The minivan world is changing; in fact, it's been in a constant state of flux ever since Chrysler introduced the first minivan over 20 years ago. Early in their development, minivans went through an awkward phase that spawned such hideous contraptions as the Dodge Colt Vista, Mitsubishi Expo LRV, Nissan Axxess and Toyota Previa, many of which were really just tall wagons. Later, carmakers got the hang of what a minivan really was and most copied the winning Chrysler formula of basing the vehicle on a front-wheel-drive car platform. However, they still struggled with design and style the well-intentioned but difficult-to-look-at mid-1990s Pontiac Trans Sport is a perfect example. By the late '90s it seemed as if everyone had a minivan and some were quite good. Ford had its Windstar with top-notch safety ratings, and Honda had a redesigned Odyssey that forced everyone to rethink what a minivan could or could not be.
As with any comparison test there are ground rules. Only all-new or significantly redesigned models are included. Despite having received virtually no changes for several years, the Honda Odyssey is included in our comparison because it won our last minivan comparison and continues to impress us despite its six-year-old design. In addition to the Odyssey, we have included the redesigned Nissan Quest, the all-new Toyota Sienna and the revamped Ford Freestar. We also included the Kia Sedona since it did not compete in our last test.
They may not be the coolest vehicles on the road, but many staffers here now swear by the much maligned minivan for three simple reasons comfort, convenience and cargo capacity. If you're shopping for a family vehicle, this test is a "must-read" and could save you from a strong dose of buyer's regret. Oh, and we think you'll find some surprises in the rankings as well.
Fifth Place: 2004 Ford Freestar
In many cases, the first- and last-place finishers in a comparison test are so close that any one or two categories could determine the order of finish. That being said, the Ford Freestar finished dead last and it had no hope of finishing higher. As soon as the testing began, it became apparent that the Freestar was lacking when compared to such rivals as Honda, Toyota, Nissan and even Kia.
The vehicle tested here is the top-of-the-line Freestar Limited, which already comes nicely equipped, but our tested vehicle had a few options as well. Let's start with what the Freestar does right. We like the fact that the Freestar offers four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, remote keyless entry and a tire pressure monitoring system even on the least expensive base model. More than one editor praised the Freestar's bulky good looks commenting that it looks more substantial and classier than the other entries.
The interior is also very attractive and is second only to the Toyota in terms of its luxurious appearance. However, start poking around and you can see that many trim pieces are flimsy. There are also many irregular and inconsistent gaps among the dash panels. Our test vehicle was a preproduction model so, just to be fair, we visited a Ford dealership where we found the same poor build quality inside two regular-production Freestars we inspected.
The Freestar feels nice and roomy inside thanks to its generous 120.8-inch wheelbase. In this test, only the Quest tops it at 124 inches. The Freestar also offers a very pleasant highway ride. Like the Kia, the Freestar feels heavy and cornering suffers as a result, but from behind the wheel, the Ford's girth gives it a substantial feel that almost translates into a luxurious ride almost.
Of all the vans tested (and even those we didn't test), the Freestar has the biggest engine. Also, Ford offers Freestar buyers a choice of two engines. Most minivans have a V6 that displaces around 3.5 liters. The Freestar starts with a slightly larger 3.9-liter V6 and buyers have the option of upgrading to a 4.2-liter engine. Somehow, all that displacement doesn't lead to more horsepower. The 4.2-liter version does offer a class-leading 263 lb-ft of torque, but its 201 hp number seems curiously low. The extra torque is appreciated around town but some of our editors found that the big V6 ran out of steam at higher rpm. The Freestar also came in second to last when it came to acceleration, coming out just ahead of the Kia. The Honda, Nissan and Toyota all earned times in the eight-second range while the Ford came in at about nine ticks. In the end, we felt like the power was just adequate similar to the Kia Sedona.
Other pluses on the Freestar include an upscale-looking two-tone paint treatment on the Limited version and excellent steering feel. Ford has also given the Freestar a 26-gallon fuel tank which should make for fewer stops at the gas pump, but the larger engine will likely mean that you won't go as far on a gallon of petrol as in the other vans. We averaged just under 18 mpg.
Although we found the Freestar to be adequately powered in most driving conditions, the refinement with which that power is delivered falls far below the competition. The engine feels rough and is too noisy. Kia, Nissan and Toyota all have smooth V6s the Freestar's felt crude and unrefined by comparison. Compare the Freestar to the superior Honda Odyssey and things really start to get ugly based on engine refinement alone, you'd think the Honda costs about $10,000 more. In actuality, our Odyssey EX with leather and a DVD entertainment system cost $6,000 less than the Freestar Limited. Add to this the fact that the Honda, Kia and Toyota all come with a five-speed automatic transmission as standard equipment and the deck is clearly stacked against the Ford.
Inside, the Freestar goes from bad to worse. As we mentioned, the Freestar's interior looks nice, but the leather seats felt more like vinyl than leather. The seats simply lack the soft, comfortable feel we have come to expect from vans like the Sienna and Odyssey. Ford has also made a big deal about its new fold-flat third-row seating. True, that is a must-have feature in this segment, but Honda has had this feature for years. Being late is nothing to brag about. Toyota was late to the fold-flat third-row seat party as well, but it brought an improvement: The Sienna has a 60/40 fold-flat third-row seat.
