SUV/crossover. I am also glad I can drive in snowy weather (usually before plows get to the roads) with AWD PLUS winter tires.

BTW the Sienna AWD also cannot be had with the power-folding 3rd row. Manual is actually much faster to use.

DL

Oh, and the run-flats that come standard on the Sienna AWD models are TERRIBLE on ice when it comes to stopping distance. I would avoid them -- get a good set of tires and a can of Fix-a-flat.

I *NEED* a minivan with AWD with winter tires because I live in NH, have to often get out before the plows do, and have 3 kids in carseats. I also can't stand SUVs because of what they represent. So yeah, I am one of the few people who actually need these ugly things.

Dave

"I also can't stand SUVs because of what they represent." ...ok, what do they represent? Not sure I get that statement. Your Sienna gets slightly better mileage than my Land Rover LR2, and with the seats folded flat, Ican cayy loads of "stuff"

Lindsay

I too have a minivan and have been trying to decide whether to get another or to get an SUV for the AWD option. I have children and do lots of running around so the van is great however living in MA and spending so such time in NH AWD would be much better. I have never understood way they don't have more family and budget friendly AWD options. Us mom and dads who have multiple children , animals and household shopping lists all know the struggles of having to choose between space and road worthiness in New England

Greg

I also want more AWD van choices. I have purchased 2 of them brand new, and may buy a Sienna AWD in the future. My first was a'94 Dodge Grand Caravan AWD. And the one I'm still driving is the '04 Dodge Grand Caravan AWD. Honda should offer one. And Chrysler-Dodge should offer one. Yes, they would have to lose the "S & G folding seats" to make room under the floor, for the AWD system. But, they would sell.

Greg

To add "why" AWD is important to me. I drive up, over and through snow covered highways and freeways all winter, every year. Also, ski area parking lots that are usually flat but covered in melting ice and slush and deep ruts. Many people have to "chain-up" just to get out of the parking lot, but you don't have to do that with AWD. I want a van more than an SUV, because of ALL the practical cargo room, the low floor, the big sliding doors, better mpg, and easier parking than a Suburban, etc. When I carry 4-7 people I'll put the seats back in. When I want a hard and flat floor (and a lighter van that gets better mpg and performance) I'll take the seats out. Cars brands market the safety and all-road worthy-ness of AWD to sell cars. Why are vans any different? If Chrysler and Honda advertise these qualities for vans, (like they do for AWD cars and SUV's) they would sell lots of AWD vans.

Glenn

I like to trailer a boat and the front wheel drive on the vans is no good on the wet ramps. I need the power in the rear or awl. The engines are big enough but the design does not work.

me

@DL

What do SUV's represent?

Mom - don't call me "soccermom"!

I had a Sienna a few years' ago and found it was much more spacious and comfortable than the Odyssey even though the Odyssey's interior does look more posh than the Sienna. I then went to an AWD Small SUV thinking that maybe in snowy CT - it would be better for us. WRONG. I have been off the road 4 times during our last winter and that was on new tires! This car is going back and I am returning to the Sienna XLE AWD with Nav. Brilliant ride, everything we need, could store the grandparents and the kitchen sink if we want and it has a higher driving position than the Odyssey, which I do like also. In fact, shoulder and head room are also very generous and with some over 6-footers in our family, that is really important. I'd do AWD winter tires during the winter on the Sienna and will be a happy girl again. Just don't call me soccer mom....

minh

CTmechE, all Honda pilots have tow hitch. It is covered with a piece of plastic that comes off with two thumb screws. You can see the bulge in the middle of the bumper..

@minh: My '07 Pilot is not equipped with a hitch, fyi.

It has recently become necessary for my family to consider sliding doors and increased cargo room so we are shopping for a minivan.

AWD and snow tires are a must considering we live in a hilly rural area of WI with inadaquate snow removal.

I would prefer to stick with Honda since I value the service that my AWD Pilot has given me until now. It is unfortunate that they have not addressed this particular need.

At this point, Toyota seems to be the likely choice in this case. My wife loves her Highlander and won't give it up.

With a sticker between $30K - $40K, AWD should absolutely be an option, in my opinion.

Why Toyota ditched the spare tire concept in favor of run-flat tires is beyond me! That all-but-eliminates the possibility of finding decent snow tires to accompany the AWD feature set...unless I'm ignorant on that issue.

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