Minivans are combination people haulers and cargo carriers. They are smaller than regular vans and shorter -- front to rear -- than full-size station wagons, making them easier to park. A minivan can fit into your garage. A big van won't.

Minivans also tend to be more fuel-efficient than full-size station wagons.

For example, a Ford Motor Co. Aerostar minivan -- equipped with a V-6 engine and having 140 cubic feet of passenger/cargo space -- gets an average of 20 miles per gallon, according to Ford officials. By comparison, Ford's big Country Squire station wagon -- equipped with a V-8 engine and having 90 cubic feet of passenger/cargo space -- gets 14 mpg.

At the moment, there are four major players in the domestic minivan market:

* Chrysler Corp.: Plymouth Voyager, Dodge Caravan and Mini-Ram Van. All have front engines and front-wheel drive, which gives them good traction on slippery roads. But critics say front-wheel drive also means reduced carrying and pulling capacity. The Chrysler minivans can carry up to 1,710 pounds, and can pull a trailer of up to 2,000 pounds, according to industry figures.

* Toyota Motor Corp.: Mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive minivan. Critics have complained about the effectiveness of putting the engine between the seats, which creates a hump in the middle of the passenger compartment. But Toyota officials say that the mid-engine arrangement is no impediment to sales. Toyota has sold 42,614 minivans in the domestic market since it began shipping them to the United States in October 1983. The van's maximum cargo load is rated at 1,565 pounds. Overall body length is 175 inches.

* Ford Motor Co.: Aerostar. It has a front engine, rear-wheel drive, and is the most aerodynamically designed minivan on the U.S. market. But styling is a source of controversy. Critics and consumers complain that the super-sleek snout of the Aerostar is too radical for conventional tastes. Ford officials counter, saying that the Aerostar's styling ensures maximum fuel economy by reducing power-robbing wind resistance.

The Aerostar can carry up to 2,000 pounds and can pull up to 5,000 pounds. Its overall body length is 175 inches.

* General Motors Corp.: Chevrolet Astro, GMC Safari. GM's entries are the most van-like of the small vans. All models have front engines and rear-wheel drive. GM prefers to call its small vans midi-vans, indicating that they generally are larger in size than competitive offerings. (The GM small vans are the widest models, at 77 inches).

GM expects to take a big share of the commercial fleet market with its small vans, and plans to produce nearly 55 percent of those models for business buyers.

The vans are 173 inches long overall. They can be outfitted to carry loads of up to 1,700 pounds, according to industry figures. They can pull up to 5,000 pounds.