If people can get past the often-irrational desire to see the view above traffic in a macho-but-less-efficient sport/utility, there's a period of life when nothing gets a family's light hauling and transport done like a minivan. It's a fact millions have discovered since this product type emerged almost 20 years ago.
Dodge, the minivan segment's sales leader, sold 242,036 Caravans and Grand Caravans as part of a 1.4-million unit North American van market last year (worldwide, the company claims it sells 600,000 minivans each year.) Although the second-generation Odyssey was still fresh-faced in '01, relative to the upgraded fourth-gen Dodge and its Chrysler Group siblings, it bit a healthy 131,041-unit chunk out of this family segment. The newest kid on the block, the Kia Sedona, went on sale late last year and arrives surprisingly well equipped and ready to go toe-to-toe with the recognized segment leaders with its outstanding price.
How well does the new value leader stack up against the sales champ and the Odyssey, which won its first one-two shootout with the Grand Caravan a few years back? Today's Dodge Grand Caravan eX and Honda Odyssey EX define the heart of the minivan market where transaction prices average $26,000-$27,000. The Kia Sedona EX showed up with a low-ball sticker of less than $24,000, including $850 leather-seating, $595 anti-lock brakes, and a $575 sunroof. Is it "as good for less"--or just cheaper?
Today's minivan powerplant of choice is a medium-size 200-plus-horsepower V-6 typically teamed with a four-speed automatic, although the Odyssey and Sedona both get standard five-speed autos. Dodge's 3.8-liter V-6 propelled our Inferno Red Tinted Pearl eX tester to 60 mph in 9.4 seconds. Not bad. Despite a DOHC 3.5-liter V-6, the same size as the SOHC Honda's, the Kia turned in a barely adequate 10.5-second run to 60. The undisputed drag champ was the Honda, which took just 8.4 seconds to do the same. While we hardly need to point out that these are not stoplight scorchers, having extra muscle is a genuine safety feature for highway merging or handling steep grades, particularly when fully loaded. The EPA numbers for both the Dodge and the Honda are 18/25 mpg, while the Sedona gets a more SUV-like 15 in the city and 20 on the highway. Being the slowest minivan is okay--slowest and thirstiest is not.
It may not go as well as the others, but the Kia sure stops, requiring only 135 feet to halt from 60, in spite of having rear drum brakes. The two longer-stopping competitors feature more sophisticated four-wheel-disc-brake systems. The Grand Caravan posted a close second place at 136 feet. But the Odyssey stretched out its 60-0 distance to 145 feet. Like the acceleration runs, the brake tests were conducted with just a driver behind the wheel. Stopping distances lengthen considerably when vehicles are loaded with passengers or cargo.
Minivan buyers expect an arsenal of active and passive front-line safety features. All our competitors have dual front airbags; Honda offers standard side-impact airbags, while Dodge provides them as a $390 option. Our lower-cost newcomer doesn't offer them at all. The only extra front-seat passenger protection in the Sedona comes from its seatbelt pretensioners. All three vans, however, are equipped with stability and stop-distance-enhancing anti-lock braking; the Honda and Dodge also have traction control. But the Kia charges you $595 for anti-lock, while it's standard in the other two.
Keeping younger passengers comfortable and entertained is a big bonus across town or across country. All the minivans vans are equipped with power windows and door locks, as well as cruise control, tilt wheel, and lots of beverage holders. No, we didn't send in an audit team to verify cupholder count--let's just say each has at least one for every passenger seat.
All three have features that please the grown-ups, too, including alloy wheels, universal garage-door openers, and premium six-speaker sound systems. The Dodge and the Honda also have front and rear heater and air-conditioning systems. All have a plethora of reading lights, with convenient individual controls in the Grand Caravan and Odyssey. The latter boasts second-row seats that slide together or apart (which moves the location of the pass-through to the third row), but we found little need for that feature. The Sedona's third row doesn't magically fold away, as does the Odyssey's, but it does adjust fore and aft for more legroom or to permit the seatback to recline.
There's even more convenience and luxury available in the Grand Caravan and Odyssey, but to keep the stickers in the right price zone, we skipped the Honda's navigation system as well as the costly DVD players. While our Grand Caravan, like the Sedona, came with leather seats, our Odyssey had standard cloth.
Between the front buckets, Honda and Kia offer handy foldaway tables for a purse or loose items for the driver. We like the Dodge's clever removable storage console with a 12-volt power point. The console can be easily relocated without tools to the center foot corridor between the second-row buckets. In a blatant attempt at convenience one-upmanship, the Kia offers two instrument-panel-placed gloveboxes and a storage bin atop the middle of the dash, with a pop-up door. All three vans have storage drawers under the front-passenger buckets.