And speaking of seats, the Freestar has second-row seats that (in theory) fold down, and then flip forward (as in the Sienna). It took three full-grown men no less than 45 minutes to figure out how to fold the seats down and then flip them forward. All three have been working in or around cars for most of their adult life, yet not one could figure out how to remove the seats. In fact, we even partially damaged one of the seats in an attempt to remove it. As it turns out, the seat must slide all the way back before it will then flip properly but there was no indication of this on the seat itself. To add insult to injury (no really, my back is hurting now), the Freestar's second-row seats are very heavy and cumbersome. Like a few other vans in this test, the Freestar does offer second-row seats that adjust forward and backward (like a typical front seat) but there is so little legroom that we can't imagine a circumstance in which any adult would want to, or be able to, move his seat forward. Even with kids in the second row, the front seat backs are so close to their little feet that they can't help but kick your seat back.
The bottom line is that we feel there is little reason to recommend this minivan. Of all the vans we tested, the Freestar was the most expensive (as tested) even though most of the test vehicles were comparably equipped. The Kia Sedona was the obvious exception, as we tested a rather spartan LX model. Our Freestar tester did not have a DVD entertainment system, navigation system, power rear liftgate, sunroof or premium stereo, but it still ran up the bill just under $36,000. In the end, the Freestar suffered a series of crushing blows, dealt mercilessly by, of all competitors, Kia. The Sedona offers better value, its engine is more refined, it has a standard five-speed automatic transmission and has a much longer warranty. What the Freestar does offer is plenty of standard features on the midlevel trims like the SE and SES. The optional three-row Safety Canopy System is also a worthwhile feature and could make the Freestar more attractive in the long run. At the end of the day, you'd have to be getting a pretty killer deal to pick the Freestar over the four other vans in this test. Despite its few good qualities, the others are better in almost every way.
Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
Like the Toyota, the Freestar is supposed to be "all new" this year. Either it really isn't all new, or it is but Ford forgot how to design a minivan. To me it looks, rides and drives like a Windstar with a fold-flat third-row seat. It's missing key features, like the Kia, and it has substandard interior materials, like the Nissan. But it doesn't come at the Kia's price and it doesn't have the excellent driving dynamics of the Nissan. We somehow managed to break the second-row seat on the passenger side before we realized that the seat must be in a very specific fore/aft position before it will flip forward and rotate back without getting jammed. In 2001 Chrysler tried to claim it had redesigned its minivans when it really hadn't. Now Ford is doing the same thing. Can you say "penny-wise and pound-foolish"? Message to Ford: This is not how you protect your market share.
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
In general, I'm one who pulls for the underdog. But I never thought the underdog in this comparo would be the priciest entrant. I didn't think the Freestar was awful (well, except for the frustrating-to-remove second-row seats), as I found the design inside and out was handsome. But c'mon, Ford, for $37 grand, there should be more substance under that sharp-looking sheet metal. Next to the refined V6 engines of its competitors, the Ford's motor felt and sounded antiquated. No wonder, considering its old-tech design. And although the steering felt solid, the handling was anything but, as the Freestar's body lean reminded me of an old Country Squire. Like my cohorts, I don't think Ford's refreshing of the Windstar should be touted (and named) as an all-new minivan. Good looks only go so far, especially in a segment where perhaps the least amount of importance is placed on that quality.
Stereo Evaluation: 2004 Ford Freestar
System Score: 8.0
Components: The head unit is well placed and easy to use, although some of the functions, like manual radio tuning and bass/treble adjustments, don't work the way one might be used to. The volume knob is nice and big and well placed. Some buttons are on the small side, but these are usually the ones you don't use as much. The main drawback is the dated-looking, green-tinted LED display. The standard stereo is a single-disc CD player, but the real bargain is the optional in-dash, six-disc changer that costs a mere $150.
Performance: Sound quality is very good on this system better than expected. Bass response is nice and loud, but it tends to sound a bit artificial at times compared to that of higher-end stereos. The bass, mids and highs are separated well and that makes for a really clean-sounding system overall. Better than expected sound separation that bumps this stereo's score up to an 8.
Best Feature: Sound separation.
Worst Feature: Out-dated display.
Conclusion: A really good-sounding stereo that blows many other more expensive systems away. For $150, you'd be a fool not to opt for the six-disc system. Brian Moody
Fourth Place: 2004 Kia Sedona
Yes, the Sedona placed fourth in a five-van comparison, but look closely at the numbers and you'll see that the Nissan Quest and Kia Sedona scored very similarly in terms of their final scores. Surprised? You shouldn't be, because the Sedona is like other Kia offerings of late: comfortable, well built and backed by a stellar warranty. In fact, many of our editors felt the Sedona was better-looking with a higher-quality interior than either the Quest or Freestar. In addition, there is one factor that could make the Kia Sedona the number-one choice for many families its price. With an MSRP (as tested) of just $21,410, the Sedona is by far the least expensive van around. If you're on a tight budget (or just can't stomach spending $35K on a minivan), the Sedona is for you.
