"What's the best car?" It's a question that often comes up in casual conversation with people we've just met. Normally, we'll respond with something along the lines of, "It depends on what you use your car for."
But the question had us thinking. What is the best choice for most people? You know, a typical family doing typical things like home improvement projects, picking up relatives and all their holiday gear at the airport, transporting the kids to kung-fu class....
Once we ruled out off-roading and towing as specialized activities, we settled on a framework. The vehicle had to accommodate at least seven typical adults and still fit in a normal garage. This still didn't narrow the field much, as you can find dozens of full-size SUVs, crossovers and minivans that all fit the bill.
So here we have assembled the best and most sizable examples of their respective classes of full-size SUV, crossover and minivan to determine if bigger is better, or if crossing over truly hits the sweet spot, or if the lowly minivan has enough capability.
Among full-size SUVs, we settled on a 2008 Toyota Sequoia SR5 4x4 packing $5,545 in options including navigation, a towing package, parking sonar, power-adjustable driver seat, running boards, cold-weather package, cargo mats and a roof rack. Total bill: $43,605.
GM's Lambda crossovers have quickly made a name for themselves as front-runners among crossovers, and so we threw into the mix a 2008 GMC Acadia SLT-2 AWD equipped with goodies totaling $3,165. A panoramic sunroof, 19-inch wheels, a towing package, fancy paint and a head-up instrument display bring the Acadia's total to $42,180.
Minivans don't come any better than the 2008 Honda Odyssey, still the benchmark in its class. The Odyssey we tested is decked out in range-topping Touring trim and checks in at $40,645. All of the numerous features found on Touring models come "standard," following the typical Honda strategy of bundling options into trim levels. Suffice it to say that not all Odysseys are equally equipped.
3rd Place: 2008 Toyota Sequoia Let's be clear: Had this comparison test included towing or driving off-road, the finishing order would likely have been very different. The Sequoia is a full-on truck, built not on a carlike unibody platform like the Acadia and Odyssey, but instead using beefy body-on-frame construction to handle much larger towing loads than the other vehicles could ever dream of managing.
As such, the Sequoia's tow rating is 7,500 pounds, or two-thirds more than the Acadia. And unlike either the Acadia crossover or the Odyssey minivan, the Sequoia SUV offers a low-range transmission transfer case, giving it unparalleled ability to drive out of spots that would otherwise make it stick or slip.
It is precisely this over-the-top capability that prevents the Sequoia from scoring better in the test of daily use. Since it's based on a heavy truck platform, the Sequoia's heft and height wage a losing battle with Sir Isaac Newton when it comes to dynamic maneuvers and fuel economy. Not surprisingly, the Sequoia is the thirstiest vehicle of this group at the pump, with EPA estimates of 13 mpg city/16 mpg highway, averaging 15.2 mpg during its time with us.
Crowded parking lots are anathema to the Sequoia. Its bulk and forever-long rear doors make for difficult entry and exit and are a recipe for door dings. The cargo area's liftover height is nearly 9 inches higher than the Odyssey, yet the big Toyota won't carry nearly the volume of stuff as the minivan.
Our test truck's running boards are a boon to height-challenged drivers and an annoying obstacle for taller folks, but the fact that they are even offered should prompt would-be buyers to put a reality check on their own ability to climb in and out of an SUV. Ironically enough, the running boards put a serious dent in the Sequoia's ground clearance — one of its fundamental advantages over the minivan and crossover.
Considering it casts such an imposing silhouette, the Sequoia's manners are all the more impressive. It rides surprisingly well and extraneous road and wind noise have been banished, though the lifeless steering makes this bruiser drive even bigger than it is.
Compared to its rivals here, the Sequoia's sticker price buys a lot of draft-horse capability but fewer features — the SR5 we tested is equipped with cloth seats, a manual liftgate and the entry-level powertrain. Still, the Sequoia's powertrain combination of the base, 276-horsepower 4.7-liter iron-block V8 and five-speed automatic is a fine choice, as it delivers a broad power band and cooperative transmission calibration, behaving in a fashion that's reminiscent of the optional 5.7-liter V8 and six-speed box but without the added cost.
