Minivans get no respect. Compared with SUVs, they aren't cool. Compared with cars and trucks with hybrid gas-electric powertrains, they aren't innovative. Compared with Britney Spears, they don't move too quickly. There's no buzz about minivans.
And yet, out of the limelight, the leaders of this market segment keep on marching. As more manufacturers crowd in for a share of the 1.2 million units sold each year, the traditional makes have moved upmarket, with increasing refinement and a dazzling array of equipment and features.
Performance-as symbolized by the Honda Odyssey's 160-mph speedometer-will shock anyone unfamiliar with recent minivans. Safety-as demonstrated by the comprehensive passive and active systems on the Odyssey and the Toyota Sienna-is also a huge emphasis. And convenience-as in by the Chrysler Town & Country's Stow 'n Go seating-has evolved to a high art.
Keeping these things in mind, now is a great time to compare these three top models:
Convenience and Refinement
The minivan that led the way upmarket well before the Toyota and Honda were even available shows its refinement but also its age. Engineers have had a long time to tweak the Town & Country. Its strong suit is the effective way it suppresses road and engine noise, not to mention how interior squeaks and rattles have been essentially eliminated from the equation. Combined with the comfortable seven-passenger seating and the plush ride, the Town & Country is as serene as a clubroom, yet it corners with aplomb and never makes driving a chore.
Where the age shows most is under the hood. The 3.8-liter V-6 that's standard in the Touring and Limited models is outdated. (The short-wheelbase Town & Country base model that starts at $21,275 and the long-wheelbase LX models that start at $25,640 are equipped with a 3.3-liter V-6.). The large engine languidly discharges 207 hp and 238 lb-ft of torque to an older, four-speed automatic transmission. The engine drudges about its tasks and is coarse and recalcitrant when spurred; having a fifth ratio would help acceleration and fuel economy. At least regular unleaded is all that's required. EPA mileage is 18/25 mpg.
Inside the Limited model we tested (base price: $35,995), the small navigation display is squeezed into the center stack where it was never intended to be, and such features as second-row power windows are unavailable. As good as the instrument panel and center console are, a pastiche of LED and LCD displays create visual conflicts. Nevertheless, the leather interior is highly comfortable and functional.
The Town & Country's Stow 'n Go seating, which was introduced with the 2005 model, is dazzling and goes the furthest in distinguishing this minivan from the competition. In mere seconds and with nearly effortless, one-handed operation, the second- and third-row seats collapse and tumble through trap doors and settle into wells below the floor, providing a vast, flat load space. With the seats up, the wells can be used for secret storage; in fact, this may be the long-sought, ideal spot for hiding Christmas gifts.
Our Limited model's list of standard safety and security features is highlighted by antilock brakes, traction control, rear parking assist, a driver-side inflatable knee bolster, front air bags, and side-curtain air bags covering all three rows. Like the Toyota and the Honda, the Town & Country's front and power-sliding side doors are armored with high-strength steel impact beams. Glaringly absent from the Town and Country's options list is stability control, a system available on the Toyota and Honda that can help prevent skids and rollovers.
The Driver's Minivan
Honda introduced its right-sized Odyssey in 1999 and added significant improvements in 2001. The Odyssey, redesigned for 2005, remains the clear choice for enthusiastic drivers, distinguished by its athletic handling and avid engine. In addition to LX and EX models, there is the Touring, priced at $38,295, which we tested.
The Odyssey's bellwether component is its aluminum-alloy, 3.5-liter V-6 engine, which is common to all models in the range. It snorts out 255 hp and grunts with 250 lb-ft of torque. The internal operation of this engine is a source of wonder. Not only do we refer to Honda's VTEC system, allowing for variable openings of the valves, but also to the unique, new Variable Cylinder Management; this electronically controlled system undetectably closes down business in three of the six cylinders until demand warrants their reactivation. So when you're cruising along, half of the engine takes a siesta, this event being indicated by an "Eco" indicator light on the instrument panel. Estimated mileage is 20/28 mpg for VCM-equipped models, specifically, the EX with leather interior and the Touring. This surpasses the 19/25 mpg of the lower-priced LX ($24,995) and EX ($27,995). Furthermore, unlike the previous generation, which required premium unleaded fuel, the 2005 Odyssey runs on regular.
