Family (Hauler) Feud: Three Minivans Square Off in a Contest Almost too Close to Call
Building a supercar is easy. Even if you’ve got zero experience in car-building, you can have your family name festooned across the back of a mid-engined track monster in a few easy steps. Step one is cash, and lots of it. You’ll need this to license an engine from Audi or Mercedes. Step two is to hire an engineer, preferably one with several decades of experience at a major automaker. Sure, he’ll cost more than a recent graduate (remember step one), but he’ll know which hoops to jump through and which to set ablaze. Optional step: You might want to change your name to one that ends with a vowel. Pagani and Ascari sound good. Gumpert, not so much.
Building a minivan, on the other hand, especially for us American types and our super-precious children, is the most difficult feat in all of car-dom. Think about it. After more than two decades of trying, both Ford and General Motors threw in the towel.
They simply couldn’t compete with Chrysler and its omnipresent Grand Caravan. Which, when you stop and think about it, is crazy, especially considering how very competitive GM and Ford are with every other niche Chrysler occupies. Speaking of niches…
Hyundai, the new king of inserting itself into every single segment extant (including ultra-high-end, chauffer-driven luxury yachts-hi, Equus) cannot build a competitive minivan for the North American market. Sure, Kia makes the Sedona, but when’s the last time you saw one of those? What about Volkswagen, the mighty global giant with its umpteen brands, legions of engineering doctorates, and gazillions of Euros stuffed into Swiss banks? Nope, it can’t sell minivans in the U.S. either, so it rebadged a Caravan as a VeeDub and called the mashup Routan. Go figure.
There are two companies, however, that can go toe-to-toe with what’s arguably Chrysler’s best-engineered product. Toyota and Honda, the once-upstart Japanese brands, are now almost as American as apple pie, and for certain as ubiquitous as adult-onset diabetes. Honda’s Odyssey is now in its fourth generation, while the Toyota Sienna enters its third. Purists will insist Toyota’s minivan heritage continues farther back than that. There were the Previa, of course, and the original Toyota Van, the latter called the Master Ace and/or Space Cruiser in other markets. Of course, these are the same people who will tell you the 1984 Dodge Caravan was the first-ever minivan, when everyone knows the actual first is the 1949 DKW Schnellaster. But I digress…
As difficult as building a minivan must be, let me assure you that writing about our three competitors is no walk in the park. Sometimes comparison tests are over after we figure-eight the competitors. After all, that’s where you evaluate acceleration, braking, handling, road-holding, chassis composure, and body roll, all at the same time. And if this test were purely about how the minvans in question drive, the Toyota Sienna SE would be the hands-down favorite. As editor-at-large Ron Kiino points out, “directional tires!” The Sienna also has the best power, the best handling, and by far the best steering of the three.
The Dodge’s 4.0-liter V-6 is noticeably the slowest motor here, and it also returns by far the worst gas mileage, 17.4 mpg by our mixed freeway/backroad yardstick. Still, most of us thought its transmission shifted very well, and appreciated the ability to manually shift any of its six gear ratios. That’s quite unlike the Honda, which offers no shift-it-yourself ability (there is an overdrive-off button that locks you into direct drive, aka third gear), with its standard five-speed automatic. You can get an Odyssey with a six-speed, but you still can’t choose your own gears, and it’s available only in the Odyssey Touring, which starts at $41,535. I won’t say who said it, but one editor opined, “Honda needs to pull its head out of its ass and offer [the six-speed automatic] across the board.”
Here’s why: The Odyssey’s high-tech, VVT 3.5-liter V-6 with cylinder deactivation managed 21.1 mpg over 11 laps of our roughly 30-mile mixed driving loop. The Toyota Sienna, meanwhile, with its comparatively low-tech (i.e., no cylinder deactivation), 3.5-liter V-6, managed 21.3 mpg. And the Toyota makes 17 more horsepower than the Honda, 265 compared with 248. Equipped with the six-speed and cylinder deactivation, the Odyssey would have likely added 1 mpg (as the Touring does in city and highway EPA ratings).
The point is that fuel economy matters to minivan buyers: Why not try and stand out? Also, we imagine the take rate will be quite low, but you can get the Sienna with a 2.7-liter four-cylinder. Even that motor comes with a six-speed.
