It's easy to take a minivan for granted. The three-row crossover segment sees so much action, with a wider range of models and generally a more desirable image and style. And crossovers have increasingly offered the family-friendly strengths that made minivans so popular: three-row seating, plenty of room, pleasant driving dynamics, and a host of luxury and convenience features.
But the few surviving minivans – the tested Honda Odyssey and the competing Chrysler Town & Country / Dodge Grand Caravan twins, Kia Sedona, Nissan Quest and Toyota Sienna – have sheer packaging brilliance that no crossover or even full-size SUV can even approach. Low floors ease step-in and cargo load-in, and boost capacity. Unlike nearly ever crossover or SUV, there's vast cargo space even behind the third row seat. Power sliding doors are another van-exclusive.
The Odyssey is the reigning champion of the minivan class, the victor in this reviewer's most recent comparison review. And in the three years since that review, the only minivan on the market to receive significant updates has been the Honda, which saw styling revisions and new features for the 2014 model year.
A fully loaded Odyssey just spent a week with the Cars Examiner, demonstrating once again its family-hauling prowess. This Honda mostly distinguishes itself for interior room, which is outstanding even for a minivan. Eight adults can fit with acceptable comfort into the van's eight cushy seats, whereas competitors offer merely nominal eight-passenger capacity (Sienna) or settle for seven (the rest of the class). Each cargo capacity metric is also at or near best-in-class.
The Odyssey supplements that core strength with a comfortable and decently quiet ride, class-leading EPA fuel economy ratings of up to 28 miles per gallon on the highway and 22 mpg in mixed driving, outstanding safety ratings, and a host of safety, luxury and convenience features that include the market's only built-in vacuum cleaner. (This reviewer observed just over 22 mpg during this weeklong test and in another in a 2011 Odyssey.)
But there are a growing number of reasons to choose crossovers besides the image, as the Odyssey and its kin grow dated in various ways. The Honda doesn't have a particularly fancy interior, with basic plastic trim, some poorly finished areas, and dated displays. The van's steering isn't very sharp, making it more likely to feel its massive size. The middle row seats are fussy to remove and even worse to reinstall. Some handy features, including the vacuum, are restricted to top trim levels. And the always-lofty price has continued climbing over the years, landing at a $29,000 for a base model and a whopping $45,280 as tested.
Meanwhile, among crossovers, the Hyundai Santa Fe shows off outstanding driving dynamics for a large vehicle, with commendable agility and the feel of a much smaller vehicle, plus a snazzy and well-constructed cabin that puts the more workmanlike Odyssey's to shame. The Ford Explorer, meanwhile, is another strong choice – roomier and cushier than the Hyundai and also rather nice to drive.
Keep an eye on interior volume, though – the Odyssey has nearly twice the maximum cargo space of the Santa Fe and nearly three times as much behind the third row seat, in addition to more commodious passenger accommodations in all three rows.
For 2014 (2015s are starting to appear now on dealer lots, with only slight adjustments), the Odyssey starts at a sticker price of $28,825 for the base LX model. Even the base Odyssey, though, is nicely equipped. Standard features include three-row side curtain airbags, a rearview camera, power windows for the front and sliding doors, power-adjustable front seats, active noise cancellation, Bluetooth connectivity and SB and aux inputs. All Odysseys also now include standard equipment that had once been restricted to top-trim models, including a six-speed automatic transmission (in place of a less fuel-efficient five-speed unit previously on most Odysseys), an eight-inch color display screen on the dash, and a beautifully designed one-step-folding third-row seat.
Nearly all buyers will step up to at least the $32,215 EX model simply for power-sliding doors, a minivan standby that's left off the LX. The extra $3,390 also buys alloy wheels, body-color (instead of black) exterior side mirrors, an eighth seat (the center position of the middle row, not included on the LX), tri-zone automatic climate control, a proximity key with push-button start, and built-in middle-row sunshades.
The EX also buys a second in-dash screen: a touchscreen radio with attractive displays that work well except for complicated radio tuning, which also doubles as the display for Honda's excellent “LaneWatch” – a camera that displays the view next to the passenger side of the car at the push of a button or when the turn signal is activated.