An electronically smart, five-speed automatic transmission handles this engine's output with aplomb, and we like the stubby shift lever's location on the center stack.
The Touring's other most outstanding attribute is the interior's ergonomic perfection. Beautiful lighting brings the instrument panel alive. (We resisted the mighty temptation to try to peg the 160-mph speedometer.) The center stack bays out and proffers the navigation, audio, and climate buttons and dials at a fingertip-but if that's too much effort, the voice activation is dead simple to learn. Everything is made of high-quality materials; the supple, tan leather upholstery is lovely. However, we noted some rattles and drumming, and the tinny door-slam is disappointing. Removing the second-row seats requires a certain knack and a strong back. Odysseys can be specified to carry seven or eight passengers.
The Touring is equipped with antilock brakes with brake assist, traction and stability control, tire-pressure monitoring, run-flat tires, rear-view camera, rear parking assist, and advanced front, front-seat side, and three-row side curtain air bags.
Sneaking up on the Lead
We like to think of the Toyota Sienna as the consumer's ark. Crisp creases and relatively even front and rear overhangs give it a shiplike shape, while an emphasis on safety, security, and entertainment is meant to reassure the driver and keep everyone else occupied through any and all travails.
This isn't to rap the Sienna's performance, though. It's nearly the Odyssey's equal. Toyota's sophisticated and robust 3.3-liter V-6 produces 230 hp and 242 lb-ft, which is sent through a five-speed automatic. Power delivery couldn't be smoother. But premium fuel is required, and the all-wheel drive XLE Limited that we tested has an EPA rating of 18/24 mpg. (The front-wheel-drive model achieves 19/27 mpg.)
As for ride and handling, even though it has humbler suspension components than the Odyssey, Toyota's ark manages to be perfectly civil and gracious; our big complaint concerns the pronounced degree of understeer, which makes the Sienna rather reluctant in the turns. Steering effort rates the lightest of these three minivans yet returns sufficient feel to the driver. While road and engine noise are suppressed almost as well as in the Town & Country, a bit of jangling from plastic pieces sounded through the passenger compartment as we hustled over bumpy back roads.
A wood steering wheel and large sunroof brighten the XLE Limited's drab gray leather interior. The seating for seven or eight is similar to the Odyssey's, with a second row that must be lifted out and a third row that tumbles backward into the well inside the cargo area. Looking ahead to the instrument panel, aluminum trim highlights the pretty display. The center stack (DVD navigation and backup camera are available) positions the radio quite high, but most of these buttons-along with those for the climate controls-are at-a-glance propositions. As in the Odyssey, the sliding side doors feature power windows, but the Sienna goes a step farther by offering roll-away sunscreens in not only the second but also the third row.
The Sienna CE starts at $23,225, the LE is $24,730, and all-wheel drive increases the sticker price to $28,345. The XLE ranges from $29,024 to the Limited AWD's $37,495. Toyota offers all-wheel drive despite a relatively low number of minivan buyers seeking the feature.
The Sienna's true character is represented by the XLE Limited's daytime running lights and the vociferous parking assist that beeps as objects come within range of any corner. The power-sliding side doors and the liftgate beep three times before opening or closing. There are advanced front air bags and front-seat side and three-row curtain air bags; traction and stability control; antilock brakes with brake assist; tire-pressure monitoring; and run-flat tires. This minivan can probably also detect and report a flame left burning under the teakettle.
For the ultimate in convenience and refinement, the classic Town & Country fills the bill with its diabolically clever Stow 'N Go seating. As usual, the Odyssey offers the right combination of size and interior features and packages them with the sportiest engine and suspension. The Sienna intelligently and attractively blends all the crucial elements, manages to satisfy in most every way, and stands out through the availability of all-wheel drive. We prefer the handsome Honda with its eager responses-but wouldn't argue against the purchase of any of these minivans. In fact, we would argue with SUV intenders that one of these three paragons of automotive efficiency most bounteously meets their real-world needs.