Thursday, September 23, 2010

A question I always get asked by new parents... "Sedan, SUV or Minivan?"

So we finally gave in a few weeks ago and bought ourselves a swankin' new minivan... a 2010 Honda Odyssey EX-L with RES (Rear Entertainment System) to be exact.  We held out for as long as we could but given that we're expecting baby number 3 in about 4 months, we decided to take the plunge and buy our very own swagger wagon.

Now having driven it around for the past few weeks, I must admit, it has made our lives just a bit easier... And with two young kids and an expectant mother in tow, I'll take every tiny bit of ease I can get to get us through the day!

In this blog, I'm going to talk about a question I get asked by many new parents.  "Should I stick with my car, get an SUV or a Minivan?"  Here are my recommendations on what to choose and why.  In my next post, I'll provide tips on when to buy your new car and how to save the most money.

Sedan, SUV or Minivan?
I think what to buy is a function of two major factors:
  1. How many kids are you planning to have?
  2. How much do you loathe the idea of being seen driving a minivan?
If the answer to #2 is, "What are you talking about, minivans aren't bad," then the decision is easy.  Minivans are by far, the most convenient way to transport your family, regardless of how many kids you have.  So if you're even thinking about getting one, I suggest you do.  No brainer.

Now in general, I think its rare to find folks who have no reservations about driving a minivan.  There is a reason why the urban dictionary defines a minivan as, "a vehicle driven by a male who has given up on life."  I'm not quite to that extreme but pretty close.  So for when I'm asked by friends for advice about what car to buy, here's what I recommend.

If you're planning to have one child, a sedan is okay but not great.  As your child gets older (~1.5 yrs), you'll find that its extremely awkward to put her into her car seat.  Her body will simply be too long to place directly into the car seat.  So instead, you'll have to tilt her head first, into the door and then swing the rest of her body into the car seat.  Its a very awkward position to say the least and you'll find that you'll accidentally knock her head against your roof on more than a few occasions.  Furthermore, the height of sedans are fairly low so you'll find that putting your kid in and out of your car will become a bit of a strain on your back.  That said, its very doable and you'll eventually learn to maneuver this quite efficiently over time while your kid also learns how best to duck out of the way of the roof.

If you're planning to have two children, I would highly recommend going with an SUV.  Since the clearance of most SUVs is pretty high, you avoid many of the awkward maneuvering challenges of the sedan.  Furthermore, most SUVs come with plenty of storage for those long road trips for which you'll have to pack what seems like a refugee camp's worth of gear.  There are a few disadvantages to the SUV that you should be aware of:
  1. While the height of the SUV makes it easier for you to move your kids in and out, over time, the height becomes a bit of a detriment since your young kids will find it too high to climb into the SUV themselves.  My 4 yo really can't climb in on her own.  Also, for folks shorter than about 5 foot 5 inches, the height of the seats may be uncomfortably high to maneuver your kids in and out. 
  2. If you have two children, the third row of the SUV becomes pretty useless for seating.  In most cases, you'll have your two car seats strapped into the seats in the second row.  As a result, it will be impossible to fold down one of the seats to enable someone to climb into the back.  In our case, when we drove guests around, we would have them climb into the third row through the hatchback.  
  3. Of course the fuel efficiency of an SUV will be much worse than a sedan as well as a minvan.  The average MPG for each car is as follows: sedan: nearly 30; minivan: ~20; mid-sized SUV: 17.
SUV Recommendation
If you're thinking about buying an SUV and are cost conscious, I highly recommend the Honda Pilot EX-L.  In my opinion, it provides the best bang for your buck.  It's moderately priced around $35K, but its performance and features are comparable to other more expensive models.  For example, it's essentially the same car as the Acura MDX.  While the MDX has superior interior features, a slightly bigger engine, a more elegant aesthetic overall, it only comes in AWD and is priced at around $47K.  This Washington Post article gives a great comparison between the MDX and the Pilot, and actually tips the hat to the MDX.  However, given that the article mentions that both cars drive essentially the same, I'd argue that the Pilot is the better value for your dollar.

Of course a minivan is also a great option for a family of four but I don't believe its quite a necessity yet.

If you're planning to have three or more children, I think the minivan is the best way to go.  It's by far the most convenient, fuel efficient, and comfortable vehicle for a family of 5 or more people.  Here are some of the most compelling reasons to take the plunge into the minivan world.
  1. Most modern minivans come with electronic doors.  This means with push of a button, you can open the side doors as well as the hatchback.  This is feature alone was enough for us to trade in our SUV for the minivan.  
  2. The height of the car is low enough so that your children can easily climb in, but the roof is high enough so that you can easily move your kids in and out.  
  3. The seating configuration in a minivan enables easy access to the third row of seats, even with two car seats installed.  With most minivans, you'll be able to move the second row seats around so that you can provide access beside or between the two car seats. 
  4. There is enough storage for practically everything you'll need for a road trip.  With the SUV, the need for strorage will usually compete with the need to use the third row of seating.  In our Pilot, we almost always had the third row folded down so that we could have enough storage space for our stroller, groceries, etc.  With a minivan, even with the third row in use, you'll have plenty of storage for these types of items.  
Minivan Recommendation 
As for minivans, I highly recommend the Honda Odyssey EX-L(eather).  For me, the minivan decision came down to the two most popular and highly rated minivan models:  the Toyota Sienna and the Honda Odyssey.  While some of the decision just came down to aesthetics (both minivans are really matched in terms of the engine and performance), I also preferred the ease of maneuvering the second row of seats in the Odyssey over the Sienna.  Also, the Sienna trim packages do not offer as much flexibility as the Odyssey.  For example, the DVD entertainment system was not available without the navigation system.  (I always prefer to buy aftermarket navigation systems-- they're much cheaper, have a ton of more features, and are generally 2-3 years ahead in hardware and software than their pre-installed counterparts).  For me, the trim options on the Sienna were a deal breaker.

For those of you considering a new car, SUV, or minivan for the family, I hope this blog was helpful.  It can be summed up as follow:
  1. If you don't mind a minivan, get one as soon as you start having kids.  
  2. If you dread owning a minivan, once you have three kids, you'll probably have to take the plunge.

Finally, I'll leave you with a hilarious clip that captures how most people think about LAM (life after minivan).  Happy parenting!
Paul Nardizzi - Minivan
Funny JokesFunny VideosDaniel Tosh Stand-Up

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