Mini Van Shoot Out: Town and Country, Quest, Sedona, Odyssey, Sienna
By The Car Family

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We like minivans. We like their safety, fuel economy, utility, and ability to transform themselves from school bus to work van within minutes. And despite the fact that they have virtually indistinguishable exteriors and starting prices around $25,000 they are quite distinctive in real world use. Thus more than any other vehicle it is important to test-drive a minivan with the family onboard and that is what we did.

With that in mind we came up with some startlingly differences between otherwise similar minivans. For example, if you have infants and young children the Chrysler Town and Country and Dodge Caravan with the Stow and Go option is your best bet. If you like a bargain and a long warranty the Kia Sedona is unbeatable and if you like something a bit fancier in the same format the Hyundai Entourage is a terrific buy. If you like handling the Honda Odyssey is the winner. If you need a lot of room and zoom and an optional stereo that is the best we have ever heard in a vehicle the Nissan Quest is your answer. If you like all wheel drive capabilities with reasonable fuel mileage the Toyota Sienna is your choice.

Testing Recommendations
Here are some recommendations to consider before shopping for your van. First, make sure you separate your needs from wants. It is nice to have an expensive leather interior in a van, but a dog or cat’s nails can make short work of them. Likewise, an expensive entertainment center might be a great way to pacify the children, but is that what you really want for them? In addition, the loss of those remote headsets isn’t inexpensive and they aren’t tethered to anything making misplacing them a reality. What we do highly recommend are power side doors and rear hatch if you have children. It makes the van easier to load and, if properly used, safer. It is a must that you test the power doors to make sure they stop when they close after contacting an obstacle. Stand next to the minivan with a small piece of wood and hit the close button. As the door slides you should be able to stop it at any point with just slight pressure from the wood. The next thing to check is the height of your garage’s ceiling and the tailgate’s height when open. Using the remote to open the rear hatch while it is the garage when there is a possibility of hitting the ceiling doesn’t bode well for either. Finally, sit in the third row of seats and check the ease of which the seatbelts fit and if there are head rests to help resist whiplash. Because keeping the correct tire pressure is absolutely vital to minivans to protect against rollovers and reduced fuel mileage an optional air pressure monitoring devise is worthwhile. Since rollovers are one of the leading causes of injury in SUVs and minivans it is important to consider the government ratings. According to for 2005 models (the latest available) all of the vans we tested were classified as “no tip.” Based on statistical data the percentage of possibility of rollovers for the vans was 12 percent for the Nissan Quest; 14 percent for the Honda; 15 percent for the Kia and Sienna; and 17 percent for the Town and Country. To give you an idea of how much safer these vans are than most SUVs here are some rollover percentages for some popular sports utility models: Ford Explorer Sport Trac, 34 percent; Chevrolet Tahoe, 28 percent, Jeep Liberty, 24 percent, Cadillac Escalade, 24 percent, Hyundai Santa Fe, 20 percent; Honda CRV, 19 percent. Almost without exception a minivan is safer than a SUV.

Once on the road there are four tests you need to perform. First, see how well you can park it in a tight space such as at a shopping center. Next, what can you see when backing up? If you have a large blind spot consider the optional rear camera offered on some models. Thirdly, check to make sure it accelerates well enough for you with the family onboard. These vans can be spunky with a light load, but they’re engines are down on torque and so when loaded they tend to waddle. Finally, see how well they stop. Do you like the feel of the brake pedal? Does the van stop straight?

Finally, make sure that the adults in the family are capable of removing and/or folding the rear seats should it be required. The second row seats can be very heavy and difficult to take out and the reach to fold the back seat into the floor may be too much for some. Vehicles like the Town and Country make this procedure easier than others, but all of them require more strength than expected due to the fact that the seats have to be pulled up and out of the van. Some of these weigh well over 30 pounds.

The Findings
We weighed our findings more heavily toward price, real world fuel mileage, interior usability, maneuverability in tight parking situations, safety, and stopping and handling. As such the surprise winner was the Kia Sedona, which not only has a superior warranty than the competition, but does everything as well or nearly as well as the more costly competition. As for close, the Hyundai Entourage was next. It is a twin sister of the Kia, but with more chrome and substance. Although the male dominated magazines and websites select the faster and better handling Honda Odyssey, that model costs considerable more and offers little the Kia does not, although you could save $200 a year on fuel for the average driver in the Odyssey due to its sophisticated valve technology.

Toyota Sienna
Toyota’s Sienna is in need of a makeover. It is still a quality vehicle with a lot of positive attributes, but the interior is the most difficult to live with for those in the back seats and it simply does not excel in any one area except ease of parking. It has a goodly amount of cargo room, very good fuel mileage, and has an easy to operate third row seat. The ride is very luxury sedan like and comes with all wheel drive. Standard safety equipment does include front side-impact airbags and three-row head-protecting side curtain airbags. Lots of options from tire monitoring to ports for additional audio components. This is a good van that might be available for a good price now that it is near its model run. You also need to know that we didn’t test the new V6 engine in the Sienna which is considerable more powerful and responsive. However, it still does not solve the Sienna’s interior shortcomings. Overall, Toyota’s van won’t disappoint you and a safe choice.

Honda Odyssey
Honda’s Odyssey is very expensive if you don’t watch your options. And, if you order the Touring model, you get run flat tires without a spare so beware of the cost of these tires if you want this feature. The Honda’s ride is the most sport sedan like of any minivan and the engine is both powerful and frugal on fuel due to the fact that the Variable Cylinder Management (VCM) system shuts down three of its six cylinders while cruising to increase fuel efficiency. In town the Honda is plenty spunky and quiet with an Active Noise Cancellation system that keeps the cabin subdued. There are a lot of positive things about the Honda such as standard curtain side airbags for all three rows of seats, room for eight, a fold down rear seat, antilock brakes, passenger airbag, head airbags, side airbags, stability control, and traction control. Crash test scores are excellent.

