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I am a minivan expert.

I have never strapped a child seat into a LATCH position. I have never needed to pack a crib, a diaper bag, and a Fisher-Price My Little Snugabunny for a two-hour visit with my parents. And I have never consciously run a red light while racing to the kids' soccer practice, slamming a cinnamon dolce latte, and screaming at a spouse on the phone. I am a twenty-five-year-old male, and I am a minivan expert.

You see, I -- along with the rest of my generation -- grew up in minivans and, during road trips and rides to school, became a connoisseur of people haulers. In grade school, I'd fight with my sister for the seat next to the second-row audio controls. As a high schooler, I came to appreciate my mom's van for the six-cylinder engine that helped it to easily dust my peers' used Honda Civics off the line. By college, I'd learned to use every ounce of a van's capability, packing it with seven guys, cramming every bit of empty space with luggage, and hitching up a trailer full of triathlon bikes for a budget spring break. To top it all off, each of the five minivans that my parents owned was a Mercury Villager, so I'm well trained in spotting mediocrity among such vehicles.

My motivations may be atypical, but my minivan needs and wants have never differed from those of a typical family: decent driving dynamics, comfortable space for seven, and the ability to haul like a cargo van when necessary. For 2011, the competition has been reset with brand-new versions of the Honda Odyssey, the Nissan Quest, and the Toyota Sienna and a significantly revised Chrysler Town & Country.


Similar specs, subtle differences

The specifications of these four vehicles would lead you to believe that the minivan segment has been commoditized, at least in a mechanical sense. Each van's V-6 engine makes about 260 hp, and power is sent to the front wheels through an automatic transmission. The front suspension is a pair of MacPherson struts, and the rear typically uses a multilink setup. Despite the similarities, though, each van has distinct attributes that define it.

Honda's single-cam V-6 is revised from last year with small increases in output but substantial improvements in fuel economy. Variable Cylinder Management, now standard across the board, is capable of turning the six-cylinder into either a four- or three-cylinder engine during low-load cruising, and with the Touring models' six-speed automatic (a five-speed is standard on other trim levels), the Odyssey returns the best EPA fuel economy at 19/28 mpg city/highway. That's the same as the Nissan in city fuel economy and a 3-mpg advantage on the highway versus the closest competitor.

Toyota offers a four-cylinder engine rated at 19/24 mpg, but that's only a 1-mpg advantage over the V-6 Sienna, and a previous drive with the 187-hp engine confirmed that it's a powertrain best avoided. The 266-hp V-6, though, pulls strongly, with a penchant for low-end thrust where the other engines are happier at the top of the tachometer.

Nissan's 3.5-liter has the power and responsiveness to fit in with the crowd, but it is a touch coarser than the other engines. It is also the only powerplant mated to a continuously variable transmission, which works quite nicely here. With six-cylinder torque, the CVT can keep the engine more relaxed at the lower end of the tachometer, avoiding the buzzy acceleration that we're used to in small four-cylinder cars with similar transmissions.

With its 2011 models (including the related Dodge Grand Caravan), Chrysler has simplified its powertrain offerings from three mediocre six-cylinders to a single, excellent V-6. Turning out 283 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque, the 3.6-liter makes the most power here and could contend for the best engine. However, a lackadaisical transmission means that the Town & Country doesn't move among fourth, fifth, and sixth gears enough for easy at-speed acceleration. It also shifts more abruptly than the other two six-speed automatics in our test.

Toyota is the only automaker without an independent rear suspension in its minivan. The Sienna uses a torsion beam instead of a multilink setup, but it is so well tuned that it performs almost as comfortably as those in the Honda and the Nissan. A bevy of suspension changes have also improved the Chrysler's ride; it now takes bumps and breaks with much more composure. The body structure, however, isn't as rigid as those in the Japanese minivans, and impacts cause more rattles and knocks than they should. Steering in the Chrysler, on the other hand, is the best weighted and feels the most natural, although we doubt many owners will care. They should care, however, that the Honda's steering is comparatively lifeless, whereas the Toyota and the Nissan strike a nice balance, with lower effort than the Chrysler and less feedback.