Our test van was an LX with only ABS and a roof rack as options. However, even a top-of-the-line EX with leather is reasonably priced. Only Honda comes close in terms of value with a base price of just over $24,000 for an Odyssey LX. So the first question that springs to mind when contemplating that jaw-dropping price is, "What am I sacrificing?" The main thing the Kia lacks that the other more expensive vans have is feature content. The Kia does not have a fold-flat third-row seat, built-in sunshades, a navigation system or a power rear liftgate. If you must have those things and money is no object, then the Sedona is not for you.
While there are some compromises, the Sedona has a lot going for it. The Kia has a pleasant ride and the interior remains reasonably quiet but, like the Sienna, it suffers from sloppy handling as a result of its soft suspension. To be fair, the Odyssey is the only van that seems to have found a perfect balance between comfort and sport. The cushy ride of the Sedona is appreciated, but there is just too much body roll when cornering. The real weak link with regard to the Sedona is its steering response. Our test vehicle's steering felt too touchy when giving small inputs, which made for a rather busy ride on the highway. When really pressed, the steering response felt slow and vague. While blasting through the slalom, our test-driver commented that it was the first time in a long time that he was able to steer quicker than the power steering could keep up with. We realize virtually no one will enter their Kia Sedona in a road race, but we still feel the steering could be improved for more confident handling in everyday situations.
The engine is quiet for the most part and even under heavy acceleration remains fairly composed. A 3.5-liter V6 is the standard engine on all Sedonas and it makes an unremarkable 195 horsepower. On paper, that number is far below Honda, Nissan and Toyota's V6s, which make much more power from similarly sized engines. However, in practical situations, the Sedona feels peppy and is certainly adequately powered. This is probably due, in part, to the standard five-speed automatic transmission. We hesitate to call it "underpowered" but in comparison to the others, the Sedona does fall short in terms of sheer grunt. The Sedona also scored second to last in terms of fuel economy (roughly 19 mpg combined city and highway); only the Ford Freestar with its 4.2-liter V6 got worse gas mileage.
Inside the Sedona, the quality of the materials is very good. The Kia lacks the tactile perfection of the Sienna, but everything is well laid out and has a pleasant feel. Our LX came with cloth seats (all other vans in this test had leather), but the quality and comfort of that cloth was impressive. We have long praised the high-quality cloth that comes on Honda products the material used in the Sedona is at least that good. The seats themselves are also comfortable and supportive but not as much as in the Honda or Toyota. Frankly, given the choice between the leather in the Freestar and the cloth in the Kia, we'd take the cloth. While the Sedona lacked power-sliding rear doors, we felt that the manually operated doors were so smooth and easy to use that they may be slightly preferable to the bigger, slower-moving doors found on the more expensive minivans. The Sedona lacks a fold-flat third-row seat and therefore doesn't offer as much cargo capacity as the other vans.
The Kia is a great minivan for families on a budget, and with a few minor improvements, it could become a great van regardless of price. Buy a Sedona and you will have to skip some of the features that make the Odyssey and Sienna so easy to live with. You won't get a power rear door, navigation system or side windows that go down, but you will get a good van for a great price the Sedona is priced more than $10,000 less than the Freestar, Quest and Sienna. But it is important to note that the Sedona doesn't skimp when it comes to safety. The Sedona has a five-star crash rating for all four front occupants and offers the longest warranty of any minivan on the market. With a bumper-to-bumper warranty of five years/60,000 miles and a 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty, Kia makes brands like Honda and Ford look outright silly for continuing to give their customers a mere three years or 36,000 miles of protection. If value is your number-one priority, the Sedona is the one for you.
Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
This minivan impressed me with its value proposition the first year it hit the market. Since then, an all-new Ford Freestar, Nissan Quest and Toyota Sienna have appeared on the scene. You'd think the Kia wouldn't have a prayer in this field, but it still makes for a solid alternative to more expensive vans even before you include its purchase price. It's the only van without a fold-flat third-row seat, and one of two without an available navigation system (the Freestar is the other one). But seat comfort is among the class leaders, as is drivetrain performance (it has a five-speed automatic while our Nissan Quest test car only had a four-speed) and ride quality is fully adequate. What hurts the Kia? Its steering feel is weak and the body rolls too much when pushed. But these are not the prime concerns of most minivan buyers. Snag a loaded EX model, upgrade to 17-inch wheels with performance tires and you'll still be at less than $26,000 while having addressed the steering and handling situation. Not a bad way to go.
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
Here's my underdog. And I'm glad to say it didn't let me down. By far the least expensive minivan in the comparo, the Kia managed to feel as if it wasn't. Quite the opposite, actually. Fit-and-finish is impressive, and even the smallest details were sweated. Open and close the various compartments and the precise click as they shut is symbolic of the overall polished demeanor of the Sedona. More important (and complex) components share this trait. Dare I say the Kia's transmission was superior to the Toyota's? Well yeah, I do it was quicker and crisper on downshifts yet performed as seamlessly as the Sienna's gearbox. It does a great job of making the most out of the Sedona's smooth but not exactly muscle-bound V6 as it's never caught flat-footed whenever you need a burst of power. Comfortable seats, plenty of storage compartments and an unruffled demeanor when running at speed down the interstate make the Kia a great choice for young parents who just can't swing a $30,000 or higher minivan purchase.
