Does A Family Of Five Really Need A Minivan?

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does a family of 5 need a minivan?

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When I was a kid, we had a 1968 Toyota Corona. The predecessor to the Corolla, this beauty had vinyl seats that you could fry a steak on in the summertime. I remember when our parents would take us out to the park we would bring a stack of towels, not to sit on at the park, but to put on the car’s seats to prevent second degree burns haha.

It never crossed my mind that our car was too small. I mean, it’s a really tiny car, but we did just fine. At least I think we did, as a kid I didn’t agonize over these decisions like I do now…

When our second child was born, I have to admit, I was kind of stoked to go shopping for minivans. At that time, we had two kids and a dog! We needed a van! My wife was resistant, making the compelling argument that vans are lame. In an effort to prove to her that minivans can be sexy, I sent her this photo of me in an ’05 Grand Caravan (we ended up buying this one by the way haha).

When I brought that bad boy home, I was able to win my wife over by showing her how the sto and go seating works. It’s possible to set the rear seats up like 4 different ways. This thing is the Autobot of family transportation.

At different times, I have used our van to transport:

  • 7 people
  • A refrigerator
  • A washer and a dryer…at the same time
  • Kitchen table
  • Several bales of hay

It’s been a truly useful addition to our family, especially since our third child was born. It’s downfall is that it’s obnoxiously bad on fuel. Where I live in Western Canada, fuel is currently around $1.40/litre, and our van uses a lot of it. Lately I’ve been wondering if we need a 4000lb bedroom on wheels to get our kids to and from school and pick up groceries.

Do you really need a minivan with 3 kids?

I’ve always just assumed that we do. I mean, pretty much all of our friends who have three or more kids have a van, so it must be a necessity. This year however, I’ve been getting really annoyed at how much we’re spending on fuel and I started wondering if we could transport all five of us in a car.

Our other vehicle is a 2007 Honda Civic that gets incredible fuel mileage. I figure that if my parents could get by with a car that’s not much larger than a Yaris, surely I could fit our 3 little monsters in a Civic right?

Wrong.

A few weeks ago I took all of our car seats (1 booster, 1 high-back booster and a forward-facing car seat) and tried for longer than I’d like to admit to fit them into my car. No matter how I did it, the seats were too wide to fit between the rear doors. I felt like that person in black and white on infomercials who is struggling to complete the simplest task.

I spent some time on car seat forums (yah, that’s a thing) and learned that there are certain types of car seats designed to be narrow and fit 3-across in smaller cars. The following week I found us a lightly-used, narrower seat for #3 on Craigslist and gave it another try.

With the narrower toddler seat, all three kids just fit across the back seat of our Civic.

We did our first trip with the whole family in the Civic recently and it wasn’t too bad actually. A little more cramped than we’re used to but we could reach the kids to pass them snacks, and they could all reach each other to share snacks and toys, it actually works out pretty well. As long as we can keep them from starting World War 3 in our back seat, everything should be good.

I’m going to be doing some more driving with all five of us over the next few weeks and I’ll update on how it’s going.

So do you need a minivan with 3 kids? I don’t think so. This setup is tight but we could definitely make it work. Where we might run into trouble is when we need to carry a load in addition to our human cargo. The trunk of our car is fairly big, but there’s definitely not enough room to pack a full load of camping gear or even do a big shopping trip and with five in the car, there’s zero extra space in the cabin.

I think that if we were to use this as a primary vehicle it would be a good idea to get some sort of rooftop cargo box or something like that.

This experiment has got me thinking a lot about the pros/cons of owning a car vs. a van. I’ll share some thoughts on why you might want to consider either below.

Reasons to get a minivan

People

If you regularly transport more than 5 people, you might want to consider a minivan (or a 3-row SUV).

Cargo

As I mentioned above, driving a smaller car severely limits your cargo carrying capacity. If you really want to load up on gear you’re going to have to look into some sort of external carrier box or a small utility trailer.

Space

A minivan really is a bedroom on wheels. We’ve used the extra floor space to change diapers, and to change our own clothes in addition to many other things that I can’t recall at the moment. They really are useful.

Sliding doors

Smaller vehicles (with the exception of now-discontinued Mazda 5), don’t have sliding doors. In my opinion, sliding doors are one of the best reasons to own a minivan with kids.

We all know that children have a way of not being so gentle with things. Sliding doors prevent them from flinging doors open and damaging nearby vehicles, as well as your own. If you move to a car it might be worth putting some sort of guard on the outer edge of your rear doors

Reasons you might want to get a smaller vehicle

Vans are bad on fuel

Every single one of them (except the outlandishly expensive Pacifica Hybrid). Even the new non-hybrid vans are straight-up bad on gas compared to pretty much any common 4-cylinder car with the best of the bunch getting around 22mpg combined . Our Grand Caravan gets around 18mpg combined and it’s not going to get any better as time goes on.

Not only is this expensive, but burning a lot more fuel is worse for the environment. In the long run, owning a car can make a big difference.

