Buying a Used Minivan: Ultimate Guide & Common Problems
These days, Canadians are crazy about crossover SUV’s—though the minivan remains the vehicle of choice for many shoppers after maximum space, flexibility, and room to grow for their dollar.
Similar to some of the best 7-seater SUVs on the market, modern minivans combine the latest in safety, connectivity and convenience tech and feature content, alongside car-like attributes such as a lower ride height, easier entry and exit, and typically-lower asking prices.
Popular used minivan models include the Chrysler Pacifica, Toyota Sienna, Honda Odyssey, Dodge Grand Caravan, Mazda 5, Kia Sedona (now replaced by the Kia Carnival) and Nissan Quest. Several of these models made our list of the top 5 used minivans from 2009 to 2021.
Below, let's set you up with some useful facts, tips and checks to keep in mind as you shop for that used family minivan, with an eye for helping you find the best unit possible for the dollar. At the end, we also included a step-by-step minivan test-drive checklist to follow.
Fuel economy matters
Most minivans are built using a similar recipe that features sliding rear doors, three flexible seating rows, a V6 engine, and a front-wheel drive configuration. Others add unique ingredients to the recipe to help cater to the needs of specific shoppers.
For instance, the used Toyota Sienna is available with All-Wheel Drive (AWD) – as is the 2021 Chrysler Pacifica Pinnacle AWD we reviewed here. This popular feature is rare in the minivan segment, but provides the enhanced traction, stability and peace of mind that many SUV drivers enjoy in challenging winter conditions. Read more about this van in our 2022 Chrysler Pacifica Vs 2022 Toyota Sienna comparison review.
The Mazda5 is a small 3-row minivan with compact sizing and a four-cylinder engine. Though small as minivans go, the Mazda5 is a popular choice for shoppers after maximum fuel economy, a minimized footprint, and increased manoeuvrability in tight spaces.
Consider a plug-in hybrid minivan for optimal fuel economy
The Chrysler Pacifica is available with a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) engine, which allows its owners to recharge a built-in hybrid battery by plugging into an external charger. With public charging, charging at work, or overnight charging in the driveway, the Pacifica PHEV can provide 50 kilometres of all-electric driving before its gasoline engine automatically switches on to continue your drive. This is sufficient to get many Canadian drivers off of gasoline for daily commuting and errands, while gasoline V6 power remains available for longer drives.
In a PHEV like the Chrysler Pacifica, charging is never mandatory or required. Owners only need to recharge when it’s convenient to do so. Owners who choose to recharge regularly will maximize the use of this fuel-saving technology, reducing fuel consumption and emissions.
The most reliable minivan?
There’s no shortage of online lists and rankings that seek to call out the most reliable minivans on the road. Depending on the list in question, you’ll likely find models like the Toyota Sienna, Dodge Grand Caravan, Honda Odyssey and Kia Sedona/Carnival called out as top picks.
Shoppers should remember that a minivan’s ranking on an online list is not a guarantee that the specific model they’re considering is in excellent shape, or that it’ll provide trouble-free operation.
As vehicles age, the way they were maintained, cared for and treated by past owners becomes a stronger predictor of long-term health and dependability than that model’s ranking on a list. Put another way, the most reliable minivans are often the ones that have been cared for the most lovingly.
To minimize your likelihood of problems and issues with your new-to-you minivan, shoppers can take a few important steps.
First, seek out a used model with service records proving it’s been consistently and continually cared for in a dealer setting, with no maintenance or inspections. Avoiding a used minivan with gaps in its service history, and instead choosing a model that’s familiar to its selling dealer, is a step in the right direction.
Pre Purchase Inspection (PPI)
Before buying a used minivan, arrange to have the vehicle inspected by a professional technician in a dealer setting as a final step before you buy. This Pre Purchase Inspection (PPI) is quick and affordable, typically takes an hour or so, and can save you hundreds or thousands of dollars by revealing potential trouble, damage and other concerning issues a test-driving shopper may not otherwise notice.