Despite contending with the Sequoia's weight of 5,920 pounds, the 4.7-liter V8 manages to propel the big SUV to 60 mph in 8.1 seconds, just 0.1 second slower than the Acadia.
If you're hauling serious mass like a boat or headed for the type of treacherous terrain that truly requires a low-range transmission, choosing the Sequoia is a no-brainer. But for mainstream use on public roads, the Acadia and Odyssey are much smarter choices.
2nd Place: 2008 GMC Acadia SLT-2 Right away, the GMC Acadia signals its clear intention of distancing itself from traditional SUVs and minivans. This is hands-down the handsomest vehicle in our test, as it balances smart proportions with a lean athleticism that's missing from the others.
The level of standard equipment in the Acadia is comprehensive, too. We were able to score an all-wheel-drive version with leather upholstery and still squeak in under the sticker price of the relatively sparsely equipped Sequoia.
Getting into the Acadia is much easier than the Sequoia, thanks to the Acadia's lower step-in height. The GMC's interior controls fall more readily to hand, too, though the plasti-chrome accents scattered about fuss up the Acadia's otherwise functional and clean presentation.
The Acadia's second-row seats slide and fold into a clever stack to allow easy access to the third row, itself roomy and comfy enough for adults.
Once under way, Acadia's 275-hp 3.6-liter V6 has plenty of urge, propelling the 4,936-pound Acadia through the 0-60-mph sprint in 8.0 seconds, the quickest in our test. It sounds both pleasing and odd — the intake burbles, the air-conditioning compressor chuffs on and off and the power steering pump whirs away at idle.
The Acadia's drivability comes up short of the Sequoia and Odyssey due not to the Acadia's engine but instead to its six-speed automatic transmission, which lacks effective grade logic and continually grasps for high gears in an effort to maximize fuel economy. Nevertheless, the Acadia's as-tested fuel economy of 15.4 mpg is nearly as poor as that of the Sequoia. We're a little surprised, as the Acadia's EPA fuel economy estimates are significantly higher at 16 mpg city/22 mpg highway.
What's more, the Acadia's torque-converter engagement calibration is so soft that the Acadia will briefly roll in the wrong direction as you modulate the throttle to crawl up or down hills at a walking pace. Again, the Acadia's competition did not exhibit this trait.
Twirl the Acadia's steering wheel and things improve considerably. It turns into corners quickly and precisely, and you're left with the positive impression that GM has benchmarked sport sedans rather than SUVs in crafting the chunky feel of the Acadia's primary controls. Its steering and routine handling are worlds better than the Sequoia and nearly match that of the lighter, lower Odyssey. The Acadia's chassis reinforces this sense of refinement and solidity with suspension damping that strikes a fine balance between impact absorption and control.
In fact, there's little that the Acadia doesn't do to a high standard. It drives naturally, offers ample space for seven and provides plenty of comfort and convenience equipment than the others in our test. Its biggest shortcoming is on the utility side of the equation relative to the overachieving Odyssey.
It's hard not to think of the smartly styled 2008 GMC Acadia as a highly accomplished minivan in drag, wearing four conventional doors as if ashamed to fully embrace its potential for utility. In the end, the well-rounded Acadia left us wondering what the outcome would have been if it shed its conventional rear doors for sliding ones.
1st Place: 2008 Honda Odyssey Touring Let's talk utility. The Honda is the only vehicle in our test that could swallow a sheet of plywood or 10-foot lengths of PVC pipe and still allow you to close the rear liftgate without placing the center HVAC stack in peril. Likewise, a tall dryer box that slides neatly into the cargo area of the Odyssey simply does not fit in either the Acadia or the Sequoia.