Thus the Odyssey is our second place choice based on the fact we couldn’t justify its extra cost over the Kia, which offers nearly the same interior space and utility. The Kia even gets nearly identical gas mileage and is even more powerful than Honda’s 3.5-liter V6 engine. Since resale of the Sedona has not been established we could not compare it to the excellent used prices the Honda brings, but we found that most families buy a minivan for a long period of time negating the importance of resale within the first three to five years that are normally used for comparisons of vehicles. With the longer Kia warranty The Car Family believes that resale might be much stronger than expected, especially if Kia can get people to test its van.

Chrysler Town and Country
We love the Stow and Go option that enables the middle two seats to easily fold into the floor. The sliding optional DVD entertainment center is also well designed, but expensive. The ride is soft and seldom ruffled by unpleasant pavement. The problem is that the van needs to be freshened in terms of the dash where most have the air-conditioning and stereo readouts are unreadable at night due to their small font. The rear seats fold into the floor, but require a long reach. The engine is down on power compared to the competition and the transmission is not as eager to please as the Kia’s and Odyssey’s. If you want to save money you might consider the Dodge Caravan, which is less expensive, but has a much-reduced content. We feel that the handiness of the Stow and Go option, the accommodating interior, and the good natured attitude of this Chrysler makes it a third place choice for real family use. Make sure you get stability control. Crash scores are good. A friendly vehicle for those not in a hurry. Well priced and well featured.

Kia Sedona/Hyundai Entourage
We found the Kia and Hyundai Entourage the most unremarkable minivans in appearance. If you purchase these in white or gray you have an invisible vehicle. If there were another Gumball Rally where people see how fast they can drive from New York to Los Angeles this would be our choice. No one looks at it twice. And, with its potent new 3.8 liter engine, this is plenty perky with 242 horsepower and 251 ft-lbs. @ 3500 rpm. This means the Kia/Hyundai makes more power sooner and it feels that way, especially when loaded. If you were blindfolded and riding in the Sedona you would think it was a Honda. However, the Honda does turn and stop better and has more responsive steering inputs. The Kia has the best warranty that covers you up to five-year or 60,000 miles overall and ten-years or 100,000-miles on the powertrain. The third row seat folds into the floor, but is difficult to pull out and the second row seats are heavy to remove. The Kia and Hyundai have side airbags and ABS as well as traction control and stability control. In other words, this is a good van bargain priced, well warranted, with ample storage space. When driving the Kia it feels much smaller than it is and it is only when you park the Sedona that its girth becomes apparent. The Hyundai feels a bit more sluggish and I bit more polished. If you want to save money stick with the Kia. It has a much too large turning radius at nearly 40 feet. Overall, a great value with real life features and usability that makes it the equal of the competition. If you are daring enough to gamble on this recently redone model you might be the happiest minivan owner at the mall.

Nissan’s Quest is distinctive looking, has a great interior, an engine that provides a lot of propulsion, and a quirky interior layout that works well, but takes a while to master. The quickest of all minivans, the 3.5-liter V6 with its 240 horsepower works to make this the sports car of vans. The wide doors are the best of any and make loading and unloading very easy. The full-length glass roof takes a while to figure out and the view to the back is very limited. Check into Nissan’s excellent rear view camera with this model. The Quest is longer than the other vans and yet still feels nimble. As the Kia, the turning radius is large, 40 feet, which makes parking the Quest an acquired skill. Overall, this is a minivan for the iconoclastic who enjoys driving and loves the individuality that this Nissan offers. Whatever, make sure you listen to the optional stereo system while driving the Quest. It is exceptional.

Mom’s view:
I find driving a minivan a mixed blessing. Although it offers a lot of uses, the soccer mom image it sends is not one that is flattering. Perhaps that is the reason why so many otherwise practical families went over to SUVs despite their horrible gas mileage, tipsy ride, and garage filling girth. Anyway, the Toyota Sienna was my choice. It quickly made me forget I was driving a van, offered a ride that I felt comfortable with, and was easy to operate. The Kia and Honda were nearly identical in ease of use, but felt too large, as did the Quest. The Town and Country’s dash and lighting were sub par, although if I had children if would be my first choice due to the Stow and Go option. Give my vote to Toyota with Kia second.

Dad’s view:
The Honda was terrific. It was fun to drive and the interior was both spacious and easy to use. The Kia was difficult to fault, although it might have helped if it had a personality. The Quest is big and felt that way. The engine was always ready, but the lack of side and rear visibility always made me a bit nervous. The Chrysler needs more grunt and the Sienna, which was once my favorite, has not kept up with the competition. Make my score for the fun to drive Odyssey (is that an oxymoron), the Kia, and the Town and Country in that order.

Workingwoman’s view:
I am too young for a minivan, but the Kia almost made me forget that. It is such a bargain. Imagine a V6 minivan for the price of four cylinder Camry. The Chrysler had a nice looking interior, but lacked the sparkle. The Nissan’s appearance and interior put me off and it was just too big for me. I found the Honda quite easy to master, but I couldn’t see spending so much extra for nearly the same ingredients as the Kia. I wouldn’t say I felt this shoot-out was an eye opener, but I would say that it really opens your eyes when you see how similar these five vans are in daily use until there is a family onboard when their character changes dramatically. Whatever you do, check those options carefully. They can totally change the usability of these vans far more than a sedan or SUV, of which the latter is a curse on the earth unless you live where you must have the added ground clearance for winter driving or to reach abandoned calves on your ranch.