Seats, switches, and surfaces

The Chrysler's interior is much improved over last year's model, with nicer materials and more stylish trim, but the audio and climate controls still lack the thoughtfulness and integration behind those in the Odyssey and the Sienna. Quality also isn't as rich as in the Japanese vans. The door switches, for example, are illuminated in a dated yellow-green while the center stack is lit in blue-green. We do, however, adore Chrysler's carlike center console that is taller and farther forward than those in the other vans, offering easier access to storage bins and cupholders. The Town & Country's Stow 'n Go second-row seats have been repadded for more comfort, but they still sit a bit low, the cushions are slightly short, and the entire seats shake when empty.

Our Nissan Quest was a stripper relative to the well-equipped Honda, Toyota, and Chrysler minivans, without leather, navigation, or rear-seat entertainment. We do know from previous experience that Nissan's navigation system and control layout are among the best on the market. So it's surprising that the climate controls are poorly placed and too small to be easily accessible. From the driver's seat, the slab-sided Nissan feels a bit like driving a bus, with its upright, faraway windshield and a high dash. In the rear, it feels like the smallest of the four, with tight legroom in the third row.

Both the Honda and the Toyota can seat eight, but if you're planning to use the middle-row center seat, the Odyssey provides a wider, more comfortable chair. The Honda also boasts the ability to fit three child seats in the second row. The outboard seats, however, are most comfortable in the Toyota, with generous padding and a nice contour to the seat bottoms. The materials in the Sienna aren't quite as deluxe as those in the Odyssey, but it has some unique dash graining and the controls are logically placed such that it is functionally and objectively competitive with the Honda.


From minivan to cargo van

When it comes to sheer hauling capacity, the Nissan Quest quickly disqualifies itself. Neither the second nor third row of seats folds into the floor. Instead, the seatbacks merely fold forward, creating a cargo area that's neither as flat nor as tall as in the other vans. There's also no way to remove the seats, which means that, when you're standing at the open rear hatch, the Quest seems more like a crossover or an SUV than a minivan. The benefit is an exceptionally deep cargo well behind the third row that you'll never need to empty to stow the back bench.

The fact that the Sienna's second-row seatbacks don't fold forward is also frustrating. Instead, the bottom cushions tip up and the chairs slide forward into a clumsy storage mode. For heavy hauling, the bucket seats can, thankfully, be removed. Honda's Odyssey takes the traditional tack; the third row flips back into a storage well and the second row either folds or can be removed completely.

Chrysler continues to reign supreme when it comes to versatility. The Stow 'n Go middle buckets that disappear into storage bins beneath the floor allow for a cavernous storage area without the need to plan ahead and remove seats at home. Our $40,090 Town & Country was also the only participant with a power-folding third row, despite being less expensive than both the Honda and the Toyota.


No change at the top

Unfortunately, the Nissan Quest has few merits that set it apart from the others. Although it drives competently and comfortably, we can't help but think that buyers will be better served by one of the other three competitors here. Chrysler takes home the most-improved award, but that's not enough for a victory. Its midlife update has been shockingly thorough, and yet the Town & Country still needs a ground-up redesign to bring the interior, chassis, and transmission in line with the best vehicles in its class. It is, however, the minivan for those who value versatility above all else.

Honda and Toyota build seriously great minivans, and it is really a matter of individual priorities to pick a winner. For many -- maybe even most -- buyers, the Honda is the best choice, pushed ahead by its superior fuel economy and more premium interior. Despite that, I'm choosing the Sienna as my favorite. It's a better driver with an excellent, practical interior, and, at a $3388 as-tested discount versus the Odyssey, it's also a better value.


