I am a minivan expert.
I have never strapped a child seat into a LATCH position. I have never needed to pack a crib, a diaper bag, and a Fisher-Price My Little Snugabunny for a two-hour visit with my parents. And I have never consciously run a red light while racing to the kids’ soccer practice, slamming a cinnamon dolce latte, and screaming at a spouse on the phone. I am a twenty-five-year-old male, and I am a minivan expert.
You see, I — along with the rest of my generation — grew up in minivans and, during road trips and rides to school, became a connoisseur of people haulers. In grade school, I’d fight with my sister for the seat next to the second-row audio controls. As a high schooler, I came to appreciate my mom’s van for the six-cylinder engine that helped it to easily dust my peers’ used Honda Civics off the line. By college, I’d learned to use every ounce of a van’s capability, packing it with seven guys, cramming every bit of empty space with luggage, and hitching up a trailer full of triathlon bikes for a budget spring break. To top it all off, each of the five minivans that my parents owned was a Mercury Villager, so I’m well trained in spotting mediocrity among such vehicles.
My motivations may be atypical, but my minivan needs and wants have never differed from those of a typical family: decent driving dynamics, comfortable space for seven, and the ability to haul like a cargo van when necessary. For 2011, the competition has been reset with brand-new versions of the Honda Odyssey, the Nissan Quest, and the Toyota Sienna and a significantly revised Chrysler Town & Country.
Similar specs, subtle differences
The specifications of these four vehicles would lead you to believe that the minivan segment has been commoditized, at least in a mechanical sense. Each van’s V-6 engine makes about 260 hp, and power is sent to the front wheels through an automatic transmission. The front suspension is a pair of MacPherson struts, and the rear typically uses a multilink setup. Despite the similarities, though, each van has distinct attributes that define it.
Honda’s single-cam V-6 is revised from last year with small increases in output but substantial improvements in fuel economy. Variable Cylinder Management, now standard across the board, is capable of turning the six-cylinder into either a four- or three-cylinder engine during low-load cruising, and with the Touring models’ six-speed automatic (a five-speed is standard on other trim levels), the Odyssey returns the best EPA fuel economy at 19/28 mpg city/highway. That’s the same as the Nissan in city fuel economy and a 3-mpg advantage on the highway versus the closest competitor.
Toyota offers a four-cylinder engine rated at 19/24 mpg, but that’s only a 1-mpg advantage over the V-6 Sienna, and a previous drive with the 187-hp engine confirmed that it’s a powertrain best avoided. The 266-hp V-6, though, pulls strongly, with a penchant for low-end thrust where the other engines are happier at the top of the tachometer.
Nissan’s 3.5-liter has the power and responsiveness to fit in with the crowd, but it is a touch coarser than the other engines. It is also the only powerplant mated to a continuously variable transmission, which works quite nicely here. With six-cylinder torque, the CVT can keep the engine more relaxed at the lower end of the tachometer, avoiding the buzzy acceleration that we’re used to in small four-cylinder cars with similar transmissions.
With its 2011 models (including the related Dodge Grand Caravan), Chrysler has simplified its powertrain offerings from three mediocre six-cylinders to a single, excellent V-6. Turning out 283 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque, the 3.6-liter makes the most power here and could contend for the best engine. However, a lackadaisical transmission means that the Town & Country doesn’t move among fourth, fifth, and sixth gears enough for easy at-speed acceleration. It also shifts more abruptly than the other two six-speed automatics in our test.
Toyota is the only automaker without an independent rear suspension in its minivan. The Sienna uses a torsion beam instead of a multilink setup, but it is so well tuned that it performs almost as comfortably as those in the Honda and the Nissan. A bevy of suspension changes have also improved the Chrysler’s ride; it now takes bumps and breaks with much more composure. The body structure, however, isn’t as rigid as those in the Japanese minivans, and impacts cause more rattles and knocks than they should. Steering in the Chrysler, on the other hand, is the best weighted and feels the most natural, although we doubt many owners will care. They should care, however, that the Honda’s steering is comparatively lifeless, whereas the Toyota and the Nissan strike a nice balance, with lower effort than the Chrysler and less feedback.
Seats, switches, and surfaces
The Chrysler’s interior is much improved over last year’s model, with nicer materials and more stylish trim, but the audio and climate controls still lack the thoughtfulness and integration behind those in the Odyssey and the Sienna. Quality also isn’t as rich as in the Japanese vans. The door switches, for example, are illuminated in a dated yellow-green while the center stack is lit in blue-green. We do, however, adore Chrysler’s carlike center console that is taller and farther forward than those in the other vans, offering easier access to storage bins and cupholders. The Town & Country’s Stow ‘n Go second-row seats have been repadded for more comfort, but they still sit a bit low, the cushions are slightly short, and the entire seats shake when empty.