Furthermore, the deep well in the cargo area of the Odyssey allows it to swallow eight plastic crates while maintaining full occupancy of all three rows. In comparison, the intrusion of the Sequoia's rearmost seatback restricted capacity to only two such crates, while the Acadia's angled rear window also prevented it from carrying more than two. With the Odyssey's third row folded down, it gulped down 14 crates to the Sequoia's 12 and the Acadia's 11.
Other trump cards that the Odyssey boasts over its swinging-door competition are its remote power-sliding doors. Whether confronted with crowded parking lots, or if your arms are full of kids or gear or both, power-sliding doors make conventional doors seem downright dopey.
Put simply, neither the Sequoia nor the Acadia could touch the Odyssey's ability to swallow stuff, or its ease of loading and unloading passengers or cargo.
Much of this stems from the Odyssey's minivan morphology, which provides a low floor and squared-off body. This makes for carlike driving dynamics and graces the Odyssey with a more efficient use of interior space than the high-riding Sequoia or middle-ground Acadia. It's a win-win situation for the Odyssey.
However, the Odyssey can't match the straight-line acceleration of the others, and the option of all-wheel drive is not even available. The 4,550-pound Honda's foot-to-the-floor acceleration lags behind the Acadia by several ticks of the stopwatch due to the Odyssey's peakier 3.5-liter V6 that produces 241 hp, some 34 hp fewer than the Acadia.
There isn't a manual mode for the Odyssey's five-speed automatic either, though the smarts of its calibration renders this offense less egregious. Fuel economy of our Odyssey test vehicle landed within its EPA estimates of 17 mpg city/25 mpg highway, delivering 18.7 mpg during its stay with us.
Significantly, the Odyssey Touring is available without the controversial Michelin PAX run-flat tires for 2008, a move that puts $600 in your pocket and provides a more supple ride. Indeed, the Odyssey performs with grace and never loses its composure even when driven with gusto, as body roll is nearly absent and the steering retains accuracy and enough (but not too much) heft.
The Odyssey's low floor and wide door apertures ease access to the second and third rows, and cabin materials in the Odyssey look and feel first-rate aside from a rattly door in our test vehicle, which disrupted the illusion of luxury. The center seat in the second row is a joke, however, so this "eight-passenger" minivan is realistically suitable for seven people, unlike the Sequoia, which has space aplenty for eight.
Vehicle packaging has become something of a Honda hallmark, and the Odyssey — perhaps better than any others in Honda's lineup — exemplifies this, rife as it is with bins, nooks and clever touches. The flip-down center console between the front seats is a good example of this, and it brings serious intent to the phrase, "Don't make me come back there!"
Check Your Ego at the Sliding Door OK, we managed to get through this entire comparison test without a single mention of image. A minivan's sliding doors are nearly universally reviled for representing the exchange of one's soul to the devil of practicality. Even the mention of the word "minivan" causes the inflammation of oversensitive egos, putting the brain's logic center on the fritz.
The irony is that a more effective method for entering and exiting a vehicle has yet to be devised. After spending two weeks in the company of the multipurpose vehicles you see here, any concerns regarding the image conveyed by the Odyssey's sliding doors were pummeled into submission by their overwhelming convenience.
We've compared the SUV, the CUV and the MPV in every way you can with the 2008 Toyota Sequoia, 2008 GMC Acadia and 2008 Honda Odyssey, and you just can't resist the inevitability of the result. Once you consider that the only vehicle here with sliding doors also boasts the most carlike dynamics and unmatched functionality, the minivan is once again the vehicle to beat when it comes to real-world family use.
The manufacturers provided Edmunds these vehicles for the purposes of evaluation.
Director of Vehicle Testing Dan Edmunds says: I get frustrated every time I read a story about the demise of the minivan. I've owned one for several years, and I couldn't imagine replacing it with the 2008 Toyota Sequoia or 2008 GMC Acadia, impressive though they both are.
Our two-kid family lives smack in the middle of the demographic for which these vehicles are designed. We're the ones in the neighborhood who always volunteer to chauffeur, so we're constantly carting around friends, classmates or grandparents. Three adult-size rows are a given.