Certified Pre-Owned (CPO) from dealership
Some minivan shoppers prefer to buy a second-hand model sold as part of a dealership Certified Pre-Owned (CPO) program. Others do not.
Vehicles sold through a CPO program must meet a higher quality and conditioning standard than privately-sold units, and often come with confidence-enhancing perks like extended warranty coverage and roadside assistance.
Should you buy an extended warranty on your used minivan?
Some used minivan shoppers choose to opt for extended warranty coverage to protect themselves from future repair costs. Others do not.
When considering extended warranty coverage, always read the fine print carefully, and be aware of what’s ‘not’ covered, as well as what is. Don’t buy extended warranty coverage under pressure—if a warranty package is offered, ask for a copy of the literature to take away and read carefully later. Extended warranty packages can generally be added for a short time after your purchase, if you decide it’s worth it.
Buying extended warranty vs emergency fund savings
Consider the cost of the warranty package against keeping that money in your bank account as a contingency fund in case future repairs are required. This way, you’ve got money aside for future repairs if they’re needed, as well as if they’re not.
Remember that a warranty is a two-way agreement. Whether you buy an add-on warranty package or the minivan you’re considering has a portion of its factory warranty remaining, owners are required to properly maintain and service the vehicle as outlined in the warranty agreement or service manual. Damage or issues caused by a failure to maintain the vehicle properly are not covered by warranty. Skipping or stretching service intervals can put remaining warranty coverage in jeopardy, too.
Common minivan problems to check for
When approaching any used minivan, be aware of some of the common trouble areas reported by some owners.
Check the power sliding doors
Start with the doors and tailgate. Power sliding doors should be tested multiple times on your test drive, with careful attention to their operation. Open and close each door several times, both manually and with the motorized function (if equipped). Struggling, binding, unwanted sounds or a sudden reversal of direction are all potential signs of trouble with power sliding doors.
In many cases, power sliding door troubles can be fixed easily with a system reset, software update, or adjustment to the alignment of the door or its latching system. In other cases, expensive hardware may need to be replaced. Power sliding door problems are not uncommon as minivans age, which is why you’ll want to be on the lookout.
Regular lubrication and servicing of sliding door components can help make power sliding doors more reliable, as can ensuring the vehicle in question is running a fresh and healthy battery. If you’re not set on power sliding doors, skipping this feature altogether may help prevent costly headaches down the line.
Check the power tailgate
Check the power tailgate in a similar way.
Open and close the power tailgate (if equipped) several times, using the remote, the tailgate latch, and any release buttons or switches inside of the vehicle. Note that any sudden reversal in direction or a failure to close and latch properly may be a sign of one or more problems that range from minor to significant.
If the power tailgate on the minivan you’re considering isn’t performing properly, take steps to figure out why, and call it into your pricing negotiations. Often, a malfunctioning power tailgate can be repaired with a simple adjustment to its latch, hinge, or stoppers.
In other cases, the fix involves a computer reset, or software reflash. Still, malfunctioning power tailgates may also be suffering from more serious and expensive trouble with electric motors or electronics.
If in doubt, have the vehicle seen by a professional before you buy.
Across all minivans, problems with power sliding doors and power tailgates are among the most commonly reported. Still, test-driving shoppers are advised to take a few additional precautions.
Check for mechanical problems
Among modern vehicles built in the past several years, the most commonly-reported problems tend to be electronic and not mechanical in nature, and are often centred around the infotainment and entertainment systems—according to J.D. Power and Associates and their annual Vehicle Dependability Study.
According to the results of this annual report, test-driving shoppers should take steps on their test drive to ensure the infotainment system and all related functions are in proper working order, and that the system meets their needs.
Does the model offer enough charging and USB connection points? Are the navigation maps outdated? Is the audio quality and usability of the Bluetooth system acceptable? Connect your phone, play some audio, make a call, set a navigation destination, and play a DVD on the rear-seat entertainment system (if equipped). If there’s a problem with any of these features, you’ll want to know about it before you buy.