Young working male’s view:
Give me a break. When does a single guy need a minivan? That was my thinking before the arrival of my rescued dog, my career as a budding rap artist and the realization that I had three hours to kill between classes after work and needed a place to work/sleep. With that in mind I wanted a lot of room and so the Nissan Quest was my favorite. It had big side doors, a terrific sound system, and a forceful power plant and there were plenty of good deals out there. The Kia was also a bargain and very useful. The Honda was fun to drive and economical to operate. The Town and Country just didn’t do much for me and the Sienna was boring. I did note that the Honda was the only van with room for eight people, and six airbags. It was pretty fast. The Kia felt fast, too. By the way, don’t even consider the Kia’s short wheelbase model that is shy on cargo space. The Quest is quite stylish, but still has the quirkiness I like. Toyota’s Sienna now has a larger engine, with 268 horsepower, that should make it much more responsive. However, we didn’t test this engine. Add that option to the all wheel drive system and you have a minivan for all weather conditions, however, the interior is still dated. The Town and Country needs the optional large engine and comes very well equipped. Give me the Quest and don’t tell my friends.

Family conference:
If money is no object the Honda is a good van, but since being frugal is a virtue the Kia is the better deal with nearly identical features and performance. The other vans all have their strong points, but can’t match the performance and/or the versatility of these two. For a list of all vehicle websites go to and click on business.

Of note is that we didn’t test Mazda’s vans due to their smaller size and we didn’t test the very expensive Mercedes R because we doubt many families would be interested in this vehicle for daily transportation given its 16/21 fuel mileage rating and starting price well above $40,000. Ford’s product is slated for renewal next year and so we passed on the FreeStar/Mercury Monterey. The Ford Edge was not available for testing. We have previously tested the Chevrolet Upland/Saturn Relay/Buick Terraza. They are a cross between a SUV and a minivan, but in this field they can really only offer a price advantage. The Car Family found them useful and well priced, but not as nifty or as powerful handy as the more traditional minivans. Check out our review here.

Government rollover rate information, here.

Dodge Charger: Good Buy

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Unfortunately, this Charger will make the perfect police car. It has plenty of room, a wide variety of potent engines, and a good platform for high-speed stability. The taxpayers are going to like it too as it starts under $23,000 (US). The bad news is that the bargain pricing is going to put a bunch of these in rental fleets making it difficult to separate the real from the vacationer. Bummer.

We tested the 3.5 liter six-cylinder Charger and came away with some strong opinions. First, this is a very large vehicle. It reminded of us the good old days when there weren’t compact parking spaces. Even the seats are large making them ideal for the individual who has more girth to tout. The V6 engine was more than adequate for all occasions, although when loaded and pulling up a mountain grade the Hemi V8 would be welcomed. As for the SRT 6.1 liter option, the 425 horsepower lavished on this sedan is overkill for those that drive to work and can’t afford the 14-mpg costs. However, if you’re late to work, there is no quicker ride for the money. The Hemi and 6.1 options may pay back the extra cost at resale (, but in daily driving the plus sized engines are wasting their attributes. We urge you not to get hung up on any of the engine choices offered with the Charger before you test all of them in real driving situations. Regardless of which choice the chassis is quite capable with its handling prowess and ability to corner, but you still feel the effects of physics on its 4000 pounds. If you really want to run with the big boys order the suspension upgrades as well as the bigger tires and rims.

Dad’s view: I never warmed up to the Charger. Although I liked its quiet ride and the obvious potential of the 250-hp 3.5-liter High Output V-6 and five-speed automatic with AutoStick, it just wasn’t a tidy ride even with the 17-inch wheels and tires. I believe that this is an exceptional highway driver and we consistently got over 21 mpg and sometimes nearly 25 when we could use the cruise control, but overall it is just too much car for commuting. On the other hand, it is a bargain. Indeed, with the SRT-8 option it is less expensive than any other so equipped Chrysler product.

My problem was its handling, obstructed rear visibility, and dull interior. The handling was good, but there was too much lean on friskily taken corners. Despite this it was a much better driver than the new Ford models. The rear headrests and a high trunk disrupt the view to the back. Backing up is never a matter to be done in haste. As for the interior, it is just plain dull. The gauges are fairly easy to read, although the indicators could be larger, but the overall effect is bland. Even the steering wheel manages to feel less than quality built with seams that can irritate your hands after a long driver even though the units tilts and telescopes.

Looks are everything when it comes to the Charger and many people expressed dismay when they found out this Dodge only comes as a four-door sedan. Nevertheless, we think Dodge did the right thing. The sedan is far more usable, looks nearly as sporty as a coupe, and saves considerable money as it uses many of the same ingredients as its Chrysler 300 sister. Those savings are passed on to you as the base price for this very large automobile with a spirited and economical six-cylinder engine is $22,320 (US). But be warned if you go for the more heavily optioned Daytona, Hemi, or super fast SRT-8 models you are looking at upwards of $32,000 (US). Of course, that gives you between 345 horsepower and 425 horsepower. Unfortunately, you are going to pay a two to eight mile per gallon penalty for this power. Gas mileage rating for our six-cylinder was 19/27.

Mom’s view: The seats need more lumbar and the lower pad is too short, but you have a good array of adjustments and can get fairly comfortable. The stereo is average at best, and the AM/FM switch is a long reach even for a six-footer. As usual, the Dodge has a system of setting radio stations that is frustrating. Holding down the push button just makes so much more sense. On the other hand the windshield wipers are very good. You just keep turning the stalk until you get the speed you wish. This is a great gift to those who have yet to figure out the ideal speed for delayed wiper sweeps featured on other makes. We tested the Charger in heavy rains and drizzle and the system was clearly superior.

The trunk remote does not work from enough distance, as you nearly have to be standing next to the car to get it to unlock. Furthermore, there is no place to grab the trunk lid so you have to slide your hand on the dirty rear bumper to gain lift it. As I have said many times, the trunk lid should open about three to five inches so that you can nudge it open with a grocery bag and not get your fingernails broken or dirty a long sleeved blouse or jacket. I might add that the trunk has a high lift over and is not as deep or useful as the competition.

