Vantage Points 

Honda and Chrysler vie for the high ground in an all-out minivan duel

Honda and Chrysler vie for the high ground in an all-out minivan duel

“What’s hot in the auto biz?” everyone always wants to know. The question is code for “Tell me about some cool new sports car/SUV/luxury sedan.” It may even beg for news about the latest pickup truck. It almost never has anything to do with minivans, even though that’s what most families really need for their helter-skelter lifestyles.

“You mean, you want to know what’s new with minivans?” is how I like to answer. We’re usually able to change the subject at this point, with no loss of face to either party. Not this time, however; this week, minivans are IT.

2003 Honda Odyssey EX

Honda showed up with the present full-size Odyssey minivan in 1999, which was almost 20 year late. The Dodge Caravan, after all, hit the scene in the early 1980s. No matter. Honda had marked the time well, watching the foibles and failures of its rivals. When the Odyssey finally completed its epic journey from drafting table to showroom, it appeared to spring fully formed from the forehead of Zeus. Today, minivan cognoscenti consider this Honda the benchmark by which all other minivans are measured.

There are three principle reasons why: responsiveness, cleverness and quality. The Odyssey’s responsiveness derives precisely from the fact that here is a boxy toaster-shaped vehicle that sprints, corners and brakes almost like a sports car. That 3.5-liter V6 underhood makes 240 horsepower and 242-ft.-lbs. of torque, thanks to variable valve timing that’s more typical of Honda’s S2000 roadster. The suspension is all-independent, of the double-wishbone variety, in fact; and brakes are anti-lock discs at each corner. This minivan is capable of zero-to-60 in under eight seconds, for crying out loud.

What’s more to the point, however, is the Odyssey’s seven-passenger seating combined with a cargo capacity that ranges from 31 to 146 cubic feet. Particularly clever is the way the third-row bench abracadabras completely out of sight into a pocket in the floor. This provides a perfectly level surface for loading all kinds of huge things; and when the rear bench is in use, the pocket serves as a storage well for swallowing as much as two sedan trunks’ worth of gear.

Everything about the Odyssey’s fit and finish is first-rate. The engine bay sparkles; doors align and latch precisely; interior plastic pieces and switchgear are all substantial and damage-resistant. The dual power-sliding side doors take some getting used to, since they operate with a mind of their own after you shove them to get them started or “click ’em” with the key fob. Some folks admit to getting bamboozled with the fold-and-tumble routine that makes the rearmost seat disappear. And rival manufacturers, with not much else to kvetch about, say the cargo well at the rear picks up a bit more road noise than other designs.

Sounds like someone is just irked about the long Odyssey waiting lists at Honda dealers around the country. And anyway, isn’t road noise a moot point once you insert a favorite CD into the dash—or, better yet, once you dose the kids with a DVD movie in the optional rear player?

There are hints that a redesign is on the way eventually. Don’t know when; but more to the point, don’t know why.

2003 Chrysler Town & Country LX

You should never discount the value of competition, particularly with regard to the Chrysler and Dodge founding family of minivans. When the Odyssey more or less ambushed the Caravan lineup in 1999, DaimlerChrysler responded with a 2001 makeover that brought the world’s original minivan into the 21st century.

Chrysler’s Town and Country iteration of the basic Caravan concept is plush, roomy and versatile. One noticeable holdover, of course, is the 3.8-liter pushrod engine. Yes, it only makes 215 hp, compared to the Odyssey’s 240 hp, but torque is a tad superior at 245 ft.-lbs.—and that’s how the real work of stop-and-go driving gets done anyway. Curiously, both minivans deliver identical fuel economy with regular fuel: 18 mpg/city and 25 mpg/highway.

One big difference in the powertrain, however, is the Chrysler’s four-speed automatic transmission, vs. Honda’s five-speed. If you never touch the shifter after you put it in Drive, you’re not likely to notice much; but if you like to downshift out of overdrive for in-town driving (to minimize use of the brakes, for example), four speeds deliver a bit less finesse than five.

As for ride, the Town and Country, with its front-strut suspension and solid-axle rear setup, is noticeably more ponderous than the zippy Odyssey. Call it stately, if you want. For minivan duties, it’s perfectly adequate; and to some it may indeed feel more comfortable due to its slightly softer ride.

By far, this Chrysler’s forte is its way with cargo, albeit in paradoxical terms. With all seven seats in use, the rear cargo hold measures only 17.8 cubic feet—about half that of the Odyssey’s. Fold, flatten and remove what you can, however, and interior storage space balloons to 168 cubes, a 15 percent advantage. Wrestling with the rearmost bench seat is not as easy as making the Honda’s vanish, but for many it’s worth the 22 cubic feet of extra space.

Chrysler makes a big fuss over its powered rear liftgate, which opens and closes with the push of a button. Personally, I find it a mixed blessing: It’s slow and usually unnecessary; but with both arms full of groceries, it’s a godsend.

For all of Odyssey’s whippersnapper gusto, Chrysler still leads in minivan sales—just check the rental car fleets if you doubt it. More to the point, however, is that Chrysler’s Town and Country minivan is at the top of its game today because the Honda Odyssey dared it to be.


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