Check the transmission performance
Elsewhere, note that hard or clumsy shifting from the vehicle’s transmission is another cause for further investigation. Often, driveability problems related to the transmission can be addressed with a simple software update in a dealer setting, though these symptoms may be evidence of a more serious and expensive problem.
Some minivan owners have reported a shorter-than-expected lifespan from components related to the suspension and brakes. Though many variables affect the rate at which these parts wear out, test-driving shoppers can take a few steps to coax potential signs of trouble from the vehicle on their test drive.
Minivan test-drive: follow these steps
1. Listen for unwanted noise
Start by driving down a rough road after quieting the minivan’s cabin. In this setting, listen closely for unwanted noises from beneath the vehicle, including popping, clunking, snapping or rubbing sounds which can indicate wear or damage to one or more suspension components.
2. Do the ‘steering wheel test’
Next, park the minivan on a flat, paved surface with the engine running. Quiet the cabin and wiggle the steering wheel back and forth rapidly, using small movements of just a few degrees. Progressively make wider wiggles, listening closely for a knocking, grinding or tapping sound that’s apparent as you quickly steer the wheel back and forth. If you detect any, the vehicle may be in need of expert attention to its front-end, strut mounts, or steering column.
3. Brake test
Finally, apply the brakes in a variety of ways. First, lightly as you decelerate slowly from about 60 km/h. Repeat this test a few times, using varying amounts of light brake pedal pressure.
In this test, listen closely for scraping or squealing sounds which can be a sign that a brake job is in the vehicle’s near future.
Next, apply moderate to heavy braking from a higher speed, perhaps on an empty stretch of highway. This should be an urgent stop, but not a full-out emergency stop. Repeat this test several times, from perhaps 80 or 90 km/h. Here, you’re ‘feeling’ for signs of a wobble, pulsation or vibration from the vehicle while the brakes are applied—another sign that brake-related expenses are likely on the horizon.
Finally, apply hard braking where appropriate. In a panic stop setting, the vehicle should come to rest in a straight line, without pulling to one side or another. The brake pedal should feel firm, resistive, and springy.
In this test be on the lookout for a soft or mushy brake pedal feel, or a tendency for the vehicle to pull to one side while hard braking is applied.
Spare tire provisions
Hopefully, you’ll never need to use your minivan’s spare tire in the case of a flat on the go. Still, test-driving shoppers are advised to check the spare tire provisions in the used minivan they’re considering to make sure they’re covered in the case of a setback on the go.
Does the minivan you’re considering have a full-sized spare? A temporary spare? Run flat tires with an inflator kit? Is the spare tire in good condition, or old and weathered? Is it easily accessible if needed? Being aware of the type, condition and location of your used minivan’s spare tire can help prevent unwanted headaches down the line.
2 great accessories for your used minivan
If you’re buying a used minivan, consider adding these 2 accessories to maximize your enjoyment and enhance your ownership experience.
First up, a battery trickle charger
These are typically available for less than $70 and can be connected to your minivan’s battery in moments. Regular use of a battery trickle charger for periods when your minivan will be parked for more than a few days will ensure the battery is always properly conditioned and topped up. This extends the life and reliability of your minivan’s battery over time, and can indirectly improve the reliability of your minivan’s electronic features.
Second, a combination tire inflator and booster pack
Not only is it able to jump start multiple dead batteries, inflate multiple tires and recharge your family’s electronics at the beach or campsite, an inflator and booster pack can help save you money, too.
High-end units with digital pressure gauges can auto-inflate tires to the correct pressure at the touch of a button, making regular tire inflation checks easy and fast. Regularly checking and adjusting tire pressures extends the life of your minivan’s tires and helps maintain ideal fuel economy at all times.
A combination tire inflator and booster pack can also be used to inflate beach toys and bike tires, and high-end units have additional functions like built-in lighting and radios that make them a great addition to your family adventure toolkit.
Now that you’re armed with all the right info, it’s time to start shopping. You can get started by checking our current inventory of used, certified minivans here.