Opening the doors is also exceptionally difficult as the painted handles are very slippery. Your only grip is a small ledge under the handle. The overall effect is not good, especially if you have long nails or your hands are wet. There is enough storage space inside with a fair sized glove compartment usable door compartments, and a deep center console. There is a nice place for sunglasses and the shifter is hefty and simple to use. The horn is another matter. It is difficult to activate it so I recommend you practice before an emergency arrives.

On the whole I liked the Charger very much. It brought back pleasurable memories and the strong brakes, comforting ride, and overwhelming size made it a family friendly vehicle. I would consider the Convenience Group Two, Road and Track Performance option, and still have a good car well under $30,000. You can also order some outlandish packages such as the Daytona with yellow or copper colors and a spoiler as well as other attention grabbers.

As my husband stated, the interior is too Spartan and borders on cheap looking. The cloth seats are not that easy to clean and none of my women friends were impressed at all. They thought the exterior was interesting, but once inside they had nothing positive to say outside of how quiet it was and roomy. Dodge probably figures this is a guy car, but it could be much more with some female designer influences.

Another concern, as with the new Mustang, are the very large A pillars that create large blind spots. While driving either car you simply cannot see a pedestrian standing on a corner waiting for a light to change unless you lean forward in your seat. Undoubtedly this was done to make the cars more rollover safe, but be very careful when turning right on a red light. By the way, the worst vehicles for this problem are the Hummers and the Dodge Durango A pillars of which the Charger’s look exactly alike.  Coincidentally, both these SUVs have the lowest real life fuel mileage we have ever gotten on a vehicle.

College going male’s view: Buy the 250 hp. 3.5-liter V-6 and you’re going to have all the giddy-up you’re going to need. The price is incredible and you can even pretend your in the “Dukes of Hazard County” thanks to a solid chassis, rack and pinion steering, Electronic Stability Program with brake assist, ABS, and power everything. Unfortunately, Daisy Duke might like the light steering, but I found it overboosted and that created a false sense of cornering ability in the Charger. This is a big car and the driver needs to feel that weight.

Dodge offers plenty of stereo options and even a DVD navigation system with CD/MP3 and six speakers powered by a 322-watt digital amplifier. The sound is good, but not great. The controls could be more clearly marked, too. I get the feeling that most of the money was invested in the chassis, brakes, and engine with little left over to spiffy up the interior.

Even on the cloth seated base model you get cruise control, a CD player, tilt/telescoping steering wheel, remote entry, air conditioning and power door locks, mirrors, and windows as standard. If you want to step up to the more performance oriented packages try the Road/Track option for $1,500 and get a much better suspension and a tuned exhaust. The brakes were excellent, although I never tested them severely due to the rain. By the way the ABS does work. Don’t ask. Overall, quite a buy for 4000 pounds of muscle.

Young working woman’s view: Not my type of car. It is too big and I didn’t find it that easy to drive in traffic or park in tight spaces. Just not as charming as the Chrysler 300. I think Daisy Duke types would like it, especially since with four doors they wouldn’t have to crawl through the window to get in and I don’t think Jessica Simpson would be interested anyway.

Family conference: There is no question this is good value and if the quality holds up the Charger is going to be a fine family vehicle. We only noticed one glitch when the engine hiccupped at a stoplight in our weeklong test. One can only image what variations buyers are going to do with this large canvas, but you can count on them being coveted by the local highway enforcement. It would certainly spoil the image to see Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane driving the Charger.

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Nissan Murano: Highly visable

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Nissan Murano SE AWD is a difficult vehicle to categorize. Is it a tall station wagon, SUV, or minivan? Well, to be honest it really doesn’t matter because if you like the exterior styling you’re not going to find anything like this so pay the $31,000 to $42,000 (US) and enjoy your choice. However, beware of visibility problems to the sides and rear.

Two problems immediately arise when testing the upgraded Murano SE. The first is that the ride is sportier than others in this price range. It is not that we don’t appreciate a firm ride on a car designed to handle curved roads, but on a high riding SUV that can result in overconfidence and, as all SUVs, the high center of gravity make tipping over a constant reality.

The second problem is the pricing. When well equipped, the Murano comes face to face with the leader of this segment, the Lexus RX, when the price passes the mid $30,000 range. The Lexus rides much better and exceeds the Nissan’s people friendly attributes in all areas except acceleration and handling. Resale is heavily in the RX’s favor. Thus we recommend you look at a more basic version of the Murano if you like the style and performance.

Mom’s view: I found the visibility much better than what I thought it would be and the monitor mounted in the center of the dash was quite clear. When you put the Murano in reverse the onboard rear camera showed a clear view and made it exceptionally easy to park. I have never seen such a good view complete with lines that helped you line-up the Murano when you were unsure of its width. Excellent. I also found the interior well done with easy to read gauges and an airy feel. The seats were exceptional and there was adequate storage. If you order the SE Touring option you get leather heated seats, sunroof, adjustable pedals, and more, but at a cost in excess of $4000 US. If you can live without this options, and I could, consider passing on this package. You can also order a Technology option that offers a seven-inch monitor, GPS, the rearview camera, and a terrific driver information center. This is a desirable option for me, but it does add over $2000 to the bottom line.

Overall, I found the Murano a classy and peppy vehicle to drive. I didn’t reveal in its bean shape, but the interior was well-appointed and very user friendly. If the ride weren’t so stiff legged I wouldn’t mind owning one for winter travel. The fuel mileage was about 21 mpg, not bad for such a potent ride.

Dad’s view: Talk about walking into the lion’s den, Nissan’s Murano with its price range from about $30,000 US to over $40,000 places it in direct competition with no less than seven stellar SUVs besides the Lexus. There is the Acura MDX, the Volvo XC 90, Cadillac’s SRX, Honda Pilot, Chrysler’s Pacifica, and even the new Subaru Tribeca and Saab’s 9-7. Mercedes is also offering the new ML and Ford, Chevrolet, and Chrysler have whole fleets of SUVs in this price range. In fact, you can get the Ford Escape hybrid for less.

