Ask Jack: A Van for No Reasons?

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It’s best to just admit it: I have van envy. The educated among you will know that van envy, like many other communicable diseases, comes in a few forms. There’s Van Envy A, which is the traditional desire to have a boxy vehicle of some sort in the immediate vicinity for carrying children and accomplishing household tasks; this virus is typically found in the water supply of single-family homes. Van Envy B is indicated by repeated involuntary exclamations of “dajiban!” You catch that from accidental subculture immersion.

Van Envy MTB is when you can’t stop thinking about fitting out a fresh new Transit with a toolbox and internal bicycle mounts so you can take a quick trip to Ray’s Bike Park in Cleveland — or maybe Moab. The most virulent and damaging strain of the disease is Van Envy IG, which manifests in a gnawing sense of envy regarding attractive twenty-something couples who rootlessly travel the West holding drum circles and making love in converted high-roof Sprinters, subsisting on nothing but their income from selling woven bracelets at street fairs and an eight-figure trust fund.

Today’s question comes from someone who is suffering from precisely none of that. Instead, he has another condition. One marked by eroding telomere chains, drying skin, and a growing desire to watch Matlock. Chances are you have it too, although it might not be as severe.


Matthew writes,

Hey Jack,
Like you I’m getting old, but I’m a bit farther along, staring down the barrel at Social Security age. I have a lot of joint pain and think I’m going to let my Outback wagon go. It used to be high enough now it isn’t… It might be time for a minivan. $35,000 or less, going to buy it new, need to get ten years out of it, maybe a bit more. If they’re all the same except for reliability, I guess maybe the Toyota is the one. Am I wrong?

This was actually a pretty long email, but it covered some other topics that aren’t directly related to vans. I get the sense that Matthew is a pretty self-sufficient fellow, which is why he isn’t looking at, say, an Encore or BMW X3. He likes the idea of having the space behind the driver’s seat.

There’s a school of thought that says, basically: minivans are refrigerators, buy the one that lasts longest for the least money. Which, as Matthew intuits, would almost certainly be the Toyota Sienna, which puts clear distance between itself and the next most likely choice, the Honda Odyssey, by virtue of having a more respectable transmission supplier. In Honda’s defense, the company has made some nontrivial commitments to improvement in the decade or so since the era of the glass-gearbox Odysseys and Acura TLs, up to and including the creation of a dedicated transmission plant in northeastern Ohio. (Insiders call it HTM, in case you’re curious.)

With that said, you’d be a fool to bet against the long-term durability of the infamous Swagger Wagon from Toyota. It’s a proven performer in its current and all previous iterations. Just call up an UberXL in any major city if you want proof of that. It’s fit for purpose. There’s nothing wrong with it. Even the price is right; when a friend of mine went shopping for one last year I was frankly amazed at how much Sienna you can get for a transaction price of under $30k.

Ah, but let’s take a moment and view Matthew for what he is: a fellow who very well might be buying his last car. Any time you have someone in their sixties talking about getting a decade-plus out of a purchase, it’s a fair bet that they aren’t planning to replace it with a Huracan at the age of seventy-eighty. I think Matthew is entitled to a little surprise-and-delight, even at the expense of resale value or some additional maintenance expenses down the road.

For that reason and a few others beside, I’m kind of sweet on the idea of a loaded-up Chrysler Pacifica. The new model hasn’t been totally trouble-free on debut, and I’m fully aware of its likely deficiencies in service life compared to a Sienna, but do me a favor if you have time: open up the doors of both a Pacifica and a Sienna and have a seat for a few minutes. The Sienna is all Playskool knobs and wide open spaces of undifferentiated light-texture plastics, but the Pacifica has gloss and polish and chrome and, perish the thought, a bit of actual grown-up design in the thing.

The Toyota looks like what it is: a durable box for unruly children, now entering its second decade of existence without much change. The Pacifica, by contrast, is a distinctly new ride, and it has just a smattering of ’76 Cordoba, a touch of glamour. It’s also a bit sharper and more rewarding to drive. Put it this way: if you were going to choose a minivan for a cross-country trip and you didn’t have to pay for it, a sane person would almost certainly choose an optioned-up Pacifica over all the other contenders.

When you get right down to it, the whole Van Envy thing is really a manifestation of the wish to have a little more excitement and adventure in our lives. If we have imagination, we see ourselves going somewhere and doing something in a van. Matthew is also on a journey, although he might not think of it that way. He’s rounding third base on the home run of life. Why not have a little pleasure out of the trip’s final leg?

[Image: Fiat Chrysler Automobile]

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