There is no doubt that in the last few years crossovers are getting a lot more attention from buyers than minivans. It is obvious that they will take over significant number of drivers but still vehicles like 2014 Honda Odyssey and 2014 Toyota Sienna are popular and there is a decent number of buyers interested in this segment.
The 2011 model year saw all the major minivan players come out with new versions. And while the cheaper-by-the-dozen Dodge Grand Caravan is the undisputed sales leader, the Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey continue to offer a “premium” minivan experience. So we asked the question, which is the better family-mobile to drive?
All new in 2011, Honda hasn’t felt the need to offer any substantial updates to its front-wheel-drive, eight-passenger Odyssey since. While you can get a base Dodge Grand Caravan for less than $20,000, the more refined and sophisticated Honda minivan starts at $29,990. To match our $37,205 Sienna SE tester, we picked the $35,690 Odyssey EX-RES, mainly because it comes standard with a rug-rat-quieting DVD entertainment system.
Like the Toyota, the Honda minivan powers its front wheels via a 3.5-litre V6. The Odyssey has less power than the Sienna’s mill (248 horsepower versus 266), but more torque (250 pound-feet against 245). And although the Odyssey has one less gear than the Toyota’s six-speed automatic (you have to pop for the top-line $47,190 Odyssey Touring to get a six-speed autobox), fuel economy estimates are nearly identical between these two large people movers: 11.7 L/100 km city and 7.2 highway for the Honda and 11.4 and 7.4, respectively, for the Toyota.
The Odyssey doesn’t need an “SE” badge on its rear tailgate to be the better-driving minivan. Just as the Honda Accord family sedan is more dynamic to pilot than the Toyota Camry, so is the Honda minivan over its Toyota counterpart. While the Odyssey EX-RES is no Honda S2000 roadster, it’s still a more engaging drive than the Sienna SE. Although down a gear, the Honda’s automatic responds much quicker than the Toyota’s transmission, and the Honda engine sounds richer and more refined when pushed.
The Honda’s steering delivers more feedback than its Toyota rival, with a rear suspension that nicely limits body roll, too. Where the Sienna feels wobbly when pressed hard into corners, the Odyssey feels relatively planted and firm. And if not as luxurious inside as a Nissan Quest, at least the Honda interior feels better screwed together than the Toyota.
Perched on its more supportive driver’s seat, the Honda feels refined, luxurious and composed — qualities the Sienna SE lacks. From its engine growl to its quieter cabin to its bend-but-don’t-break ride and handling combination to its raspy exhaust sound, the 2014 Honda Odyssey EX-RES is the minivan for drivers.
Like the Honda, the Toyota minivan was new for 2011, and has had only minor changes since. Toyota offers a base, seven-passenger four-cylinder Sienna for $28,140, but eight-passenger V6 versions start at $32,805. Our supposedly sportiest-to-drive SE model comes in at $37,205.
We had high hopes for the Sienna SE. When it was launched, Toyota said it was “designed for those who appreciate an aggressive design with responsive performance.” They got the former right, but the latter, er, not so much…
Visually, the Toyota beats the Odyssey for curb appeal. The SE’s exclusive 19-inch alloy wheels, body kit package and lower ride height makes it look the “sporty” minivan part. Inside as well, the Sienna SE’s unique instrumentation and lighter interior looks smarter than the all-grey-all-the-time Odyssey’s cabin. Drive off from said sidewalk, though, and you won’t mistake the Sienna SE for a sports car, let alone a Honda Odyssey.
The Sienna SE’s long wheelbase delivers a smooth, if sometimes floaty ride. And yes, the SE corners a bit flatter, and responds a bit quicker than the other Sienna models. But the Toyota’s extra-light steering, tall centre of gravity and extra-large dimensions can’t match the Honda’s almost-car-like road manners. A sharp ride caused no doubt by its low-profile tires, plenty of road and engine noise, and a considerable number of squeaks and rattles make driving long distances in the Sienna SE a tiresome affair. Perhaps because the Sienna SE’s arena-like interior acts like an echo chamber, but we can’t remember the same Toyota six-cylinder generating so much noise in Camrys or Highlanders as it does in the Seinna. And while its autobox’s shifts are nearly imperceptible, they are achingly slow.
Where the Sienna does shine is interior room. Whether it’s cargo space behind the third-row seats or when all are folded for trips to Costco, the Toyota is like an empty airplane hangar. Unfortunately, the Toyota’s interior build quality and panel fit are considerably less impressive than in the Honda.