With that array of players awaiting the potential buyer Nissan has staked its bid on three factors. First, a love it or hate it shape. Secondly, a potent engine that provides 245 horsepower through an all wheel drive set up that works effortlessly. Finally, a sporty ride that separates it from its stalemates, the Nissan Pathfinder, Xterra, and bulky Armada.

Essentially, the Murano is an Altima station wagon as it uses the same structure and most of the same underpinnings. The Murano comes in three versions starting with the bargain priced S, the more subdued handling SL and the loaded SE. All of them utilize 4-wheel independent suspension including a multi-link rear suspension, a 3.5-liter V6 engine, a continuously variable automatic transmission and either front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. Although the all wheel drive model does not have a low range transfer case, the differential can lock so that you get a 50/50 power split for tough situations and low speeds. You can shift the transmission to some extend with choices of D for normal driving, S for more acceleration, and L for when you need more power at low speeds.

There are plenty of standard features among the best being the ABS, abundance of side and front airbags, and rollover sensor. The latter is especially important because all SUVs are susceptible to rollovers and the rate of accidents for them has been climbing alarmingly. If you are serious about any SUV you might also check your insurance carrier for rates before you buy. SUVs are also more expensive to maintain, require more fuel, and have less visibility than sedans.

I would go with the SL model, maybe order the xenon lights, and certainly take the antiskid and traction control. I do like the rear camera monitor, but I have mixed feeling about the GPS. It is costly and unless you travel a great deal the unit is largely left unused. I also could not find out if you could upload new data as information can quickly become obsolete in areas of growth. You should note that Nissan pioneered the bird’s eye map view that makes for an interesting to read map, but at speed it is more difficult to follow. There is a DVD entertainment center option, too.

Visibility is surprisingly good, but don’t make the mistake of thinking this is a small vehicle. It is going to fill your garage up and it weighs over 4000 pounds. If you share the vehicle with someone who is either much taller or shorter than you the power pedal adjustments might be a something to be considered. I did find it difficult to see the readouts in the dash pod that contains the instruments. I think Nissan was trying to be a bit too clever as the fonts were too small to read quickly, despite the natty look. All of the switches are easy to reach, and there are even rear air-conditioning outlets.

College going male’s view: Good news. The threats from my family have succeeded and I am back at school full-time. I still have my music online if you would like to hear a sample check out

Sound wise, the Murano has all the ingredients of a superior system, but they don’t work well together. The stereo buttons are too small, the radio reception just average, and the controls to complex for easy use while driving. For audio and visual treats, our Murano was equipped with an optional Bose seven-speaker, 225-watt stereo audio system that included an in-dash six-disc changer and XM satellite radio connection. The unit can handle MP3 CDs, but I didn’t test them.

With the technology option you get the large driver information display that shows temperature settings, audio controls, and information on the vehicle’s performance. It isn’t as difficult to use as some, but sometimes it becomes a nuisance when you just want to change the temperature setting or find your miles per gallon. After a while I don’t feel this would be a problem once you master the joystick that you push to enter the information. It makes everything a bit more difficult if you actually are trying to change anything.

Our test vehicle did have the auxiliary controls on the steering wheel that came in very handy, although the horn was less than worthy when it came to getting someone’s attention.

There are also three power outlets in this Nissan, which is a nice touch as you can plug in your whatever from the front-passenger footwell, the center console and the rear cargo area.

Rear seating is excellent and you can adjust the rake, but this is difficult to do when the car is moving. The rear seats are split and can be flipped so that a generous 82 or so cubic feet of storage is yours. As mom mentioned, the liftover is quite high even for me.

The Murano is much better than the overrated BMW X5 when it comes to performance and the Nissan costs a lot less. Too bad people won’t probably be cross-shopping these two because if you were blindfolded you would always choose the Murano. I got about 22 mpg with the Nissan, or nearly 8 mpg more than the BMW.

In our mountain test section the continuous variable transmission performed exceptionally. It even automatically holds the Murano in a lower gear as you go down step grades to prevent overheating the brakes. By the way, the four wheel vented discs were above average, but don’t expect neck snapping stopping as they Murano weighs over two tons. The Brake Assist and electronic brake force distribution system help control the Nissan by varying the pressure to each wheel as it is needed.

Young working woman’s view: The shape never appealed to me, but I thought the interior was modern and even a touch elegant. Driving was very easy with a high seating position and above average handling, braking, and acceleration. I even found the fuel mileage acceptable for such a large vehicle. I was surprised that there were three areas in the center console for storage and also room in the door pockets and glove compartment. The rear cargo bay can easily hold enough groceries for a week and the rear hatch opens easily, although there is a high liftover.

Getting in and out wasn’t too difficult and the turning radius was quite good. I could easily park this Murano without having to do a three-point turn. Actually, I have nothing negative to report other than the overly complicated driver’s computer and the small gauges. I wasn’t looking forward to testing this Murano, but in the end I found I had learned to love it.

Family conference: If you like the way the Nissan Murano looks, there is no reason not to consider this SUV. However, watch the option list carefully because they are bundled. Also take it for a long ride over roughed up roads to make sure you can live with the sporty suspension. Finally, take a close look at your needs. The Murano does not have third row seating. On the other hand it is easy to drive and certainly distinctive. We have friends who bought one and swear by it for both daily transportation and long trips. She has a bad back so they ordered the more comfortable SL version and it already has 60,000 trouble free miles on it. For the websites of most every manufacture of cars and motorcycles go to

Subaru Legacy, Saab SportCombi, SS Chevrolet

Cobalt: S Cars that Go

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Saab’s proven 9-5 SportCombi wagon, the hotted up Chevrolet Cobalt SS coupe, and the no longer just for winter Sabaru Legacy have two things in common. First, they have good crash tests scores, and secondly they have either a supercharger or a turbocharger that make them potent go machines,  abeit at increased price in fuel usage and cost. The loaded Saab lists for $40,000, the Sabaru reside near the middle of the $35,000 range, and even the well equipped Cobalt goes for  $23,000 with most options. All three of these cars averaged between 20 and 23 mpg on premium.