On that basis, our three contestants in this comparison all fit the bill admirably. But there's more to it than that.
A minivan's sliding doors (especially powered ones) and low step-in height simply make too much sense. When my youngest daughter was 2, the minivan's low floors enabled my wife to install a child seat easily. When my daughter was 5, she could scamper into her minivan seat easily. Now that she's 9, she can open the minivan's sliding door without fear of dinging someone's car.
As a do-it-yourselfer, I have a special relationship with Home Depot. The minivan has served better than a pickup ever could. Bundles of 10-foot conduit for garage wiring, 10-foot PVC pipe for sprinklers, an 8-foot chunk of bowling alley for a kitchen counter, sheets of plywood, a new clothes dryer, a big-screen TV — it's carried them all, and all laid flat on the floor with the hatch closed.
Capacitywise, the Sequoia can't compete. The GMC Acadia lags further behind. And both have a fixed center console that prevents long items from fitting, while their floors stand significantly higher than the van. At least the GMC is easier to climb in and out of than the Sequoia.
If I had a big boat or camp trailer to pull, the Sequoia would leap to the top of the list. If regular snow was an issue, the GMC Acadia might be my choice. But I don't, it isn't, so they're not.
The 2008 Honda Odyssey van rules, hands down. Stop calling it a mini-van already.
Feature content can make the difference between enduring your errands and enjoying them.
2008 GMC Acadia AWD SLT-2
2008 Honda Odyssey Touring
2008 Toyota Sequoia SR5 4x4
Four driven wheels
Transmission manual mode
Key: S: Standard O: Optional N/A: Not Available
Dual-zone HVAC: Everyone likes to be in control of their own comfort, and this helps make that possible.
Four driven wheels: For wintry climates or rough roads, the ability to drive all four wheels can be a must. The Acadia's all-wheel drive isn't on the same level as the Sequoia's low-range four-wheel drive, but for our theoretical typical family it is plenty adequate.
Leather upholstery: Leather surfaces are much easier to clean up than cloth. It's the best choice when children are involved.
Navigation system: More than just map directions, a navigation system is like a personal assistant.
Power liftgate: Open the liftgate without having to place all your belongings on the ground. It sounds like a frill but after a couple weeks of use, it's hard to live without.
Power-sliding doors: Open your doors in the tightest of parking places without fear of hitting the car next to you. Try that with conventional doors and you risk getting dirty while trying to squeeze in the small aperture that results.
Towing package: A trailer hitch and upgraded cooling system are needed for towing.
Transmission manual mode: A boon for undulating hills or if you want some engine braking when driving in slow-and-go traffic.
Personal Rating (5%): Purely subjective. After the test, each participating editor was asked to rank the vehicles in order of preference based on which he or she would buy if money were no object.
Recommended Rating (5%): After the test, each participating editor was asked to rank the vehicles in order of preference based on which he or she thought would be best for the average consumer shopping among the contenders.
27-Point Evaluation (35%): Each participating editor ranked each vehicle based on a comprehensive 27-point evaluation. The evaluation covered everything from exterior design to cupholders. Scoring was calculated on a point system, and the scores listed are averages based on all test participants' evaluations.
Feature Content (25%): For this category, the editors picked the top 8 features they thought would be most beneficial to the consumer shopping in this segment. For each vehicle, the score was based on the number of actual features it had versus the total possible. Standard and optional equipment were taken into consideration.
Performance Testing (15%): All three cars were subjected to all of our standardized instrumented tests: acceleration (0-60 time and quarter-mile elapsed time and trap speed), braking distance (60-0), slalom speed (600 feet) and skid pad (200-foot diameter). Points were awarded using a percentage calculation, with the best-performing car receiving 100 percent in each test.
Price (15%): The numbers listed were the result of a simple percentage calculation based on the least expensive vehicle in the comparison test. Using the "as tested" prices of the actual evaluation vehicles, the least expensive vehicle received a score of 100, with the remaining vehicles receiving lesser scores based on how much each one costs.