The Sienna is the best-looking minivan of the three, and probably the best-looking on the road. True, some of our judges liked the Odyssey’s “lightning bolt” window-line kink, but to my eyes that droop looks deformed. And the exposed tracks for the sliding doors seem an afterthought in terms of design. The official excuse is that the ugly slashes allow the Honda to offer more interior third-row shoulder space, but that’s bunk because the narrower Sienna manages more shoulder room with tidy door tracks. Meanwhile, the Dodge is about as vanilla-looking as plain yogurt. The Sienna SE, on the other hand, at least tries. Carlos Lago kept yelling, “Why does that van look so angry?” over the walkie-talkie whenever I roared up behind him. Mr. Lago has a point. Does a mother of 2.4 children want to show up at soccer practice behind the wheel of some sort of Yakuza transportational device? Probably not, but if she does, that’s my definition of a hot mom.
Sad to say, for Toyota, edgy good looks and sporty handling are not why people purchase minivans. Really, it’s all about the interior. “Just a different league,” executive editor Ed Loh crooned about the Odyssey EX-L. “This could wear an Acura logo on the steering wheel.” That’s very true, as in terms of quality of materials the Honda is miles ahead of the other two. The leather and soft plastics are higher quality, and even the buttons click better. The Grand Caravan SXT, on the other hand, is, to quote Loh again, “by far the cheapest-feeling.” Good news for Pentastar fans: A significant Caravan refresh is on the way, but that’s neither here nor there.
The innards of the Toyota, however, are much closer to the bargain-basement feel of the Dodge than they are to the entry-level luxury accommodations of the Honda. Everyone hated the shiny plastic strips (though, of course, if you opt for the more expensive LTD, you do get some Lexus-looking wood strips). Loh describes the SE’s surfaces as “high-utility dreck.” He points out that products like the Sienna, Tundra, and Sequoia are designed specifically for the North American market with no JDM counterparts, and therefore have different quality standards, “and they suffer for it.” Still, let me point out that, since children and their Cheetos-encrusted boogers are the target audience, perhaps a really nice interior doesn’t mean a whole lot in this segment.
The utility of the interior sure does. This is where the Dodge really shines. All these years later, Stow ‘n’ Go is still the minivan technology to beat, and none of the competition has it. If you’re not familiar, Stow ‘n’ Go is an incredibly clever way to drop all the back seats under the floor. Again, all of the seats, not just the third row. I didn’t try removing either the Toyota or Honda’s second row, but I did lift the Odyssey’s middle seat out of the second row. I’m not bragging, but I’ll wager I’m physically stronger than most moms out there, and I struggled hauling it out. Remember, after the engine and transmission, seats are the heaviest parts of a car. The Grand Caravan, then, is the clear winner in the configurability department.
But not so fast. It’s rare that you need to remove/hide both rows of seats-where would the kiddies go? Then there’s the fact that while the Dodge will forever be a seven-seater, both Japanese vans can be configured to seat eight, a big plus when you’re carpooling. As mentioned, the Honda’s middle seat is bulky and heavy, and once you pull it out, you have to either take up precious cargo room to store it, or leave it behind. Toyota has a better way. Its eighth seat is not only lighter and therefore easier to wrangle than the Odyssey’s; it cleverly stows in the way-back. Moreover, it has an integral seatbelt (as opposed to the Honda’s roof-mounted belt), and at least two testers found it more comfortable (I’d call it a draw). The Honda does offer one unique seating feature: The second-row captains chairs can slide left or right by 1.5 inches. This makes it possible to fit two child seats in the second row while the third flips forward for third-row access, a huge plus for some.
You will no doubt have noticed by now the incredible amount of back and forth concerning these three vehicles. In fact, we had a hard time just talking about one minivan at a time. The conversation always went, “Yeah, the Honda does X well, but the Toyota is better at Y.” Never in my career have I been presented with three vehicles so evenly matched. The Grand Caravan, which many testers consider the least refined of the group, produces the lowest levels of wind, engine, and tire noise. In fact, it offers the quietest interior of the bunch. It also sports the only touch screen of the group and the only navigation system, however, a nearly illegible screen mars the latter feature.
This point-counterpoint could go on forever, as this market segment really is that cutthroat. So, let’s count the votes. Loh places the Honda first on the strength of its classy interior materials, while Mr. Kiino gives the nod to the Sienna for its overall dynamics and superior packaging. Technical director Frank Markus basically threw his hands up and declared a tie, though all three place the Grand Caravan last. Which leaves me as the tiebreaker. Personally, I’d take the Dodge-that’s how much I like Stow ‘n’ Go. Also, I haul a lot of junk and I have a tiny garage, so removing seats means I’d have to put them back in just to park. I would have no qualms about getting the down-market interior filthy; it already looks crummy, and I have no children. To me, the Sienna and the Odyssey seem too close to call. However, of this group of voters, only Kiino has a child, so I’m going to weigh his vote a bit more heavily than the others. Your winner, then, by the very slightest of margins, is the 2011 Toyota Sienna SE.
