by Jeremy Cato

Here’s a closer look at some of the most popular minivan entries, which I recently sampled.

2005 Chrysler Town & Country/Dodge Caravan and Grand Caravan

Price range: $28,205-$46,975

The big picture: A solid, well-priced contender with the novel and extremely useful Stow ‘N Go seats. In fact, Chrysler’s vans have a significant price advantage over comparably equipped offerings from Toyota, Nissan and Honda – particularly when incentives are factored into the equation. Lots of safety and convenience features, too. The Chrysler vans have better driving manners than many might think.

2005 Dodge Grand Caravan
2005 Dodge Grand Caravan. Photo: DaimlerChrysler. Click image to enlarge

On the road: With the 2005 minor makeover, Chrysler says it has reduced cabin noise by 16 per cent with the addition of extra sound insulation. In testing, this model is very quiet, with minimal wind and road noise.

The ride quality itself is quite stable and predictable, with little jitteriness and plenty of straight-line stability. The Chrysler vans are less slick in the corners. They feel soft and mushy and there is plenty of body roll. Acceleration is good, the four-speed automatic shifts nicely (though many rivals now offer five-speed automatics), the brakes are solid and responsive, and the steering acceptable.

Powertrain: The Town and Country and Grand Caravan are sold only with a 3.8-litre pushrod V-6 rated at 215 horsepower. All the key rivals offer a more refined and more powerful V-6 choice. The short-wheelbase Caravan has a 3.3-litre V-6 rated at 180 horsepower. The only transmission choice is a four-speed automatic.

The powertrain is a weakness of the Chrysler vans. The 3.8-litre V-6 is not terribly powerful and gets quite coarse when pushed at all hard. A fifth ratio would help acceleration and fuel economy, also. Using regular unleaded, the Town & Country is rated at 12.2 city/8.2 highway in L/100 km.

Styling: Even though Chrysler did very little to change the design for 2005, these still look pretty good. They also offer outstanding outward visibility through big windows.

Inside, the design is reasonably functional, but Honda’s 2005 Odyssey is much more user-friendly with its high-up-on-the-dash controls and readouts. In terms of refinement, Chrysler’s vans have exposed screws on pieces of the interior trim. Not good.

Size/packaging: Outstanding. The Stow ‘N Go seat system lets you fold the rear bench seat and both middle-row captain’s chairs into the floor with remarkable ease and very quickly – 25 seconds at most.

The engineering secret to creating this one-hand procedure lies in the intelligent use of lightweight materials combined with springs and counterweights. In fact, Chrysler officials say the extremely firm lightweight foam in the seats was developed by NASA for the space shuttle. By the way, they also say the seats can be deployed in more than 250 different configurations. For instance, the rear seat can flip over to tailgate mode.

When the seats are not stowed, they leave a huge storage compartments concealed under the floorboards. These bins open and close quite easily.

Safety: It is possible to equip these vans with a full array of airbags – front, overhead for all three rows and even a knee airbag for the driver. Government crash test ratings come in at four stars for frontal collisions and a top rating of five stars at the side. Anti-lock braking is standard for all long-wheelbase vans. There is also traction control, but stability control to control skids and prevent rollovers is not offered, though it is with Toyota and Honda’s vans. Toyota’s Sienna also offers all-wheel drive as an option.

Bottom line: This is a good van, not a great one. There is a solid value here, though.

2005 Honda Odyssey

Price range: $32,700-$46,900

The big picture: If you like your driving and can afford the price, the Odyssey is an excellent choice. The engine is very advanced and the handling is nimble for such a big van, too. The package inside is very flexible and quite large.

2005 Honda Odyssey EX
2005 Honda Odyssey EX. Photo: Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge

On the road: A much stiffer body shell and refinements to the MacPherson strut front suspension and trailing arm double wishbone rear suspension have improved the ’05’s ride and handling compared to the ’04. The suspension’s bushings and subframe mountings also were improved for greater compliance and improved noise, vibration and harshness damping. Bigger tires on all models keep the Odyssey’s handling tight and neutral.

Powertrain: Honda bumped horsepower by 15 from the aluminum 3.5-litre V-6 VTEC engine. The engine snorts out 255-horsepower, with a torque rating up by eight pounds-feet to 250. And regular gas is specified by Honda. The Sienna can burn regular, but needs pricier high-octane to get the advertised horsepower and torque, according to Toyota.

Just as impressive is fuel economy at 12.3 city/8.6 highway (L/100 km) for the ultra-low emission Odyssey. It is even better in the EX model with leather or the Touring model. They both come standard with Honda’s new i-VTEC engine with Variable Cylinder management (VCM) technology.

The VCM system cuts off three cylinders while cruising when there are decreased demands on the engine power. The system is totally transparent to the driver and passengers; an “Eco” light (for economy) illuminates to show when the engine is getting maximum fuel economy. It improves fuel economy to 11.7 city/7.7 highway, (L/100 Km).

Styling: The exterior has all new panels, but it looks to have been only marginally massaged as part of the 2005 update. It is a pleasant look, but not terribly daring. That is probably what most buyers want.

Size/packaging: Honda added 50 mm to the interior length of the redesigned, third-generation Odyssey and all that added length went to improve comfort in the third-row seat. Twenty-five mm was also added to the cabin’s width. The overall length on the outside – important for parking lot manoeuvres – hasn’t changed a bit. In fact, the new Odyssey’s turning circle at 11.2 metres is the smallest of any minivan out there.

