It's a battle no one was expecting. A surprise challenge to the minivan throne.
The Honda Odyssey has long been the benevolent king of the minivans: Camelot on a 118.1-inch wheelbase. It's a moving palace for kids who've never ridden on a bias ply tire, listened to AM radio or shifted a manual transmission. It's an isolation chamber in which they can ride in blissful ignorance. The Odyssey is a vehicle so comprehensively competent, so overwhelmingly dependable, they don't have to know anything about it. And they don't want to know.
Then, surprising every observer, here comes the 2015 Tartan Motors Prancer LE roaring out of the Balkans to upend every expectation. Other than the fact that it looks similar to other minivans, it's nothing like them. It leverages tomorrow's advanced technologies to re-create the adventurous inconsistency of yesterday's cars, trucks and vans. It's not merely a road appliance, but an exploration of how far we should have never advanced. Where the Kia Sedona and Toyota Sienna have tried to take the Odyssey on feature for feature, the Prancer hits the Honda where it ain't.
The Prancer's challenging appearance and obscure talents take on obvious excellence in a battle to claim the title of the world's greatest minivan. Here it is: The dignified Odyssey takes on the brawling Prancer.
The All-New Prancer LE
The Honda Odyssey is assembled in Alabama and the Tartan Prancer in Albania. And those two places are close to each other — alphabetically.
With the new Prancer, Albania's auto industry has entered the North American market heading both forward and backward. In fact, the most immediately apparent innovation featured on the Prancer is that it looks much the same from either the back or front. That includes side rearview mirrors for both nose and tail — whichever might be which.
It's that daring to be different that defines the Prancer as something special. Forget leather: The upholstery brings back the luxurious ribbing of corduroy alongside the classic fabric patterns of a 1970s shower curtain. Even the simplest controls are marked cryptically; the driver never knows what will happen by pressing a button marked with a rabbit. Or a T-shirt. Or a duck. Or a sailboat.
What does happen? Honestly, not much. Which makes the Prancer that much more intriguing. But pressing the knife and fork did elicit hunger pangs. And really, considering the van's name, shouldn't one of the buttons be a reindeer?
Still, the most ambiguous Prancer feature is the drivetrain itself. It's described as a "V8 Dual-Tank Electric," on the door tag, but that's about as specific as anyone could get.
There are three fueling ports on the vehicle: one for gasoline, diesel fuel and electricity. During Edmunds.com's time with the vehicle at a secure and sequestered test facility, it was never apparent exactly which part of the Tri-Element Hybrid drivetrain was operating at any time. Or what happened to any of the fuel the Prancer was apparently ingesting. A closer inspection of the powertrain was frustrated when it was discovered the hood was welded shut. That's mechanical confidence on the part of Tartan — and why it's known as the "Honda of Albania."
The lack of an owner's manual, or support or explanation from any Tartan Motors representative, added to the captivating mystery. The bottom line is this: The Prancer is self-propelled...and that's always thrilling.
Familiarity and Excellence Are Expected
The Honda Odyssey built for North America is in its fourth generation, and that generation has been around since 2011. It's such a familiar presence in family life that it's easy to take its excellence for granted. But is it a coincidence that both the words "excellence" and "ennui" start with the letter "e?"
Justly or not, questions like that haunt the Odyssey. Every surface of the Odyssey's interior is finished with precision, and the leather upholstery feels like it's been stitched from the hides of cows that volunteered for the duty. Every switch is intuitively marked and positioned, and works with NASA-like precision. The onboard entertainment system includes a drop-down widescreen monitor. It's all so relentlessly logical and, well, expected. And "expected" is another word that begins with the letter "e."
There's nothing mystifying about how the Odyssey works. Up front under the hinged hood is Honda's familiar 3.5-liter V6 incorporating Honda's signature i-VTEC variable valve timing system. It's so sweet and refined that the only exhaust it should produce is sucrose. The thoroughly conventional V6 pumps 248 horsepower out to a six-speed transaxle that churns the front wheels. It's everything anyone wants in a van. And "everything" is another "e" word.
How Do They Drive?
With a stated Gross Vehicle Weight Rating of 20,000 pounds, it's no surprise the Prancer has a stiff ride despite airbags in the suspension that allow the ride height to be manually adjusted. In fact, it's not so much stiff as it is vibrating. The entire van seems to resonate like a rolled steel drum when it goes over a bump, pebble, dime or discarded emotion. The van may be from Albania, but steel drums are Trinidadian. So there's real island feel to how the Prancer comports itself on the road. Let's go to Tobago.