So why would anyone consider and of these S cars? Well, that is why The Car Family spent a week with each of them and, as usual, the family bickering was on high. First, we enjoyed driving these models and were quite amazed at how well they handled in daily driving as well as spirited sprees. What we argued about, on the main, was the pricing. We have owned both Saabs and Subarus and enjoued them despite high part costs. However, we had our reservations about the sticker prices. The Saab 9-5 in the current form has been around for years and even with a reported 1367 changes to the 2006 model it is difficult to justify a price tag of $40,000 even fully ladden with leather, power front seats, seat heaters for every seat, a 240-watt Harman Kardon audio system with an in-dash CD changer and satellite radio, and a  2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine producing 260 horsepower with a five speed automatic or manul transmission handling the 258 pounds of torque. Saab also has attractive 17-inch wheels and lots of trim pieces.

Chevrolet’s Cobalt SS coupe was enjoyable, but at $23,000 with a supercharger that makes the 205 horsepower four cylinder engine lively, but not as fast as one would think, it is considerably more than the more base version. We were surprised at the quality and drivability of the Cobabt, expecpt for its large turning radius and shortage of interior storage, but we would more highly recommend that non-supercharged version of the SS with its 171 horsepower and save many thousand dollars as well as getting better fuel economy. The Cobabt has superior crash test scores.

Subaru, the legendary lion of winter, has gone upsacle with the newest Legacy wagon and sedan and so has the pricing in the mid $30,000 range. It  makes one question about there use in heavy winter conditions where Subaru’s superior all wheel drive system shines, but where salt, skidding drivers, hurried snow plows, and sanded roads can easily damage its shinny coat. We believe that the new Subaru is going to make inroads for those who want a quality vehicle regardless of where they live and who appreciate its uniqueness and good work habits. However, we believe that the non-turbo version is better. If you want to go fast and still spend less and catch yourself the mischeviously swift 300 horsepower STi Subaru sedan and delete the rear wing. We love it.

Mom’s view: These three remind me of suitors in my younger days. The Chevrolet Cobalt is the athletic little guy who was competitive and friendly, but not as polished as I would have liked. Call him JC Penny. The Subaru Legacy is the all around fun date who could surprise you with his manners, take you places you never visited before, a good worker, and wasn’t afraid to go out in the rain without a coat. Call him Lowes. The Saab is more sauve. It has good looks, but what makes him attractive is his uniqueness. He knows how to treat a lady and never fails to impress, but alas, he has expensive tastes. Call him Saks Fifth Avenue. My choice is the Saab 9-5. It is dramatic looking, unique and upsacle, comfortable to drive, entertainin, and gives you plenty of poke when passing. The Subaru is quite snazzy with a lot of features, but the automatic transmisison took the edge of the engine’s abuntant energy. As for the Cobalt, I can make that simple. It has a suprisingly good ride, but I see no need for the supercharged version. We tested the sedan with the 171 horsepower engine and were more than satisfied. If you are looking for a car that can give you a lot for your money think basic Cobalt.  On the negative side, I could learn to live with the Saab’s quirkly key placement between the front seats, but the upside down power window controls in the center armrest are another thing.

Dad’s view: The Subaru with a standard transmission and the turbocharged engine is awesome, friendly, and has a vast cargo hold that is easy to load. However, with the automatic transmisison the Subaru becomes more muted. It is still the class of all wagons and easily the best buy if you can forgo the turbocharged version and live with the quite satisfying non-turbo version. The standard all wheel drive makes it ideal for life where such features make life easier. The Legacy looks great, takes less filling, and has a fine ride. The Saab is just too expensive and they suffer when it comes to resale. Again, we would opt for the base Saab 9-5 and still have a safe, good handling, wagon that can move a family with ease. We still pine for our 1999 Saab 9-3 hatchback, which, of course, has developed fantastic resale value once we sold ours.

Young working woman’s view: The Saab is my selection. It is stunning, has exclusivity, and runs like a deer. You can make a mockery of the BMW set if you lower yourself to such macho actions, and it has a vast cargo area that is easy to load. Yes, it has questionable placement of most everything in the cockpit area, but that is part of its charm. Drive one. The Subaru is more of a work horse. It goes about its work without undue alarm, has a restful look, and eats up potholes and gravel roads with ease. If I didn’t live in a metropolitian area the Subaru wagon would be an instrucment of transporation and enjoyment.  As for the Cobalt SS coupe, it really isn’t that fast and the interior lacks sharpness. I found the Cobabt sedan a fine vehicle and underrated. The base car is good value and I think this is one of Chevrolet’s finest efforts.

Young college going male’s view: Only another year and I’ll be unemployed with a B.A. degree rather than being unemployed without one. As for my choice it is simple, the Cobabt SS with the supercharger is fun to drive, easy to shift, has adequate room for four and is easy to maintain. I didn’t find favor with the large turning radius and the rear wing constantly bothered my rear view, but we’re talking looks here. The Saab was nice, but a bit to prissy for my taste. The Subaru was most excellent with a sinister look and a sexy interior, but it just isn’t as much fun.

Family conference:  All of these S cars that go are much more expensive than the base versions and, although we understand forced induction enables manufactures to get more power out of less cubic inches, they do require premium fuel so be warned. Interestinly, all of these cars averaged about 23 mpg and all had above average crash test scores.That aside, each of these is a joy to drive. The family had no clear cut winner, but there certainly was an interesting bias as the women heavily favored the Saab and the men the other two. Overall, these are exceptional family vehicles, if you get the Cobalt sedan, and decidedly a must drive for families willing to leave the cocoon of mainstream driving.  For a list of websites go to and click on business.

Virtual field trips

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free teaching resources go to



Be warned: Always remember to check these sites carefully before letting a student use them as they can become a traget of those who want to take advantage of children.