Our Nissan Quest was a stripper relative to the well-equipped Honda, Toyota, and Chrysler minivans, without leather, navigation, or rear-seat entertainment. We do know from previous experience that Nissan’s navigation system and control layout are among the best on the market. So it’s surprising that the climate controls are poorly placed and too small to be easily accessible. From the driver’s seat, the slab-sided Nissan feels a bit like driving a bus, with its upright, faraway windshield and a high dash. In the rear, it feels like the smallest of the four, with tight legroom in the third row.
Both the Honda and the Toyota can seat eight, but if you’re planning to use the middle-row center seat, the Odyssey provides a wider, more comfortable chair. The Honda also boasts the ability to fit three child seats in the second row. The outboard seats, however, are most comfortable in the Toyota, with generous padding and a nice contour to the seat bottoms. The materials in the Sienna aren’t quite as deluxe as those in the Odyssey, but it has some unique dash graining and the controls are logically placed such that it is functionally and objectively competitive with the Honda.
From minivan to cargo van
When it comes to sheer hauling capacity, the Nissan Quest quickly disqualifies itself. Neither the second nor third row of seats folds into the floor. Instead, the seatbacks merely fold forward, creating a cargo area that’s neither as flat nor as tall as in the other vans. There’s also no way to remove the seats, which means that, when you’re standing at the open rear hatch, the Quest seems more like a crossover or an SUV than a minivan. The benefit is an exceptionally deep cargo well behind the third row that you’ll never need to empty to stow the back bench.
The fact that the Sienna’s second-row seatbacks don’t fold forward is also frustrating. Instead, the bottom cushions tip up and the chairs slide forward into a clumsy storage mode. For heavy hauling, the bucket seats can, thankfully, be removed. Honda’s Odyssey takes the traditional tack; the third row flips back into a storage well and the second row either folds or can be removed completely.
Chrysler continues to reign supreme when it comes to versatility. The Stow ‘n Go middle buckets that disappear into storage bins beneath the floor allow for a cavernous storage area without the need to plan ahead and remove seats at home. Our $40,090 Town & Country was also the only participant with a power-folding third row, despite being less expensive than both the Honda and the Toyota.
No change at the top
Unfortunately, the Nissan Quest has few merits that set it apart from the others. Although it drives competently and comfortably, we can’t help but think that buyers will be better served by one of the other three competitors here. Chrysler takes home the most-improved award, but that’s not enough for a victory. Its midlife update has been shockingly thorough, and yet the Town & Country still needs a ground-up redesign to bring the interior, chassis, and transmission in line with the best vehicles in its class. It is, however, the minivan for those who value versatility above all else.
Honda and Toyota build seriously great minivans, and it is really a matter of individual priorities to pick a winner. For many — maybe even most — buyers, the Honda is the best choice, pushed ahead by its superior fuel economy and more premium interior. Despite that, I’m choosing the Sienna as my favorite. It’s a better driver with an excellent, practical interior, and, at a $3388 as-tested discount versus the Odyssey, it’s also a better value.
CHRYSLER TOWN & COUNTRY
PRICE: $30,995/$40,090 (base/as tested)
ENGINE: 3.6L V-6, 283 hp, 260 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed automatic
EPA MILEAGE: 17/25 mpg
PRICE: $28,580/$44,030 (base/as tested)
ENGINE: 3.5L V-6, 248 hp, 250 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed automatic
EPA MILEAGE: 19/28 mpg
PRICE: $28,560/$35,390 (base/as tested)
ENGINE: 3.5L V-6, 260 hp, 240 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION: Continuously variable
EPA MILEAGE: 19/24 mpg
PRICE: $26,610/$40,642 (base V-6/as tested)
ENGINE: 3.5L V-6, 266 hp, 245 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed automatic
EPA MILEAGE: 18/24 mpg
The Perfect Mix-and-Match Minivan
Using an online configurator to spec your ideal car is a fun way to start the car-buying process. But what if you weren’t restricted to a single company when building your next vehicle? That’s the idea I had when picking the best components from each minivan to make a supervan.
Let’s start with the Toyota Sienna body for both its looks and the rigid structure beneath the body panels. While Honda and Nissan have made efforts to embolden the minivan, I appreciate the Sienna’s traditional shape with modern styling cues. I could easily live with Toyota’s torsion-beam rear suspension, but if we’re living in a fantasy world, I’d grab the Odyssey’s slightly more supple multilink setup.
Honda’s smooth and powerful yet impressively efficient 3.5-liter V-6 earns the spot under the hood along with its smart and unobtrusive optional six-speed automatic. I’d ask Chrysler engineers to handle the steering and hope they threw in that fabulous heated steering wheel.
I’d pilot my people hauler from the Toyota’s cockpit. Although the materials may not be as nice as the Odyssey’s, the controls are intuitive and user friendly. I’d also love to have Chrysler’s carlike center console for easily accessible drinks and storage. For the sake of practicality, I’d choose the second- and third-row seats of the Town & Country. A modest sacrifice in comfort is a small trade-off for the brilliant disappearing captain’s chairs, and the power-folding rear bench collapses at the press-rather than hold-of a button. To keep passengers entertained, I’d opt for Honda’s wide, 16.1-inch display, with its HDMI input, and twelve-speaker premium audio system.