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.
Other observations: The Smiths got to ride in both vans and unanimously proclaimed the Honda the smoother riding of the two. The Toyota's rear-view camera seems to produce a better picture, and the proximity lines bend with the steering wheel, unlike Honda's. Both offer two viewing angles, extra-wide or normal on the Sienna, normal and overhead (for aligning trailer hitches) on the Odyssey. Toyota provides a sunglasses holder that also houses a convex mirror to allow both front seat occupants to keep tabs on all rear-seat riders. Honda's nav system was simpler to use and allows programming on the fly. Many navigation options are disallowed when the Toyota is in motion.
Toyota provides a handy cargo net that reaches almost up to the window, preventing potentially catastrophic luggage avalanches when the rear hatch is opened after the tall pile of luggage has shifted. All vans should have this. Fuel economy can't be directly compared, because the drives and loading were quite different, but for the record, the Honda managed 19.7 mpg over 600 miles carrying seven people and their luggage (the computer indicated 20.4 overall, and peaked at 24 during the long freeway slog). Our Toyota averaged 20.6 with only four people onboard for the longer 1250-mile trip (its trip computer was reporting 20.8 mpg). Both offer ECO lights, and I was amused to find that the Toyota's illuminated even when traveling with the flow of Michigan traffic at 10 over the posted 70-mph limit.
A good son/brother/uncle never assesses the limit handling of a van loaded with relatives, so I'll let our earlier findings stand on that front, but the Honda does have a slightly more planted feel on the highway. Both are very easy to drive smoothly, which is probably more germane anyway. The bottom line: The civilians preferred the Honda. I'm still shocked and a little horrified at the Odyssey's mid-forties price tag, and disappointed that its six-speed can't be had for less than $41K. I'd choose the Honda based on ease of seating use alone if I were mostly hauling kids under age 10; but opt for Toyota's swaggering SE if the kids proved in the showroom they could work the seats without killing each other.