The minivan is full of juxtaposition. It’s perhaps the most stigmatized and unloved vehicle type in the U.S., and yet it might be the most versatile and practical vehicle on the market.
Mutter the word “minivan,” and images of soccer moms, fake woodgrain exteriors, and mundane road trips come to mind.
To most, minivans aren’t aspirational. Yet, in a bizarre twist, full-size “adventure vans” like the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, Ford Transit, or some of the off-road van conversions offer instant trailhead cred and spawn fantasies of #vanlife and freedom. Meanwhile, their smaller cousins remain several rungs down on the must-have meter.
That being said, perhaps people need to look at minivans in a different light.
After all, adventure can come in all shapes and sizes. And modern minivans (even old minivans) can offer up plenty of versatility, value, and practicality for those looking to camp, travel, or explore. I’d go as far as to say minivans are actually the most overlooked, underrated vehicle platform out there.
Here are five reasons minivans are the ultimate adventure rigs.
5 Reasons Minivans Are the Ultimate Adventure Rigs
1. Minivans Are Both Practical and Versatile
Remove your preconceived minivan notions and you’ll find these vehicles offer exceptional practicality and versatility. They’re roomy, have configurable interiors right from the factory, and can be had with nearly every option you’d want.
Take, for example, the new Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid, which I recently drove. The rear seats fold into the floor, and the two center captain’s chairs can be removed. This allows for a megaton of space.
To check my reality, I even brought out my double Big Agnes sleeping bag and laid it inside. The bag easily fit between the wheel wells.
I also had a few feet in front of me for gear, a 12V fridge, and/or a storage tote. Heck, this could be a hell of a camper! The hybrid versions can get up to 82 MPGe or 30 mpg on gasoline.
Truth be told, this was the most time I’d spent with a Chrysler minivan since driving from Minnesota to Mexico City in a Chrysler Town & Country back in 1994 as a teen. I was a bit smitten with the Pacifica and kept thinking how it’d make a cool camper.
Regardless of brand, part of a minivan’s persona is this inherent practicality and versatility. And these traits should not be overlooked by would-be travelers and adventure-seekers.
2. Minivans Are Compact and Boast a Maneuverable Size
Sometimes bigger is better, but not always. Sure, bigger vans can allow you to stand up and walk around inside. More room to sleep and stretch out. You can have a stand-up kitchen. Heck, you can have a kitchen.
But minivans are going to be more nimble (especially in urban environments). They also fit into tighter places and spaces. We’ve all been to the overcrowded trailhead or the narrow country road — this is where small can be great.
Admittedly, having a smaller vehicle requires you to be more conscious of what gear you’re bringing with you. Driving smaller ends up making you a bit more minimalist, but that can be a benefit while traveling. So before you buy, think about your needs and whether or not a smaller van is right for you.
You might be surprised how little space you need in your adventure vehicle — and you might actually find being smaller is better.
3. Minivans Are Affordable, and More Affordable Than Most Adventure Vehicles
Minivans have been around for many decades, so there is a wide array of platforms to choose from. Whether you go for the brand-new $50,000-plus modern minivan, or you opt for something far less expensive, such as an older Chevrolet Astro from the 1990s, there’s a minivan for every adventure seeker’s budget.
The money you save on the purchase of an older used van can also go into building out the van’s interior the way you’d need it. Keep in mind that older vehicles require more maintenance.
If you opt for something unique — such as an imported Japanese-domestic-market van (perhaps a Mitsubishi Delica or Toyota Hiace) — you may have a hard time sourcing parts. But you can also get things like turbodiesel engines and true 4WD systems for increased off-road capability.
Older vans can be exceptional values. Just know what you’re getting yourself into when you buy an older vehicle, especially if it’s a quirky right-hand-drive van from Japan. Think about parts availability, your ability to work on it, or finding a mechanic who can inspect it before purchase.
Even if you opt for the most expensive new minivans out there — a loaded Chrysler Pacifica, a decked-out Toyota Sienna, or a camper-ized Mercedes-Benz Metris — you’ll often spend less than a new full-size Ford Transit or Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, especially if you go the 4WD route.
4. Minivans Are Understated and Stealthy
Let’s face it: most minivans aren’t supremely desirable to the general public. But this has its advantages.
If you leave your adventure-themed minivan understated, it draws less attention to those who may be looking to prowl. Additionally, for those people who might be doing some stealth camping — the art of blending into your surroundings while sleeping/traveling — the minivan doesn’t invite a whole host of onlookers.
While your Instagram cred might not be as high, your ability to blend in can be a great virtue.
Certain van platforms, such as the Ford Transit Connect, Ram ProMaster City, or Nissan NV2000, are also often used as work vans. They can be had without windows, with no rear seats, and not-so-flashy wheels.
They’re plain-Jane vans that can remains blah on the outside but totally customized to your needs inside. Skip the side windows and you have even more security for yourself and your gear.
5. Minivans Offer Great Mix of Comfort and Capability
One of the most underrated features a minivan possesses is its comfort. You get all the niceties and efficiencies of a car, but the space of a van.
Minivans typically have an above-average highway ride, and lots of creature comforts to keep occupants happy on road trips. In fact, minivans are often made for longer journeys. Whether it’s scads of USB outlets and cupholders, or comfortable captain’s chairs and cushy suspension setups, the minivan began to erode the station wagon’s stronghold in the 1980s for road-tripping royalty.
Remember that Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid I talked about? That van had lots of leather, heated seats, TV screens in the headrests, what seemed to be about 75 USB ports, a glass roof for stargazing, a great stereo, and an efficient hybrid drivetrain. It was downright cushy and made me want to hit the road.
Final Thoughts: The Adaptable, Pragmatic, Underrated Minivan
While a minivan isn’t typically going to be as capable off the pavement as 4WD SUV or even many crossovers, there are a host of models available that will drive all four wheels, meaning easier access to trailheads, that favorite kayak put-in, or mountain bike trails — not to mention fantastic foul-weather capability.
There are even some aftermarket companies offering lift kits for certain minivans. For example, Journeys Off Road makes lift kits for some models. This includes a 2.75-inch lift for the Chrysler Pacifica, and lifts for both 2WD and 4WD Toyota Siennas.
These lifts will provide increased ground clearance for rutted roads, snowy streets, or rocky routes. They can also allow you to equip the van with slightly larger, more aggressive tires for when the going gets rough.
The minivan’s appealing mix of comfort and capability can mean these often overlooked vehicles can actually be some of the best, most underrated adventure platforms available on the road.