Virtual field trips can enhance learning and provide individualization and recourses not possible otherwise. But be warned that virtual field trips are not uniform in quality. As usual, it is best to preview sites at length to make sure they meet your needs and don’t include links that lead the student elsewhere.

This superior virtual reality site allows students to pretend they are surgeons—very realistic.

Learning Via the Virtual Field Trip
Examples of evaluation rubric for a virtual field trip

Virtual Field Trips
Information outlining good and bad things about them, plus links

There are many more listed below by category.

General sites
Large link sites
Science related sites
Social Studies Related Sites

HHR Chevrolet: Really Good

(Voted best research by Consumer Search)

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Chevrolet’s HHR  (Heritage High Roof) is a good deal. For a starting price just above $16,000 you get a maneuverable, handy, and distinctive transportation that handles well and has the ability to transform itself into a moving van when the seats are folded flat. It runs on regular gas, gets about 23 mpg in mixed driving, and accelerates well with the optional 172 horsepower engine and automatic transmission. This is a well-made piece with a variety of options that make it ideal for the image conscious. You can even get satellite radio and a remote starting feature.

The new HHR has front-wheel drive chassis based on the sporty Chevrolet Cobalt sedan. Standard features include

air conditioning, power windows/locks/mirrors, a remote keyless entry, and a split folding rear seat. Don’t forget to order the optional curtain side airbags, ABS, and OnStar.

Mom’s view: Despite the HHR’s looks visibility is good to the sides and you don’t feel cramped. I did have trouble with the center dash mounted window controls and the night interior lighting was dreadful. Also, the plastic covering of the rear cargo area, just like the Pontiac Vibe, is so smooth everything you put there slides around. I would have liked a higher seating position and the rear view was restricted by the small rear window. If you are careful with your options you can get a HHR well loaded for under $18,000. Overall, a competent ride that is pleasant in town or on the 210. It is easy to park, is cute, and handy.

Dad’s view: I was surprised at how well the HHR handled and the performance of its optional 172 horsepower engine. Look for 0 to 60 in under ten seconds. You are not going to confuse this with a sports car, but with the right set of suspension pieces, a larger rim and tire combination, this might be an ideal vehicle for having fun both in the San Gabriel Mountains and on Colorado Boulevard. It weighs about 3100 but feels heavier. Only unruly pavement, read the 101 Freeway, make it quiver. The instruments are easy to read, there is even a tachometer, and the stereo and temperature controls simple to operate. I was impressed with its useful nature, pricing, and automatic transmission.

College going male’s view: It is remarkable for a car in this price range to have a driver’s information computer, a very fast acting heater and air conditioning system, over 63 cubic feet of cargo room, and a good stereo as standard. I liked it a lot and it’s a babe magnet, too. The competition is strong. However, the PT Cruiser is too common, the Pontiac Vibe too familyish, and the Scion B too boy racer. The HHR is distinctive, friendly, appealing, and economical. Now if I could just find a girl friend with those traits.

Young working woman’s view: We tested the upscale LT version and weren’t disappointed. I found the look a bit masculine, but it did draw a lot of positive attention. I would have liked more brake feel and the HHR was susceptible to Santa Ana winds, but so are big rigs. This is a practical piece with great pricing and the opportunity for the owner to customize easily. There could be more interior storage bins as there is no place to put your purse. The doors open wide so getting in and out is simple regardless of what you are wearing. The steering well tilts, the step in is low, and it is easy to make yourself comfortable. If you like the look drive it.

Family conference: We liked the Chevrolet Cobalt and we like the HHR. It these days of look alike cars, huge gas hoggish SUVs, and high fuel prices it is nice to know that the HHR can do it all for a price of a Toyota Corolla. For a complete list of vehicle websites go to and click on business.

The family friendly gas mileage champions

The Car Family

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What a difference a year makes. In 2004 there were only a handful of cars, largely subcompact or hybrids that could crack the desirable highway and into combined 30-mpg mark. Today there are dozens from the Ford Escape/Mercury Mariner SUV to the Toyota Prius that can be fun to drive, especially if it is to the gas station. In addition, a great many new hybrids are due out such as the Toyota Camry. Just off the pace of these economy champions is our family favorite, the four cylinder Honda Accord with a manual transmission that delivers 26/34 on regular fuel with a list price for the Value edition of just over $18,000.

Contrary to what has been a constant in the past, good fuel mileage no longer equates to poor performance, The Car Family is proud to report that the 2006 gas mileage leaders are peppy, ride well, and can hold a family of four. Although some of these fuel misers are diesel powered and thus may not be available in all states, a great variety run on unleaded and are for sale most everywhere. Even better news awaits the consumer as these fuel sippers as a whole cost less than the national average of about $25,000 for a new car meaning you can have your cake and eat it too.

We didn’t test the Honda Insight because it only has room for two, but it is the champion with a combined 60-mpg average. Others in this category come are our two-time car of the year, the Toyota Prius that averaged 55 mpg and competes for most interior room with much larger cars. There are no SUV in the high mileage category with the Saturn Greeline Vue and the Ford Escape having the best at arouund 27 mpg in real world operating conditions.

Honda’s Civic Hybrid is a great highway car, but does not have the utility of the Prius. It is quick and handy and gets over 50 mpg. Next in line come the many diesels from Volkswagen. We tested last year’s Passat diesel wagon and were extremely impressed. We got over 38 mpg in mixed driving and the car was downright energetic. However, they are not currently marketing this model. Other Volkswagen diesels getting over 30 are the New Beetle, the Golf, and Jetta.

Gasoline powered sedans that are fun to drive, economical to operate, and are definitely worth a test drive are the Toyota Corolla, Scion xA, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio, the non-hybrid version of the new Honda Civic, the MINI Cooper, Hyundai Accent, Mazda 3, and Nissan Sentra. Interestingly, the Corolla and Sentra are being redone this year meaning you can count on the 2007 models being even better. If you want handling, the Mazda and MINI are in a class of their own.