Another $3,500 buys the Odyssey EX-L, which mainly adds leather seat trim and heated front seats, plus a power liftgate, a moonroof and an air-conditioned center console bin. It's also the cheapest trim to add warnings when the car senses an impending forward collision or when it drifts out of its lane. And it's the cheapest trim to get an optional navigation system ($2,000) or a DVD rear entertainment system ($1,600), though you can't get both simultaneously on the EX-L.
For your full tech fix, step up to the $41,880 Touring, which includes the navigation and rear entertainment systems, plus 18-inch wheels, a multi-angle rearview camera, sunshades and a center armrest for the third-row seat, and a memory feature for the driver's seat. And the tested top-trim Touring Elite goes all out, with an upgraded 12-speaker audio system, ultra-wide entertainment system screen, and the HondaVac vacuum.
Also exclusive to the Touring Elite is a traditional blind-spot monitoring system, with lights glowing on either side of the car to indicate that another car is alongside, replacing the arguably more useful LaneWatch camera. Some reviewers have preferred the traditional system; there's no reason that Honda can't offer both, especially on a $45,000 car.
Much has been made of the HondaVac, and it's more than a gimmick. The hose reaches anywhere in the car, yet stows easily in a capacious carpeted cubby in the cargo hold – no great feat of patience is required to put it away just so after addressing an emergency cleanup, and the thoughtful carpeting keeps it from rattling as the car moves. It's quite disappointing that the vacuum, among other features, is restricted to the Touring Elite.
Pricing site Truecar.com gives some balm to the sting of the Odyssey's prices, projecting that you can haggle about $4,400 off the price of a top-trim model, but this Honda is still dearer than competing minivans out the door.
Besides the crossovers mentioned earlier, the Odyssey stacks up favorably to competing minivans.
The Toyota Sienna is more of a luxury alternative to the versatile Odyssey – smoother and quieter, with fancier interior trim. But it doesn't drive as well or offer as much room, particularly for an eighth passenger, and like all other vans it can't match the Honda's fuel economy.
The Chrysler Town & Country / Dodge Grand Caravan offer a compelling value, and boast the cargo flexibility of middle-row seats that fold into the floor. This “Stow 'N Go” system is a welcome alternative to trying to wrestle the Odyssey's chairs into their finicky latches. But the Chryslers feel more cumbersome than the Odyssey, with heavy steering and wide turning circles, and the seats aren't as comfortable as the Honda's. There are only seven available spaces.
The uniquely styled Nissan Quest boasts rear seats that fold easily flat with no complicated tricks, but it gives up true minivan interior volume to achieve it. It has a luxurious cabin but mediocre seat comfort and driving dynamics as well, and no eight-passenger seating.
The ultra-budget Kia Sedona lacks features and feels dated and unnatural in its driving dynamics – not miserable, but clearly a cut below the competition to reflect its much lower price. But a redesigned 2015 Sedona is due this year that could challenge the Odyssey's supremacy in this class. Stay tuned.
Vehicle tested: 2014 Honda Odyssey
Vehicle base price (MSRP): $28,825
Version tested: Touring Elite
Version base price (MSRP): $44,450
Vehicle price as tested (MSRP): $45,280
Estimated transaction price as tested*: $40,871
Test vehicle provided by: American Honda
Length: 202.9 inches
Width: 79.2 inches
Height: 68.4 inches
Wheelbase: 118.1 inches
Weight: 4,613 pounds
Cargo volume behind third-row seat: 38.4 cubic feet
Cargo volume behind middle seat: 93.5 cubic feet
Cargo volume behind front seats: 148.5 cubic feet
Turning circle: 36.6 feet
Engine: 3.5-liter V6 with 248 horsepower
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
EPA city mileage: 19 miles per gallon
EPA highway mileage: 28 miles per gallon
EPA combined mileage: 22 miles per gallon
Observed mileage during test: 22.2 miles per gallon
Fuel capacity: 21.0 gallons
Assembly location: Alabama
For more information: Honda website
*Estimated transaction prices are based on data from Truecar.com and dealer quotes.