I'm a minivan guy. I don't own one and I don't want one, but in my prior career I helped design Chrysler's second-gen minivan, and that exercise involved a whole lot of benchmarking and voice-of-the-customer research. That experience sticks with me when I do minivan comparisons like the one we ran last December, and I still stand by our finishing order. But because this was one of those rare holiday seasons that had the families from both sides of our household visiting over two weeks, I reckoned a real-world rematch of the top-finishing Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna might be in order.
The Odyssey arrived first for the Markus family visit: seven butts in eight seats for a trip north to Frankenmuth -- Michigan's little Bavaria -- plus assorted running around. Then we swapped it for the Sienna during the Smith family visit (six occupants total) and for a New Year's road trip to the Big Apple with four onboard. Our Odyssey was the range-topping $44,030 Touring Elite, boasting a six-speed automatic (December's EX-L had the five-speed). And in place of the "swagger-wagon" SE trim we last sampled, Toyota sent an upper-middle-class XLE, replete with the $6225 Premium Package of goodies like rear-seat entertainment, nav, park assist, Bluetooth, etc. The total: $40,642.
Our December comparo gave Toyota a slight edge in seating flexibility, owing to the fact that the middle row sacrificed very little eighth-passenger comfort while permitting the center seat section to be removed and stowed flush with the side panel in the left rear cargo area. This leaves captain's chairs with a longer range of fore-aft travel than Honda's, allowing passengers to really stretch their legs when only four are onboard, or scoot forward to share the ample legroom with the third row. But our real-world users found the Toyota's seats way harder to move when accessing the third row. The seat cushions fold up so the seat can stow right up against the front seats for wider access and to carry larger cargo, but sliding the seats forward -- especially the left (60-percent) side -- proved especially difficult. When sliding them back, the user had to be careful to stop and latch the heavy seat before crushing the knees of the third-row folks.
Parents of little kids should either plan on always doing this yourself, or letting the kids scramble over or between the middle row seats. The Honda's release mechanism challenged the Mark II, but once the latches were mastered, the seats themselves move more easily and the track stops them before knees are imperiled. Neither van's seats remember the original backrest angle or seat track position when they're moved. With two seniors and a teen sitting across the Honda's middle row, the wide-mode option afforded better hip and shoulder room by repositioning the main left and right chairs 1.5 inches outboard.