If you need more room the Pontiac Vibe/Toyota Matrix can get you over 30 mpg with a standard transmission and are quite frisky. However, our favorites in this sized category are the Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner with two-wheel drive. They are easy to drive, love to please, and come well loaded with standard equipment. On the other hand, they are at the top of the price level of fuel-efficient vehicles coming in at about $28,000. If you spend more you can get the larger Toyota Highlander hybrid.

If you are looking for the gas mileage champions by category the minicompact field is lead by the fun MINI Cooper with a 28/36 rating. We love this car, but don’t expect much room to haul anything. The MINI is probably going to be offered in a longer version soon and we recommend you seriously consider it if you like to drive rather than be driven. Subcompact cars are lead by the Volkswagen diesel propelled New Beetle at 37/44. We like the Beetle and it has good safety ratings, too. In the compact field the Honda Civic hybrid is our favorite. It runs smoothly and the new model is very competent on the highway. The government claims 49/51 for this model, but we averaged about 43. The Toyota Prius rules the midsize grouping with at 60/51 rating. We recorded 46 mpg in mixed driving. If you really want a bargain latch onto a Hyundai Elantra with 27/34 ratings and a base price under $14,000. Hyundai’s Sonata also claims a top listing for large cars with a 24/34 rating. We tested both the V6 and four-cylinder version and really liked the latter. It was responsive, roomy, and is priced around $18,000 with an excellent warranty.

The station wagon winners were the Matrix, Vibe, and Scion xB. The Scion is quite fun to drive, but it lacks the utility of the other two. Toyota is coming out with a larger version soon. Look for prices around $15,000 and up in this grouping. If you need a touch more room the venerable Ford Focus provides 26/34-mpg figures and is a workhorse. You can get exceptional deals on this model as they have been around for a long time. If you live where snow and rain rule the roads the Subaru Legacy wagon is a winner with a government highway listing of 30 mpg.

If you need more utility the Ford Ranger pick-up offers 24/29 figures as does its sister model, the Mazda B2300 with the Toyota Tacoma just a step back at 21/26. Although not listed as a leader by the government, our favorite is the Isuzu I-280 and Chevrolet Colorado with 20/27 fuel mileage just beating out the Ford Ranger. We were impressed by the ride of these trucks and there were some great deals out there for these models. The SUV non-hybrid category winners are the Ford Escape/Mazda Tribute. We like the handling of the Mazda more, but they both are easy to maneuver and offer good family space inside. As for the vans, despite the fact that the Mazda MPV having nearly identical consumption ratings, Honda’s large and powerful Honda Odyssey is the best here with 20/28 ratings. If you travel in town a great deal the MPV is going to be a better performer and easier to park and maneuver. If you have children and carry a great deal of odds and end get the Dodge Caravan with the Stow and Go option.


Mom’s view: I really am not into small cars, but the Toyota Prius is a joy to drive. The folds down seats offer plenty of versatility and I can drive over 500 miles without refueling. I also liked the Dodge Caravan and think that every mother should check out its storage options.


Dad’s view: I loved the Ford Escape. It handled very well. I also was totally surprised by the Isuzu and Chevrolet Colorado pick-ups. Except for some poorly placed tie downs in the bed they have a pleasant ride and with the manual transmission can keep up with traffic when loaded. I have seen fabulous prices on these models.


Young working girl’s view: I did like the diesel Passat wagon we tested, but since they don’t have a new model this year my choice would be the Hyundai Sonata. It surprised me with its quality interior, great warranty, and acceleration and room. The handling wasn’t what I liked, but the pricing is good.

I also found the Prius excellent and the Dodge Caravan was dog friendly and easy to drive.

College going male’s view: The Scions are my favorite. Easy to park in the smallest parking spaces on campus, capable of carrying my adopted English Mastiff Brutus to the dog park, and trendy, they deserve attention. The Honda Civic non-hybrid would be my second choice since I like the interior and its legendary quality reputation.

Family conference: If you car about the environment and aren’t into conspicuous consumption all of these should be considered for daily driving. For a list of all vehicle websites go to and click on business.

Best gas mileage popular cars by manufacture with government highway estimates.

Acura RS, 34; Audi A3, 31; BMW 325i, 29; Buick Allure, Lacrosse, 30; Cadillac CTS, 27; Chevrolet Aveo, 35; Chevrolet Cobalt, 34; Chrysler Sebring, 30; Chrysler PT Cruiser, 29; Dodge Stratus and Charger, 30; Dodge Magnum, 28; Dodge Caravan, 26; Ford Escape, 31; Ford Focus wagon, 34; Honda Civic Hybrid, 51; Honda Civic, 38;Honda CR-V, 29; Honda Odyssey, 38; Honda Accord, 34; Hyundai Accent, 35; Hyundai Elantra, 34; Hyundai Sonata, 34; Infiniti G35, 26; Isuzu I 280 truck, 27; Jaguar S-Type, 28; Jeep Liberty diesel, 26; Kia Rio, 35; Kia Optima, 34; Lexus RX 400h, 28; Lincoln Zephyr, 28; Mazda Tribute Hybrid, 29; Mazda 3, 35;Mercedes Benz E320 Diesel, 37; Mercury Mariner Hybrid, 29; Mercury Milan, 32; MINI Cooper, 36; MINI Cooper convertible, 35; Mitsubishi Lancer, 34; Nissan Sentra, 35; Pontiac Vibe, 36; Saab 9-3 SportCombi, 31; Saturn Ion, 31; Scion xA, 37; Subaru Legacy AWD 30; Suzuki Aerio, 31; Toyota Prius, 51; Toyota Highland Hybrid, 28; Toyota Corolla, 34; Volkswagen New Beetle diesel, 44; Volkswagen Jetta Diesel, 41; Volkswagen Golf, 44; Volvo S40, 32; Volvo V50, 32.

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