As with other Kia products, the Sedona's Achilles' heel is weight; this "minivan" weighs in at a whopping 4,800 pounds over 700 pounds more than the Nissan. The pudginess does nothing for fuel efficiency or handling, which is further hurt by the mediocre tires (which are just 15-inchers). That said, I found the plush ride quality easy to live with, and for around 1,200 bucks I could outfit this baby with a handsome 17-inch wheel and performance tire package that would do wonders for sharpening up the dynamics.
Stereo Evaluation: 2004 Kia Sedona
2004 Kia Sedona
System Score: 7.5
Components: This vehicle represents a watermark of sorts for Kia: Not only is the Sedona a respectable minivan, but who could have predicted that it would have such a decent stereo? Not us and we're supposed to know these things.
This system begins with a well-appointed head unit in the upper-center portion of the dash. On the plus side, it has four built-in equalization curves (Flat, Pops, Classic, Rock) for flexible sound contouring, a large detented volume knob that provides an excellent user interface and both cassette and CD players. On the downside, the preset buttons are too crowded, the topography of the head unit is too flat and there are no steering wheel controls for the stereo. Also, something several of our editors commented upon: The radio's LED display washes out in daylight; even with no direct sunlight on it, it's very hard to read. Several of us kept fiddling with the headlight switch, convinced that we had inadvertently turned on the headlights and thus dimmed the radio's readout, but this was not the case.
Speakers are very generous in this minivan. A pair of 6-by-9s graces the rear quarter-panels. A pair of 6.5-inch midbass drivers occupies the lower front portion of the front doors. And a pair of 1-inch dome tweeters sits atop the dashboard, firing upward into the windshield glass.
Performance: This system produces great bass. If you put it on the "Rock" setting, you get a real boom-mobile. The soundstage is quite good, due to the dash-mounted tweets, and gain limiting has been built into the system, so that even at full volume, there is very little distortion. One bummer: We found the highs and mids (at least at the flat setting, which is where we test everything) muddy and dull, even muted, which detracts somewhat from the otherwise excellent sound quality of this system. The good news is this is easily fixed by kicking in the "Rock" setting, which artificially trumps up the highs and lows. At this setting, however, we found the bass almost too much at times.
Best Feature: Deep bass response.
Worst Feature: Dimly lit LED display.
Conclusion: While this system isn't perfect, it's a solid stereo for a low-priced van. With the exception of the poor LED readout, we found this stereo very livable. Scott Memmer
Third Place: 2004 Nissan Quest
The results of this comparison test are surprising in many ways. None of our editors would have predicted how close the older Odyssey and all-new Sienna would be in the final rankings and none of us would ever have guessed how close the third-place Nissan and the fourth-place Kia would finish on the basis of numbers alone. In this case we're talking about a Nissan Quest SL with plenty of options including DVD entertainment, navigation system, heated leather seats and more.
The Quest's strong points are its powerful 3.5-liter V6 engine, fold-flat second-row seating and the availability of such features as DVD entertainment and a navigation system. We also like the ample headroom throughout the van.
For many, the Quest's exterior and interior styling was a big minus. At the same time, the Quest looks different and there will be many who find its exterior look refreshing in a segment dominated by boxes-on-wheels. Nissan really tried to do something different with the outside of this minivan and we can appreciate that. If you think the Quest looks young, hip and cool, then Nissan designers have accomplished a monumental task.
Additionally, we felt that the Nissan's interior materials were not up to par with those found in the Honda and Toyota. There is just too much hard plastic and rough edges for our liking. In many cases, we felt that the much less-expensive Kia Sedona offered a nicer, higher-quality interior especially in the dash and door panel areas. Like the other vans in this test, the Quest earns a five-star rating in government crash tests.
In terms of driving dynamics handling and power, the Quest falls in just above the Sienna, but just below the Odyssey in sportiness. Although it was not as quiet as the Odyssey or Sienna, our editors love the responsive 3.5-liter V6 found in the Quest. This is an engine Nissan uses in many of its cars, including the Altima and Maxima, and each time we drive a vehicle with this motor we rave about its refined and ample supply of power. Gas mileage is also a strong point, as the Quest has a 19 city/26 highway mileage rating second best in this group. Something we didn't like about the Quest is the fact that it exhibits excessive road noise at highway speeds. One editor commented that her daughter would complain that she could no longer hear the movie she was watching once the Quest hit the freeway. Compare this to the serene Odyssey and Sienna and it's obvious why the Quest was a distant third to its Japanese competitors.
We found the seats to be somewhat comfortable for short trips but they feel too flat and unsupportive for longer trips. Also, our Quest had leather seats but the quality of that feature was far below that of the Sienna and Odyssey. The fold-flat second- and third-row seats are a real high point inside the Quest.
So the Quest lands in third place but still offers plenty of thoughtful features, an excellent drivetrain and unique styling. Really it's the styling that sets the Quest apart. Inside and out, the Quest uses bold and daring styling cues in an attempt to bring some pizzazz to an otherwise bland vehicle segment. Nissan has done a great job of applying that "certain something" modern Nissan vehicles have to the Quest, but in terms of overall execution, this van is outclassed by both the Honda and Toyota.
Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
Like every Nissan made since 2000, this one has an excellent drivetrain (though only upscale models come with a five-speed automatic), confident handling and unique styling. It also has substandard interior materials and questionable ergonomics. The Quest is the toughest van for me to classify in terms of "good" or "bad." It comes the closest to the Honda in terms of driving enjoyment, and it has enough modern features to keep it competitive with the Toyota. But I simply hate the center-mounted gauge cluster, and I'm not a big fan of the busy center stack controls. The engine is among the best in the segment, but the four-speed transmission on our test car didn't shift with the finesse of the units in the Honda, Toyota or Kia. Seat comfort is good, and I like the fold-flat feature for the second-row buckets. I guess this van's desirability depends on your taste in styling, ergonomics and interior materials. To me it's a fine van, but these days "fine" isn't good enough.
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
I know that looks are secondary to function when it comes to minivans, and I think Nissan has a lot of moxie for coming up with such a daring design that's limited by a two-box architecture. But dang, the Quest's looks are just so bizarre! As far as how it works as a people mover, not too shabby. The big attraction is the snappy V6 that should gladden the hearts (and right foot) of those who love something with "great pickup." And the handling is commendable, too, though not as sharp as the Odyssey's.
But unlike the class leaders (and even the bargain-priced Kia), the Quest just isn't well-rounded enough to be a solid pick here. The seats are just adequate in terms of comfort (they look cool but offer zero lateral support). The cabin looks futuristic yet doesn't work well (operating controls for the stereo, trip computer and nav system are exercises in frustration due to similar-sized and hard-to-press buttons). Add in the "ambience" of hard plastic and the annoyance of minimal storage cubbies and who could blame me for not warming up to the Quest?
Stereo Evaluation: 2004 Nissan Quest
2004 Nissan Quest
System Score: 6.0
Components: Our SL came with a six-disc changer. There are eight speakers with steering wheel and rear audio controls. The system offers 150 watts of power and the controls are combined with the navigation system in the center pod area of the dash.
Performance: The Quest's audio system is capable of punchy lows, but highs and midrange sound somewhat muddy. There is little separation, but if you fiddle with the settings long enough you can find a compromise. Compared to Toyota's optional JBL stereo and even the system that comes with the Kia Sedona, the Quest's audio system is not up to par with the rest of the vehicle.
Best Feature: The bass has nice depth.
Worst Feature: Lack of sound separation.
Conclusion: Just a so-so stereo that lacks the richness of the systems found on the Honda and Toyota. Nissan's Bose stereo option may be worthwhile here. Brian Moody
Second Place: 2004 Honda Odyssey
When most people hear "second place" they infer something negative, but that's not the case with the Honda Odyssey. By the narrowest of margins, the all-new-for-2004 Toyota Sienna edged out the six-year-old Odyssey. That the older Odyssey can remain stiff competition for a host of new (and often pricier) vans is a testament to how "right" the Odyssey was from the outset. The Sienna topped the Odyssey in this comparison test by a very narrow margin. Why, you ask? The reason is simple. It all comes down to features. The Sienna simply offers more thoughtful features either as options or standard equipment. Our Honda Odyssey EX was equipped with leather seats and a DVD entertainment system. It's important to mention that the Honda Odyssey cannot be ordered with both a DVD entertainment system and a navigation system.
The Odyssey and Sienna's scores were virtually identical in a few categories with the Odyssey topping the Sienna in such aspects as price and performance. When you compare similarly equipped vehicles, the Odyssey (in general) represents a better value and it's the van that most of our editors would like to park in their own garage when considering all the vans tested. However, the Sienna's side sunshades, split-folding third-row seat, available rear parking camera and the ability to get both a navigation and DVD entertainment system pushed the Toyota past the Honda when tallying the final results. We also found the Odyssey's dash area to look somewhat dated and bland. On the other hand, it's the Odyssey that offers the most comfortable seating in the first two rows.
If you value sporty handling and sedanlike driving dynamics above all else, then get the Odyssey. Where the Sienna is the Lexus of minvans, the Odyssey is the BMW of minivans. The Odyssey is actually fun to pilot down a twisty mountain road. Here's a really great quote from our editor in chief that effectively sums up how we feel about the Odyssey's driving dynamics: "Honda has done a great job of making the Odyssey drive, ride and feel like a big Accord." And that, as they say, is a good thing. The Odyssey also earns five stars in government crash tests.
Under the hood, the Honda's 3.5-liter V6 purrs away at highway speeds and remains quiet and smooth under more aggressive acceleration. We were surprised to find that the Odyssey was slightly quieter than the Sienna with regard to both wind and engine noise. The engine offers plenty of power in all driving circumstances and the transmission performs equally well never hesitating or hunting for the right gear. The Odyssey was the fastest minivan in this test, earning a 0-to-60-mph time of 8.1 seconds. Its fuel mileage estimate is 18 city/25 highway.