The Specs

CHRYSLER TOWN & COUNTRY
PRICE: $30,995/$40,090 (base/as tested)
ENGINE: 3.6L V-6, 283 hp, 260 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed automatic
EPA MILEAGE: 17/25 mpg

HONDA ODYSSEY
PRICE: $28,580/$44,030 (base/as tested)
ENGINE: 3.5L V-6, 248 hp, 250 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed automatic
EPA MILEAGE: 19/28 mpg

NISSAN QUEST
PRICE: $28,560/$35,390 (base/as tested)
ENGINE: 3.5L V-6, 260 hp, 240 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION: Continuously variable
EPA MILEAGE: 19/24 mpg

TOYOTA SIENNA
PRICE: $26,610/$40,642 (base V-6/as tested)
ENGINE: 3.5L V-6, 266 hp, 245 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed automatic
EPA MILEAGE: 18/24 mpg

The Perfect Mix-and-Match Minivan

Using an online configurator to spec your ideal car is a fun way to start the car-buying process. But what if you weren't restricted to a single company when building your next vehicle? That's the idea I had when picking the best components from each minivan to make a supervan.

Let's start with the Toyota Sienna body for both its looks and the rigid structure beneath the body panels. While Honda and Nissan have made efforts to embolden the minivan, I appreciate the Sienna's traditional shape with modern styling cues. I could easily live with Toyota's torsion-beam rear suspension, but if we're living in a fantasy world, I'd grab the Odyssey's slightly more supple multilink setup.

Honda's smooth and powerful yet impressively efficient 3.5-liter V-6 earns the spot under the hood along with its smart and unobtrusive optional six-speed automatic. I'd ask Chrysler engineers to handle the steering and hope they threw in that fabulous heated steering wheel.

I'd pilot my people hauler from the Toyota's cockpit. Although the materials may not be as nice as the Odyssey's, the controls are intuitive and user friendly. I'd also love to have Chrysler's carlike center console for easily accessible drinks and storage. For the sake of practicality, I'd choose the second- and third-row seats of the Town & Country. A modest sacrifice in comfort is a small trade-off for the brilliant disappearing captain's chairs, and the power-folding rear bench collapses at the press-rather than hold-of a button. To keep passengers entertained, I'd opt for Honda's wide, 16.1-inch display, with its HDMI input, and twelve-speaker premium audio system.



From the May, 2011 issue of Automobile Magazine (By Eric Tingwall)
 

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Car & Driver (April) Just Compared the Same 4

Guess who won ? :coolio:


2011 Chrysler Town & Country Limited vs. 2011 Honda Odyssey Touring Elite, 2011 Nissan Quest LE, 2011 Toyota Sienna Limited - Comparison Tests - Auto Reviews - Car and Driver



Family Planning: Minivans throw fashion to the wind. But nothing can match their kid-hauling utility.
BY MICHAEL AUSTIN, PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARC URBANO
April 2011

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 model.

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 model.

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 perform*ance 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 in*teri*or 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.

In our most recent minivan comparo, we said the Town & Country’s twin, the Dodge Caravan, would have fared better than a third-place finish if it provided its driver a better connection to the road. Clearly, the engineers at Chrysler agreed. Updates for 2011 include a new, stiffer steering rack and retuned shocks and springs. There are also improvements in noise isolation, including better sound-insulating material and improved door seals. The result is a revelation. Gone is the old Town & Country shuffle, in which every shudder echoed through the chassis. The new T&C is the best-driving minivan of the bunch—rock solid over L.A.’s notoriously undulating freeways, roads that got the best of the Toyota and the Honda. The steering is quick, weighty, and tuned for Turn Nine at Watkins Glen, but we do wonder if the minivan crowd might prefer the lighter steering found in the three other vehicles.

We’re impressed with the interior updates as well. A couple of caveats: As with the exterior, Chrysler designers followed the maxim of “when in doubt, add chrome,” so there is plenty of—perhaps too much—brightwork outlining the abundant soft-touch plastics. The center console prevents the driver from crawling into the back of the van with any ease. Precocious brats take note: Dad actually will have to park and get out of the van to administer justice, should you fail to knock it off. On the upside, the T&C’s center console has plenty of storage, and the bottom section slides back to reveal second-row cup holders and an additional bin.

