2011 Honda Odyssey Touring Elite
Guess what? Minivans are still uncool. Automakers know this. Even the latest ads for the Honda Odyssey and the Toyota Sienna acknowledge the squareness of the segment. Sales have stabilized at about 500,000 units per year since tragically hip moms and dads fled to crossovers. As a mature segment with little potential for growth, minivans are getting comfortable with their squareness. For evidence, we direct your attention to the new Nissan Quest, which not only acknowledges its one-box silhouette but drapes a metaphorical trench coat over the whole thing.
So minivans are cool with being uncool. Can we move on? The premise remains the same as before: Maximize people and cargo space, and forget about the styling. Driving dynamics get second billing. The point is to get you and your kids (or, for aging boomers, your dogs) to and from every destination with the least amount of hassle and the most comfort.
The newest in our assembled quartet is the Nissan Quest, back after a two-year hiatus. Now based on the company's D platform (shared with the Altima, Maxima, and Murano), the Quest is similar to the Japanese-market Elgrand. For 2011, the Chrysler Town & Country (and its sibling, the Dodge Grand Caravan) gets freshened exterior and interior styling, a retuned suspension, and — most important — a new 283-hp V-6 mated to a six-speed automatic, which replaces all three previous powertrain offerings.
The Odyssey and the Sienna are also new for the 2011 model year, but both offer carry-over engines lashed to new six-speed automatics (available only in Touring trim on the Honda). There's a lot of common ground among this set. All four are powered by 24-valve V-6 engines, with only 35 horsepower separating the strongest (Chrysler) from the weakest (Honda). In the top-of-the-line trims we specified for our test group, each minivan comes with power side doors and a power rear hatch. They all offer some sort of flat load floor when the seats are folded and/or removed.
It's worth noting that although the vans tested here all ring in at about $40,000, each can be had for closer to $30,000. The price of the Sienna, the highest in this test, drops as low as $25,370 for a base four-cylinder.
In light of the targeted use of these vehicles, we focused on the passenger compartments as much as we did on behind-the-wheel impressions. We watched Team America: World Police multiple times in an effort to evaluate the rear-seat entertainment systems. We also wore a pregnancy-simulation vest while examining each minivan for ease of child-seat installation [click here]. And yes, we left some small part of our dignity behind these sliding doors.
The Sienna is a perfect example of the — dare we say — pleasures of owning a minivan. A flat, wide floor underneath the driver's seat makes getting in and out easy. The interior boasts two glove boxes, plus a handy storage cubby on the floor between the instrument panel and the center console in which to store your purse — sorry, "European man-satchel." The center console deploys rearward to dispatch two cup holders for second-row passengers. And in our Limited model, the second-row residents get captain's chairs with slide-out leg rests. They even almost work. To fully extend, the second row needs to slide completely back, obliterating third-row leg space. Even then, the leg extensions accommodate only the shorter lower limbs of children. But we like the idea. The same goes for the power-folding third row, which won't work if the second row is too far aft. We expect better execution from Toyota.
A good idea executed poorly also describes the Siennas's ride, which we deemed too harsh. We commend Toyota for attempting to inject a bit of sportiness into the Sienna, but it seems to have taken things a little too far. Light steering, however, makes for effortless parking-lot navigation, which counts for a lot in this segment. But the power assist doesn't trail off at driving speeds; as a result, the steering effort stays light, which is at odds with the Sienna's sporty pretensions.
The Sienna earns points for ergonomics, with easy-to-find buttons for the power doors and the tailgate. The radio and nav system are clustered logically and high on the dash; the climate control has large, legible buttons and is likewise easy to use.
Kudos also go to the Sienna's interior space, which is the largest in nearly every category. But with the exception of a best-in-test, 177-foot braking result, the Toyota is at or below average in most performance categories. That backs up our overall impression of the Sienna, which is unremarkable. On paper, everything looks good, but in person and behind the wheel, the Sienna comes off as milquetoast. In that respect, the Sienna is the Camry of minivans. Like its sedan counterpart, it's not that there is anything wrong with the Sienna — it's just that it doesn't make us care about what's right.
Okay, we did say that minivans are uncool, but the Quest is about as funky as minivans get. We consider the tall, slab-sided exterior and wraparound rear glass a styling success, but then, we also watch Japanese cartoons. Inside, the Quest feels as tall and blocky as it looks outside, and a high cowl restricts forward visibility. But large windows and Dumbo-ear side mirrors mean that vision in every other direction is expansive.
The Quest takes a different approach to seat acrobatics than the other three vans do. Open the rear hatch, and the floor is level with the bumper; cargo stows below a removable panel. The third-row seats fold forward onto the seat cushions, level with the false floor and leaving the rearmost luggage area intact; the other minivans flop the seats backward into the cargo pit. The compromise is a higher load floor — the second-row seats fold and lower themselves to make for a flat cargo area — and less storage space: 19 fewer cubic feet behind the second row and 36 fewer with everything folded versus the next-biggest interior of the Chrysler. If you're looking to fit Neil Peart's drum kit into the Quest, you might be short on storage, but we think the ability to fold the third row without moving any cargo will find supporters.
Despite high marks in more advanced subjects, the Quest struggles a bit in Minivan 101. There is only a single 12-volt port in the front of the cabin — the rest have two ports up there. The buttons for the power doors are shaped like Tic-Tacs, and our adult fingers had trouble using them. The radio controls are small and situated low on the dash. The front and rear center consoles are made of hard plastic and feature minimalist cup holders that won't accommodate the larger beverage containers favored by thirsty Americans. Otherwise, the interior looks and feels like an Infiniti's, with high-gloss wood trim and thoughtful touches such as padded armrests on the front doors. Material quality is top-notch.
We were also impressed with the Quest's smooth ride, which is almost limo-like. The Nissan's first-place, 55.6-mph performance in the emergency-lane-change maneuver is more the result of an effective stability-control system that keeps the Quest going where it's pointed than any handling prowess. Through corners, it feels like the front and rear suspensions were tuned for different vehicles. But going back to minivan priorities, consider the 36.7-foot turning circle, which is slightly better than the Sienna's, equal to the Odyssey's, and 2.4 feet tighter than the Chrysler's.
Another plus for the Quest is the familiar VQ engine, making 260 horsepower in this application. Unlike the 3.7-liter variant, the 3.5-liter is smooth in the Quest, and the continuously variable automatic responds quickly and without the usual drone we've come to expect from these transmissions. Unfortunately, that didn't translate to quick numbers at the track, where the Quest was slowest to 60 mph. The CVT is also frustrating; it allows the engine to rev for a second when you are pulling into traffic.
Nissan's return to the minivan market is a solid effort, with high-class material quality, distinctive looks, and a buttery-smooth ride. Only the minor details — which the other automakers have already sorted out — keep it from a higher ranking.
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i thought about buying a new honda but its just ugly.
that huge gash for the door slider and that lightning bolt drop just does nothing for its looks.
I think the older version looks much better from the side IMO
Enjoyed reading this article. The writer states that minivans are not cool, then writes an excellent article proving how cool they really are.
Millions upon millions of minivan owners already know that.
Guess it's cool to be uncool.