Lame-factor

As an overweight, 34 year old father of three, I’m a few years past my cool prime. Yet, I’m regularly reminded by my friends how lame it is to be driving a minivan. There’s something about the way they look that’s just super lame. Oh, and they’re absolutely no fun to drive either.

More expensive to buy

Minivans cost more than a car with equivalent features. A Toyota Sienna has a starting price of more than 35k (Canadian), while a Camry’s starting price is in the 27k range. You can get more car for your money if you go with a car rather than a van.

It’s harder to reach your kids in a van

This is more annoying than you might think. Trying to pass your kids a snack if they’re in the rear of a van requires you to have 3 arms and also take your eyes off the road. You can’t hold their hand if they’re upset either. Everything is just a little bit harder.

In conclusion

So there you have it, my family is moving towards using our car more than our van. This allows us to not only save money, but having our kids fit in the car gives us an alternative if our van breaks down and needs an expensive repair.

Four years ago, I thought our family absolutely needed a van. Now, four years and one more child later, I think we could happily do without it.

What do you think?

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17 thoughts on “Does A Family Of Five Really Need A Minivan?”

  1. When I got pregnant with my 3rd everyone asked if we were going to get a minivan. We were planning to buy one the weekend before I was unexpectedly admitted to the hospital. Thankfully we didn’t make the purchase, as thousands of dollars of NICU bills followed.

    Two years later, we are still driving my (paid-off) sedan. With my 10 year old sitting between two car seats, we’ve avoided making any road trips (the kids argue during a 10 minute drive to the store). But it’s inspiring to know that it can be done.

    I don’t have plans on buying a minivan anytime soon.

    Reply
    • I’m glad somebody else is making it work! We actually have friends with 3 (petite, but still 3) kids and they have one car, and early 00’s Jetta sedan. They had to buy expensive car seats to make them all fit but they do just fine. 1K in car seats beats 20k in replacement vehicle imho.

  2. As a middle-aged dad bod father of 2, I love my minivan and in no way shape or form feel emasculated by driving it. The minivan IS the answer to many issues relating to transportation and the family life.

    Reply
  3. We bought one once when we had three kids, it was an atrocious thing called a Ford Aerostar. We drove it for years but after we replaced it my wife informed me she’d never again drive a car that hideous. The current mini-vans are better looking, but only barely. You are correct, they are the lamest of lame vehicles.

    Reply
  4. We have a station wagon- It’s now 10 years old and has great gas mileage and we can still stack it to go camping / canoeing/ whatever 🙂 ( and I think it will last us another 10 years honestly) Look at Volvo or Ford Flex- they are a good compromise between fuel efficiency and space

    Reply
    • I really like the look of the Flex. I wish you could get the seats in the trunk that face backwards like the old days!

  5. Since we only have 2 kids we never really had to make that decision. We considered minivan at one point if only because then our kids could each have a friend along if we were going somewhere interesting, but from a budget point of view we couldn’t spend the extra money. My kids are grown up now, and my younger (17 years old) HATES it when we have a 5th in our car because either she ends up in the dreaded middle seat and even when not in the middle seat, she is squished by the others in the back, since they are for all intents and purposes, all adult size.

    So as your kids get older, you might find you need the extra space simply because they need more personal space!

    Reply
  6. Years ago , Paul and I had a Jetta and it was fine transporting our 3 kids. It had a lot of trunk space and we were able to use it to carry all our camping stuff as well. We eventually got a car top carrier and that helped. We were very happy with it.

    Reply
  7. We, slightly begrudgingly, got a minivan 5 years ago before having our 3rd, mostly because I was looking after 3 other kids at the time and driving the lot of them to and from pre-school several times a week. If I want looking after a bunch of other munchkins I don’t we would have. We got a 2013 grand caravan, and I gotta be honest, I don’t hate the thing. The stow and go is pretty amazing, and we go on family road trips in it easily and relatively often. It gets about 12L/100km which isn’t the greatest, but we drive it at max capacity or close to it on a nearly daily basis with our current living situation (We live with my sister, her husband and their 3 kids) that it’s really the only way to go. Prior to getting the van we used our little 2008 Yaris hatchback exclusively, and I really do love how little fuel that thing uses!! But with our 4th now on the way we’re facing the sad fact that our whole family won’t fit in a sedan anymore 🙁
    I’m holding out hope for a fully electric minivan, someone has got to make one sooner or later!!

    Reply
    • Thanks for reading Katie!

      I’ve also been waiting for an electric van. Chrysler fiddled around with an electric Caravan in the 90s. I guess there wasn’t enough interest. Now the only electric option is the hybrid Pacifica but at a starting price of more than 50k (CAD) it just doesn’t make sense.

  8. After driving a Nissan Pathfinder for 10 years, we finally broke and got a 2018 Honda Odyssey. Wife absolutely loves it. Even with kids old enough to get themselves in and out (4-12 yrs), it’s so easy and practical. Power sliding doors make carpooling to school a breeze. Rear Entertainment is sweet. And we get a combined 28/mpg, so not bad at all. We are really happy about the practicality of it. Not as cool looking as our SUV with off-road tires, but honestly…. driving this spaceship minivan is pretty luxurious. Wish we made the jump years earlier.

    Reply

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