The Odyssey also has a useful and flexible interior. The third-row seat folds flat into the floor and with the seat up there is a spacious cargo well that can easily hold a large stroller or groceries. The third-row seat does not fold flat in a 60/40-split fashion like the Sienna, but we felt that was a minor shortcoming. The real weak point is the second-row seat's inability to fold flat. As in the Sienna, the Odyssey's second-row seats must be removed completely if you want to use the van strictly for hauling cargo. The good news is that (unlike the Sienna's) these seats are easy to remove, and are relatively light. Still, it would be nice if the Odyssey's second row of seating could fold flat like the Nissan Quest's.
Still, this is an amazingly good van that only falls short due to its lack of more modern features and contemporary design.
Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
The first new car I ever purchased was a 2000 Honda Odyssey. I owned it for a year and loved every minute of it (I sold it for very nearly my purchase price and used the money to buy a house). Obviously I'm biased toward the Honda, right? Right. But I went into this test consciously trying to give every van a fair shake. After driving them all back-to-back, I can say this with 100-percent confidence: the Honda handles the best, is the quietest at freeway speeds, has the most comfortable seating and has the second-best ride quality. The Sienna is its only real challenger. The Toyota has a very slight advantage in pure ride quality (very cushy), but that ride quality comes at a price in handling and steering feel (also very cushy). It has more gadgets, and some of them, like the retractable window shades, could be the basis for taking the Toyota over the Honda. For me, I'll buy snap-in window shades and enjoy the Honda's quieter cabin, superb handling, palatial seats and still-quite-comfortable ride quality but I'll never fault anyone for taking the Sienna instead.
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
I've been saying this for years, but it bears repeating: Honda is a car company that does its homework and makes a great product as a result. This Odyssey is a great example. This version dates back to 1999, yet five years later, in the face of a number of all-new or redesigned competition, it still makes a very strong case for itself. All the basics are covered a responsive and smooth powertrain, a nice balance of ride and handling and excellent build quality. Yeah, its interior doesn't have the high-end look and feel of the Sienna, but those who enjoy driving will find the Odyssey more to their liking. This is one minivan that doesn't feel like you're pushing it when you want to make tracks on a deserted, twisty road. Cornering is flat, the steering is direct and acceleration and braking are linear and sure. Until BMW makes a minivan (hey, it could happen), this is about as good as it gets for driving enthusiasts who are facing a minivan purchase.
Stereo Evaluation: 2004 Honda Odyssey
2004 Honda Odyssey
System Score: 7.5
Components: The Odyssey offers only a single CD player without the option of a multidisc changer that's a big turn-off. The head unit itself is rather small and some of the controls are either confusing or hard to read. Many buttons are also small and hard to operate smoothly. The Odyssey's stereo gets bonus points for having steering wheel-mounted controls making the confusing head unit almost irrelevant. We also really like the round manual radio tuning knob that makes it easy to go right to a certain radio station quickly without hassling with the "seek" button.
Performance: Sound quality is actually quite good. Great stereos have typically not been a Honda strong suit, but this one is impressive. The six speakers deliver solid, clean and well-placed sound. Compared to the Sienna's stellar JBL system, the Honda stereo is just OK, but like the van itself, the Odyssey's stereo is second only to the one found in the Sienna XLE. Bass response is a little weak, but the good news is that there is very little distortion even at higher volumes. The best sound quality comes when the bass and other adjustments are boosted quite a bit. Highs are reproduced in a clean manner, but many times the mids get lost.
Best Feature: Decent sound reproduction overall.
Worst Feature: Lacks the warmth or pizzazz of the Toyota's JBL system.
Conclusion: A fine stereo for most uses. Audiophiles will find it lacking, while the average Joe will think it sounds great. Brian Moody
First Place: 2004 Toyota Sienna
In our full test of the new Toyota Sienna we wrote, "This van so clearly outclasses other minivans it almost seems unfair." So the comparison test seemed stacked in the Sienna's favor from the very beginning. That's not to say that we didn't give the other vans a fair shake, the truth is we went out of our way to make sure that the Sienna was thoroughly evaluated and that nothing was taken for granted. Actually, the Sienna beat the number-two Honda Odyssey by a fairly narrow margin. But the bottom line is the bottom line, and the Sienna is a better van in many areas. Ultimately, it was the Sienna's lengthy features list and compliant ride that earned it top honors.
Our XLE tester offered such features as side-window shades (a feature many parents with small children cherish), side rear windows that roll down and, of course, the usual video entertainment features. Add to this the available navigation system, rear-mounted parking camera and the terrific JBL audio system and it's easy to see why the Sienna won our comparison.
The Sienna is powered by a refined 3.3-liter V6 making 230 hp, which is slightly less than both the Odyssey and the Nissan Quest. However, the Sienna does offer the best EPA fuel economy estimates at 19 city/27 highway, and over the course of a week the Toyota was consistently delivering at least 23 mpg in combined city and highway driving and often topping out at 24 mpg. Compare this to the Ford Freestar that typically offered no better than 18 mpg. Out on the road, the Sienna supplies better-than-average acceleration and can reach 60 mph in 8.3 seconds a time that put it ahead of all other vans except the Odyssey.
Another of the Sienna's strong points is its smooth and compliant ride, which allows it to soak up bumps and ruts without disturbing its occupants. That said, some editors thought this softness to be more of a hindrance than a real plus, preferring the Odyssey's sportier handling to the Sienna's more luxurious feel. Indeed, the Sienna is a wonderful tourer, but it tends to lean a bit too much when cornering. Although many of our staffers chose the Odyssey as their personal favorite, we acknowledge that the Sienna and its refined road manners would be most appealing to the majority of consumers.