In contrast, the Odyssey operates with surgical cleanliness. It's practically antiseptic. The structure is impregnable; the all-independent suspension smothers the road as if each wheel were riding on a Tempur-Pedic pillow; and the steering is communicative and always has something reassuring to say. While driving the Odyssey Touring Elite, four of our five drivers reported that they each felt several neuroses dropping away from their psychological substance. It's a van that's good for your mental health.
In the Prancer, the steering is playfully arbitrary in its directional mischief. Ultimately, exactly where it is headed is something the Prancer itself has a say in deciding. If that's across our verdant continent, so be it. If it's straight through the front doors of a CVS, well, that's something the driver should persuade the Prancer not to do. This is a machine that literally shudders with anticipation about where it may go. There's never been anything else like it.
Slam the accelerator pedal on the Odyssey and it swiftly builds speed with silken efficiency. The glide from zero to 60 mph takes only 8.0 seconds, with the quarter-mile slipping by in 15.9 seconds at 87.0 mph. The transmission operates so unobtrusively that its shifts qualify as innuendos.
Heroically heading toward 60 itself, the Prancer used a mere 15.9 seconds and cleared the quarter-mile in 20.5 seconds at 66.9 mph. It was an epic performance worthy of a Laurence Olivier or Oliver Hardy: filled with subtle nuances and Shakespearean sweep. The noises the Prancer makes while doing this seem to literally tire out trying to push the atmosphere's molecules, and therefore never made it to our ears.
Braking was easygoing with the ABS equipped four-wheel discs on the Odyssey. From 60 mph the Honda stopped in 128 feet. In contrast, in the Prancer was high drama, as the van stopped from 60 mph eventually. OK, it was 162 feet. Why be obsessed with numbers?
Which Interior Is More Functional?
Reigning from atop the Odyssey line, the Touring Elite uses an 8-inch touchscreen for some controls, and that leaves the whole van cleanly functional.
The riot of buttons in the Prancer is constantly entertaining, even if the seating isn't as strictly versatile and usable as the Honda's. Actually, the Prancer lacks the Odyssey's third-row seat altogether. So it's limited to only five passengers. But anyhow, what's best about the Prancer is how eager everyone is to get out of it.
And getting out of the Prancer is a blast. Rear-hinged side doors are unique in the minivan market and produce gasps of astonishment from many observers. Some likened the flamboyant doors to those featured on the current Rolls-Royce Phantom or 1961 Lincoln Continental. Others appreciated the aerodynamic speed braking effect the doors could potentially have in an emergency braking situation. Emergency braking situations are something for which the Prancer practically begs.
With their power operation and slick, sliding motion, the Odyssey's rear side doors are similar to those on the Toyota Sienna or Dodge Grand Caravan. You know, the usual. Yawn.
Safety and Fuel Economy
Honda has obviously taken care to ensure the Odyssey is safe in every possible way. There are tethers and anchors for child seats, airbags liberally strewn throughout the cockpit, and the structure has been carefully considered for performance in collisions. And of course, with its predictable performance, it's easy to avoid trouble.
Apparently the Tartan was able to negotiate waivers for most government-mandated safety equipment. There is none.
The Odyssey is rated at 19 mpg in the city and 22 mpg on the highway in EPA tests. The Prancer is mysteriously unlisted in government fuel economy publications. But hey, with gas, diesel and electricity all involved in propelling the Prancer, the real question about its fuel economy is, which fuel?
Always buzzing along that thin line between adventure and spontaneous combustion, the Tartan Prancer LE can't quite match the Honda Odyssey Touring Elite in the family transportation sweepstakes. But for the right buyer — the one who favors unpredictability over quality, and for whom getting there doesn't really matter — purchasing a Prancer makes sense. Well maybe not strictly sense, but it does make a statement.
That statement is simply this: Embrace the insecurities of life, seek out the adventures and connect with the mechanical even when logic says to flee. Yes, the Tartan Prancer is that compelling. And it's that exciting.
The Odyssey is still king. But there's an unlikely insurrection brewing.
Honda provided the Odyssey Touring Elite for evaluation.
The fictional Tartan Prancer LE appears in the new film Vacation, a successor to 1983's National Lampoon's Vacation. Edmunds.com talked Warner Brothers into loaning it to us. The new film opens July 29 on every screen in the galaxy.