Of all the high-end features in the Town & Country—automatic high-beams, remote start, even a heated steering wheel—we found most overrated the $320 luxury second-row seats, which are robust captain’s chairs with a pair of armrests. They’re perfectly comfortable but lack the slick fold-flat feature of the standard Stow ’n Go second row. The third-row seats can flip backward into a tailgate mode for stationary, rear-facing seating.

Chrysler’s face lift didn’t fix everything, especially the dowdy exterior. The spongy brake pedal clearly didn’t get the memo sent to the steering, and the T&C’s 70-to-0-mph stopping distance was a last-place 190 feet. The new engine feels good, with much smoother delivery than the instant-on nature of the previous 4.0-liter, but the best power-to-weight ratio yielded only average acceleration. Is it possible that Chrysler’s new Pentastar engine is low on output? Stay tuned.

Give Honda its due: The automaker might be cautious, but it also knows not to fix something that isn’t broken. The Odyssey’s interior is instantly recognizable as a Honda, to the extent that we weren’t exactly sure the cabin was new (it is). Ergonomics reign supreme in this van, with the usual mess of  Honda buttons to control the radio and navigation system made tolerable by their large size. The interi*or employs every spare inch of space for storage, including a second bin in the door just above the map pockets. The Odyssey also features a “cool box” to keep those Odwallas chilled; it’s located between the front seats at the bottom of  the dash.

Most of the updates, such as the Touring’s six-speed automatic, were similarly well considered. This gearbox earned top marks for its responsiveness and, combined with cylinder deactivation, gives the Odyssey a class-leading 28-mpg EPA highway rating. Some of the credit also goes to Honda’s use of  high-strength steel—the Odyssey uses more than any other Honda—which gives it a 135-pound-slimmer curb weight than the next-heaviest minivan in the test, the Toyota. And despite the worst power-to-weight ratio, the Odyssey wins the 0-to-60-mph and quarter-mile sprints, with results of 7.3 and 15.6 seconds, respectively. Not that any of that really matters in this segment. Except that it does—ever try to merge onto the freeway while juggling a tube of Desitin? Then you’ll appreciate the Honda’s lane-owning oomph.

But the Odyssey’s steering—which is a slow, 3.5 turns lock-to-lock and feels dead on-center—could be better. The Honda also exhibits more road noise than we expected (especially after driving the Chrysler), and the ride is choppy over highway expansion joints.

Where the Odyssey really wins is in versatility. The Honda has two child-seat LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for CHildren) mounts in the third row versus a single position in the other minivans. The Honda also has one more second-row child-seat mount than the rest; it’s the only minivan in the test with a second-row bench seat. The middle position folds down into an armrest proffering three cup holders. That kind of flexibility is what makes the Honda so good, even if second-row buckets give the other vans an air of luxury. The Odyssey’s third row is the most comfortable of the lot, and the easy-fold “magic seat” operation makes us wonder what all the fuss is about with the power-folding nonsense.

The Odyssey provides a detailed picture of the current state of the mini*van. Despite a decent styling effort, it still looks uncool. It drives well but not so well that you’ll be tempted to lace up the Alpinestars. But load it up for a weekend and buckle us into one of the rear seats? We’re in. Passengers rule in the minivan, and none treats passengers better than the Honda.

 

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Minivans are designed to move people, esp very young people on their car seat and booster seat. Who would lace up their alpinestars racing shoes and bring children along for the ride? I cant imagine SCCA race cars having a lap on the track with infants on the back. They're uncool but they get the job done keeping young children safe.
 

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Article bolds up the Odys EPA numbers as the highest, then later gives the Ody a 7 for gas mileage and the Nissan a 10, hmmm...
 

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