The Sienna drives the point home with a very comfortable and pleasant interior. Again, to quote from our full test of the Sienna XLE Limited, "The Lexus-like interior is probably the most luxury you'll find in a minivan," and we'll stick to that claim. The Sienna's faux wood trim is convincing and warm, the leather is soft and the interior materials impart a true sense of quality in both look and feel.
If you're the type of minivan owner who frequently uses the third-row seat, the Sienna will no doubt impress. We found that three adults could ride comfortably for about 30 minutes in the third row and kids even longer. Even the prospect of two adults riding in the third row of other minivans seems daunting, but the Sienna makes this a legitimate prospect by offering plenty of legroom and shoulder room in back.
Alas, the Sienna is not perfect. First of all, this van ain't cheap check off an options package or two on the XLE and you'll quickly find yourself in the $35,000 neighborhood. There is a base CE that comes well equipped for around $24,000, but the prices climb quickly after that, especially with extras like leather, a sunroof and a DVD system. Secondly, many of our editors found the van's first- and second-row seats to be comfortable at first, but an extended trip revealed that the seat bottoms are too short to support taller individuals adequately. This leads to thigh cramps on longer trips. And lastly, the Sienna's second-row seats do not fold flat and they are quite heavy and cumbersome when you want them all the way out of the van. By comparison, the Odyssey's second-row seats are more comfortable and easier to remove, plus they are lighter and therefore easier to carry.
Like all other vans in this test, the Sienna earns a five-star rating in government crash tests. Even so, at the end of the day it's the Sienna that comes out ahead of the pack. Like so many other car segments, the real deal here comes down to personal preference. Some of our editors found the Sienna to be the best-looking van, while others preferred the blocky and traditional look of the Freestar. Certainly some shoppers will choose one van over the other based solely on one or two features like price or a power rear door or fold-flat seats, but even when taking into account price, size, personal taste and individual features, it's the Sienna that comes out on top.
Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
As one of two all-new minivans this year, the Toyota has the advantage of offering the latest gadgets. Everything from retractable window shades to 17 cupholders to smart cruise control can be had (if you've got the bucks). In terms of ride quality and amenities, this really is the Lexus of minivans. But what surprised me was that in terms of noise isolation and seat comfort (particularly in the second row), it fared worse than the five-year-old Honda. What's up with that? Freeway wind noise and comfortable seating are two primary elements of minivan use, and I can't believe Toyota didn't nail these areas down before moving on to retractable sunshades. The wind noise isn't atrocious and the seat comfort is still among the best in the class, but in my opinion it isn't quite the minivan it could (or should?) have been. The good news? We're talking a matter of very fine degrees here. If you flip a coin when trying to decide between the Odyssey and Sienna, you can't lose.
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
Apart from the expected qualities (smooth performance, a plush ride, top-notch build quality) and a number of useful features (such as a power liftgate and a split/fold-away third-row seat), two things about the Sienna knocked my argyles off. The first (and immediately obvious) was the beautifully finished cabin, which was the antithesis of the Quest's. Where the Nissan had hard plastic, the Toyota had luxurious soft-touch vinyl. And where the Quest had painted-on, rough-textured accents, the Sienna had warm, simulated wood that was most convincing. The second deal maker was the incredible fuel economy of this substantial seven-passenger vehicle. With the trip computer showing an average of better than 23 mpg, I ran the numbers a few times in disbelief but it figured right the Sienna was getting nearly 50-percent better mileage than the others. I realize that Toyota isn't exactly giving these away (a marketplace luxury earned by three decades' worth of solid product), but when one factors in the typically low operating cost of a Toyota with this level of fuel economy and luxury, the Sienna ends up costing less to own than its sticker price may suggest.
Stereo Evaluation: 2004 Toyota Sienna
System Score: 9.0
Components: The 10-speaker, 360-watt JBL audio system is standard equipment on the XLE, but our van was equipped with the JBL Synthesis stereo. It includes a six-disc CD changer mounted high in the dash that loads very quickly along with steering wheel-mounted controls. There's a center channel speaker just above the head unit and tweeters on each side of the dash. Large oval-shaped full-range speakers are mounted in the front door panels, circular midwoofers can be found near the third-row seats and two more tweeters are also mounted in the back. Best of all, there is a big subwoofer hidden in the wall of the cargo area.
Performance: The bass output is not what you expect from a minivan. The Sienna's sub produces taut bass that is warm and accurate without faltering until the volume is maxed out. With low tones filling the cabin, the remaining speakers are able to concentrate on vocals and other higher-frequency sounds. The speaker placement is very good and creates a lively soundstage. The center channel is evident, but does not interfere with the separation of the left and right signals. Cymbals and guitars sound crisp, and distortion is only apparent at high volumes. There is also a surround sound setting on the head unit that adds faux depth with slight digital echoes if you like that kind of thing.
Best Feature: Strong subwoofer.
Worst Feature: Distortion creeps in at high volumes.