1st Place: Toyota Sienna SE
Brilliant (for a minivan) driving dynamics and intelligent second- and third-row packaging make for the smartest choice. The good looks don’t hurt its case.
2nd Place: Honda Odyssey EX-L
The rich interior isn’t enough to make up for this giant’s doldrums driving dynamics or goofy exterior treatment. Interior packaging isn’t as good as in the Toyota, either.
3rd Place: Dodge Caravan SXT
Stow ‘n’ Go is still good enough to let this otherwise dated Dodge play with the big boys. A refresh is coming, and not a minute too soon.
|2010 Dodge Caravan SXT||2011 Honda Odyssey EX-L||2011 Toyota Sienna SE|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front engine, FWD||Front engine, FWD||Front engine, FWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||60-deg V-6, alum block/heads||60-deg V-6, alum block/heads||60-deg V-6, alum block/heads|
|VALVETRAIN||SOHC, 4 valves/cyl||SOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||241.2 cu in/3952 cc||211.8 cu in/3471 cc||210.9 cu in/3456 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||251 hp @ 6000 rpm||248 hp @ 5700 rpm||265 hp @ 6200 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||259 lb-ft @ 4100 rpm||250 lb-ft @ 4800 rpm||245 lb-ft @ 4700 rpm|
|REDLINE||6000 rpm||6200 rpm||6500 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||18.2 lb/hp||18.1 lb/hp||16.7 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||6-speed automatic||5-speed automatic||6-speed automatic|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; torsion beam, coil springs||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; torsion beam, coil springs,anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES, F;R||11.9-in vented disc; 12.0-in disc, ABS||12.6-in vented disc; 13.1-in disc, ABS||12.9-in vented disc; 12.2-in disc, ABS|
|WHEELS||6.5 x 17 in, cast aluminum||7.0 x 17 in, cast aluminum||7.0 x 19 in, cast aluminum|
|TIRES|| 225/65R17 100T M+S
Bridgestone Turanza EL400
| 235/65R17 103T M+S
| 235/50R19 99V M+S
Dunlop SP Sport 7000 AVS
|WHEELBASE||121.2 in||118.1 in||119.3 in|
|TRACK, F/R||65.5/64.8 in||68.1/68.2 in||67.7/67.7 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||202.5 x 76.9 x 68.9 in||202.9 x 79.2 x 68.4 in||200.2 x 78.2 x 68.9 in|
|TURNING CIRCLE||39.1 ft||36.7 ft||36.9 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||4580 lb||4478 lb||4417 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST, F/R||56/44%||59/41%||56/44%|
|HEADROOM, F/M/R||39.8/39.2/37.9 in||38.3/38.3*-39.4/38.0 in||41.0/39.7/38.3 in|
|LEGROOM, F/M/R||40.6/36.3/31.8 in||40.9/40.9/42.4 in||40.5/37.6/36.3|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/M/R||63.0/64.7/62.0 in||64.4/63.5/60.9 in||65.0/64.6/61.1 in|
|CARGO VOLUME BEHIND, F/M/R||140.1/83.7/32.3 cu ft||148.5/93.1/38.4 in||150.0/87.1/39.1 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||2.6 sec||3.1 sec||2.6 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||4.1||3.8||3.4|
|QUARTER MILE||15.9 sec @ 86.5 mph||16.1 sec @ 89.1 mph||15.4 sec @ 92.6 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||128 ft||125 ft||121 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.67 g (avg)||0.73 g (avg)||0.74 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||30.5 sec @ 0.52 g (avg)||29.4 sec @ 0.56 g (avg)||28.6 sec @ 0.59 g (avg)|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||1500 rpm||2400 rpm||1800 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$32,575||$35,230||$34,418|
|AIRBAGS||Dual front, f/m/r curtain||Dual front, front side, f/m/r curtain||Dual front, front side, driver knee, f/m/r curtain|
|BASIC WARRANTY||3 yrs/36,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||5 yrs/100,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||3 yrs/36,000 miles||N/A||N/A|
|FUEL CAPACITY||20.0 gal||21.0 gal||20.0 gal|
|EPA CITY/HWY ECON||17/25 mpg||18/27 mpg||18/24 mpg|
|CO2 EMISSIONS||0.98 lb/mile||0.92 lb/mile||0.96 lb/mile|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded regular||Unleaded regular||Unleaded regular|