This van’s interior is an ergonomic triumph. The centre stack is located high up in middle of the front console, making it easy to manage navigation, audio, and climate buttons. Dials are at the fingertip. An available voice activation system is easy to learn. And all the materials are of high quality.

Yes, the ’05 Honda, like the ’04, fails to offer a second row of seats that either folds into the floor or flips and folds forward for better cargo carrying capacity. Those seatbacks do fold flat, however. This Odyssey also lacks a telescoping steering wheel for optimum driver comfort – although it does tilt – and the passenger seat cannot be had with a power option no matter what you are willing to pay.

Safety: For safety, Honda is now in the early stages of a global push intended to give the company leadership around the world. So this Odyssey gets standard side-curtain airbags with rollover sensors that cover all three rows of seats. Incidentally Honda also retains six roof-mounted grab handles. Vehicle Stability Assist (VSA) with traction control and anti-lock braking (ABS) are standard across the line, also.

And in an initiative to answer critics who complain about crashes between bigger vehicles such as minivans and sport-utility vehicles and smaller passenger cars, the crush zones in front and back not only are intended to meet or exceed all crash standards, but also minimize damage in impacts with smaller vehicles and even pedestrians.

Bottom line: The automobile journalists in Canada recently voted the Odyssey their minivan of the year.

Toyota Sienna

Price range: $30,000-$52,640

The big picture: A very, very good all-around minivan package. For 2005, Toyota added a base all-wheel-drive model called the CE for $35,900. From its best-in-class five-star crash test rating to its comfortable and useful interior, to its pleasant driving behaviour and good reputation for quality, the Sienna has a lot to offer.

2005 Toyota Sienna CE AWD
2005 Toyota Sienna CE AWD. Photo: Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge

On the road: Toyota’s van does not boast the same level of sophisticated suspension components as the ’05 Odyssey, yet its ride and handling are perfectly civil nonetheless. The Sienna tends to plough a bit in the corners (understeer) and the power assist is quite heavily boosted, making the steering effort feel overly light. At highway speeds the Sienna is at least as quiet as the Town & Country, perhaps more so.

Powertrain: Toyota’s sophisticated and strong 3.3-litre V-6 produces 230-horsepower and 242 pounds-feet of torque. The transmission is a slick-shifting five-speed automatic. This is a superb powertrain. Smooth, quiet, responsive, however the V-6 does require premium fuel. Fuel economy is rated at 13.1 city/9.0 hwy (L/100 km), so the advanced Honda V-6 is better.

Styling: In a word, handsome. The sheetmetal has crisp creases and pleasant shapes; short front and rear overhangs create a balanced look.

Size/packaging: There is seating for seven or eight depending on your model choice. The second row must be lifted out, just like the Odyssey’s. A third row tumbles backward into a well at the cargo area. That last row flips and fold quite easily.

Up front, the driver enjoys good visibility outward and all the controls and instruments are located up high and within easy physical and visual reach.

Safety: The five-star government crash test rating for both front and side impacts is best-in-class. The cheapest model has only dual front airbags, but advanced front airbags and side airbags and three-row curtain airbags are available on more expensive Siennas. Other safety features include traction and stability control, plus antilock braking with brake assist.

Bottom line: A very good van available in a base model for $30,000. All-wheel-drive is useful for Canada’s winter driving.

Saturn Relay/Buick Terraza/Pontiac Montana SV6/Chevrolet Uplander

Price range: $25,405-$43,210

The big picture: General Motors has given its minivans a noteworthy though not complete makeover for 2005 – and added a minivan offering to its Saturn and Buick line-ups.

2005 Saturn Relay
2005 Saturn Relay. Photo: Greg Wilson. Click image to enlarge

The more truck-like design is intended to give these vans a look that says “crossover sport” not minivan. Front-wheel drive is standard and all-wheel-drive optional. The Buick version has an independent rear suspension for a smoother ride and more precise steering, with the others having solid rear axles.

On the road: The Buick version has the most complete suspension package, thus the most plush ride, but all these vans have reasonably precise steering, firm brakes and a decent ride. Lots of sound padding and thick carpeting trim muzzle road, wind and engine noise.

Powertrain: The 3.5-litre V-6 rated at 200-horsepower and 220 pounds-feet of torque is mated to a four-speed automatic transmissions. The optional Versatrak all-wheel-drive system is designed to keep the vans in front-drive mode unless there is wheel slip, at which point power goes to the rear wheels. This is a useful feature in bad weather.

Compared to the best engines in the minivan class, the GM ones have considerably less oomph. Fuel economy at 13.3 city/8.8 hwy (L/100 km) falls well short of best in class.

Styling: The powerful looking snouts up front on the various GM offerings do not really hide the fact these are minivans. Only vans have sliding side doors, so leaving the door track in plain sight along the bottom edge of the window defeats the design attempt to reposition these vans as crossovers.

Size/packaging: The GM vans are taller and narrower than most rivals, with the result being 8-18 per cent less maximum cargo space than major rivals.

The seatbacks do fold flat, but neither row disappears into the floor. There is a built-in cargo bin behind the third row and it is very handy. But the second row when folded is higher than the third row, so the cargo floor is not entirely flat – except in the base-model vans with bucket seats instead of captains’ chairs in the second row. Folding the third row is an awkward process, forcing you to crawl in or stretch past the second row.

Safety: Front and side airbags are available. Anti-lock braking and available AWD are also important safety features. These models have not been government crash tested. The Venture on which the ’05 “crossovers” are based earned four stars for driver and passenger in crash tests and five stars/four stars for front/rear side impact protection.

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