Conclusion: The best factory sound system available in a minivan. Trevor Reed
After spending all day everyday with these minivans, we can confidently say we know which ones are the best and why. But like other types of vehicles, personal preference, budget and differing needs make one van perfect in one case but less than ideal in another. The final results of this test should be viewed slightly differently than the hard numbers would suggest. It's best to look at these rankings as more of a tier system. The first two vans, although somewhat different in approach, are clearly the best either one will be a great choice and they ended up close in terms of points. The second tier of vans would be the third- and fourth-place vans. While not quite as refined as the two higher-ranking vans, they are still reasonably competent and, like the first- and second-place vans, scored very similarly. Finally, the fifth-place van is inferior to the others in the test, and in terms of numbers and personal preference just doesn't measure up.
The one thing all of our editors agree on is that the Toyota Sienna is nearly the perfect family vehicle and seems to offer something for everyone. From the bargain-priced CE to the Lexus-like XLE Limited, the Sienna seems like it can do it all. Those of us who are driving enthusiasts prefer the Honda Odyssey because of its superior handling and awesome V6. But in the end, it's the Sienna that has the features, style and refinement that make it our number-one pick. With innovative features like built-in sunshades, side windows that go down, rear-mounted parking camera, all-wheel drive, adaptive cruise control and a 60/40-split fold-flat third-row seat, the Sienna impressed us time and again. On the downside, we were surprised to find that the Honda was quieter and we don't really care for the Sienna's overly soft ride and smallish seats.
One of the real surprises is the fact that the Honda Odyssey finished firmly in second place and very nearly won the whole comparison test. Keep in mind that the six-year-old Odyssey is due for a redesign but still managed to top three other newer vans. This is truly a testament to how serious Honda is about doing things right. The Odyssey's 3.5-liter V6 is buttery smooth and makes the van feel downright fast. The Honda also offers sporty handling, and in many instances, our editors felt that it handled better than some sedans. This is a minivan that is truly fun to drive. The Odyssey also has a very quiet cabin and the most comfortable seats. Despite all of these pluses, the Odyssey fell short of the benchmark Sienna due mainly to a lack of options and features and a dated-looking dash. Also, the Odyssey cannot be ordered with both a DVD entertainment system and a navigation system both the Sienna and Quest can.
While the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna are comparable in many areas, the Nissan Quest was a distant third. The Quest has most of the features most people will want on a minivan, but its execution is lacking when compared to the Honda and Toyota. Like the Sienna, the Quest can be ordered with a DVD entertainment system and navigation system. Unlike the Sienna, the overly stylish interior can hinder the operation of those features. No one is trying to knock Nissan for bringing edgy and youthful styling cues to the rather staid minivan segment we applaud the company's effort and willingness to do something different. As with anything that tends toward one extreme or another, some people just won't get it. Some of our editors were put off by the Quest's exterior and interior styling, while others loved it. The one thing we all agree on is that Nissan knows how to build a top-notch V6. The 3.5-liter unit in the Quest is that van's main strongpoint. The Quest also offers somewhat sporty handling similar to the Odyssey. Because of the strong engine and better-than-average handling, we feel disappointed that only the high-line Quest SE is available with a responsive five-speed automatic transmission.
The Kia Sedona is clearly a dark horse in a comparison test that includes two or three of the best minivans around. Still, don't be fooled by its fourth-place finish, the scoring spread between the pricier Quest and the budget-priced Sedona was very narrow. Although the Sedona falls short in terms of fold-flat seating and whiz-bang power features, it more than makes up for it in pricing. As tested, our Sedona LX cost just over $21,000. Try taking that price to the local Toyota dealer. Despite its fourth-place finish, the Sedona offers a smooth V6, roomy interior, comfortable seats, a fine stereo and an unbeatable warranty. If price is your main consideration, advance directly to your local Kia dealer.
Finally, the new Ford Freestar rounded out the pack in fifth place. So much about this van is just disappointing. The Freestar boasts a choice of two engines, both larger than any other minivan engine, but they lack the refinement of the competition. The Ford's not a bad-looking minivan and appears more upscale inside and out than all but the Sienna. However, once you start feeling around, it's obvious that the quality is only skin deep. The frustratingly difficult-to-remove second-row seats didn't help in the final scoring, either. Add to this the fact that our Freestar was the most expensive van in the test but did not include such features as a five-speed automatic transmission, fold-flat second-row seats, a power rear liftgate, a navigation system (not available on any Freestar) or a DVD entertainment system, and it's all the more obvious why the van placed a distant fifth to the other minivans. Ford also offers only a three-year/36,000-mile warranty, whereas every other minivan except the Odyssey offers at least added powertrain protection.
As we stated earlier, the minivan segment is getting so competitive that we can already see the need to do another test in the near future. The new Stow-n-Go system found on the 2005 Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town and Country is incredible and will likely force other automakers to come up with a similar feature to stay competitive. Even though we did not include a Chrysler van in our test (the 2004 version was no different than the previous van we tested in a comparison), it is important to point out that Chrysler sells the lion's share of minivans in this country with market share around 40 percent. The ultimate conclusion we've come to is that there are many good minivans on the market and most have their strengths and weaknesses. The Toyota is the all-out winner, but don't discount the other vans as some offer that "just right" combination of features, style and price.