The Honda and the Dodge are both equipped with dual power-sliding doors. While the Dodge also features an electrically powered liftgate, the Kia isn't fitted with any power-operated apertures. To some, the power liftgate may seem creature-comfort overkill. But few would argue that the power sliding doors aren't convenient when scooping up youngsters caught in a downpour.
The Odyssey and the Grand Caravan have big, easy-read gauges with crispy calibration. Honda goes with austere black-faced units, while Dodge takes the sporty route with a white-faced cluster. The Kia features bright trim rings around gauges that just don't read well at a glance, day or night. Moreover, the Sedona's dash, with its faux woodgrain accents, is trying too hard to be upscale.
Honda and Dodge put their transmission selector levers on the column. This frees up space for swinging out of the passenger or driver seat and moving into the rear of the minivan when stopped. Kia positions its shift lever on the slightly bulging center console and compromises an easy move into the rear of the vehicle. The Honda's column shift suffers the same problem as the first-generation Odyssey minivan: It's too light and imprecise, making it easy to select third gear when you want Drive. Bright sunlight exacerbates the problem, as it makes it difficult to see the instrument-panel quadrant.
All these minivans offer second-row seats you can easily remove without tools (the Odyssey's seats feel lightest) and a wide, flat floor for those 4x8 building-material sheets. Honda adds to this flexibility with what it calls a "magic" third-row back seat. It folds and stows into a bay below the floor, providing room for large objects without fussy seat-removal procedures, back strain, or seat-storage problems. Mazda offers the same in its slightly smaller MPV, and we don't understand why every minivan isn't engineered to accommodate this feature.
In addition, the large open floor bay the seat folds into provides several cubic feet of extra stowage when the seat isn't nestled. The space is perfect for securing things like baby strollers in back. The downside is that road noise from the bay may force shouted conversations between those in the front buckets and the rear bench. And the Odyssey's spare tire is stored under the floor in an inconvenient location behind the driver's seat.
Handling takes on a different meaning in the minivan context; we don't expect them to be able to choose off M3s. That said, the Dodge feels the most agile among this trio. The Honda is a close second and feels better settled than the Dodge at fast-lane highway speeds. The Sedona rides a touch trucklike with suspension booming and some unsprung weight problems. It also posted the slowest pass through our high-speed handling course by a hefty margin.
Our conclusion is that, as with many things, you get what you pay for. The Sedona shouldn't be considered inferior. It costs less and gives less, though from a pure size and stuff-holding standpoint, it's all about a wash. The question of which of the two segment leaders to choose is less clear than it was last time we paired off the Grand Caravan and Odyssey. Indeed, we couldn't agree on a winner (see sidebar). Interior features are important, but competition has escalated to the point where minivan-makers are offering things customers aren't asking for. How do you judge the relative value of the Honda's foldaway seat versus the Dodge's power rear tailgate? Performance and utility are so close between the Grand Caravan and the Odyssey, the choice will depend more on such intangibles as which brand you prefer, which one just feels better to you, and who offers you the best deal.
Agreeing To Disagree
What does a bachelor know about minivans? Enough to hold two conflicting opinions of them. One is that, unless you have more than two kids, I don't see why you wouldn't buy a $21,000 midsize sedan instead; the other is that minivans as practical family appliances should be available to the average family for no more than $21,000. So, the Sedona should be my pick on price alone. But I don't think Kia is ready for prime time; the Sedona is too sluggish, with ride and handling that feel unsettled.
The Grand Caravan is a good hauler with exceptional handling, and it deserves to be at the top of the segment. The Odyssey is noisy, and I was dubious about the quality of the first-year models, but it's my choice, by a hair. The Honda's quick, sophisticated 3.5-liter V-6 has plenty of power for confident freeway merges, and it has the handiest third-row seat in the game. Plus, its front-row-center tray is more convenient than the Dodge's gimmicky moveable center console. Good reasons why Honda hasn't been forced to offer any incentives on the Odyssey.--T.L.
The Korean-built Sedona presents an impressive price challenge to its competitors, but it comes at the expense of many cool features that aren't offered. The Sedona lacks powertrain grunt and weighs too much. It has noticeable handling, ride noise, and ride-comfort penalties. But like several other Kia products, its long-term warranty, significant value message, and steadily increasing quality force comparisons with segment leaders.
The Honda just edges the Dodge on engine muscle, navigation system availability, the fold-into-the-floor rear bench, and reliability reputation. Over the past year or so, the Chrysler Group has put as much as $3000 on the hood of certain Caravan models, along with zero-percent financing. The Sedona recently offered a $1000 customer incentive and 3.9-percent financing. Yet, the much-in-demand Honda needn't offer any such spiffs. Do the math: The Dodge is a terrific value factoring in possible incentives, its sweeter interior and exterior styling, the better ride comfort, and interior quiet. I say, Go Caravan.--J.K.