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  • Minivan Comparison -2004 Nissan Quest 3.5SE and 2004 Toyota Sienna XLE Limited vs. 2003 Honda Odyssey EX L-RES

Minivan Comparison -2004 Nissan Quest 3.5SE and 2004 Toyota Sienna XLE Limited vs. 2003 Honda Odyssey EX L-RES

Suburban Warriors: Two groundbreaking minivans take on the benchmark

Chris WaltonNov 26, 2003
Photography by Scott Gilbert; location courtesy Six Flags Magic Mountain

Minivans aren't about projecting an image, though they do say something about the families who use them. These multipurpose vehicles don't focus on high performance, either, even if they can outpace many cars in the same tests. Minivans are here to do one thing: Solve the transportation riddles of the modern family.
Our particular minivan trio has much in common. All three come standard in front-engine, 230-to-240-horsepower V-6, five-speed automatic, front-drive configurations (Nissan and Toyota offer all-wheel drive). Each has seating for seven with power-operated dual-sliding side doors (Nissan and Toyota have a power rear hatch as well). The Odyssey used to be the only one to offer that magic fold-into-floor third-row seat; the other two have it now, and theirs are easier to operate. Toyota's splits 60/40 for even more flexibility. All our contenders feature rear air-conditioning and entertainment systems, which consist of a second/third-row DVD player, rear audio controls, and wireless, infrared headsets (Nissan offers two LCD monitors). When properly equipped, each minivan is rated with a 3500-pound towing capacity. They even all turned in an identical 8.7-second 0-to-60-mph time.
As we've discovered, cargo-volume figures are tricky at best and misleading at worst. Depending on whose method of volumetric measurement is used (especially considering that each van's seating flips/stows/removes differently), we don't place much emphasis on these manufacturer-supplied specifications, but use actual cargo to observe how well each stows.
2003 Honda Odyssey EX L-RES
Honda has been producing the current Odyssey since 1999. Since then, this minivan's content and features have improved only slightly when compared with its competitors. What has remained constant is a bargain price for a lot of space and the peace of mind that comes with every Honda product. That's why we're calling the Odyssey the defender of the Japanese-branded/American-built minivan competitive set--and the one to beat.
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In Honda nomenclature, EX represents the topline model, and L-RES indicates a new option, grouping Leather with a Rear Entertainment System. The base price is $29,900, and destination and handling charges bring the as-tested price to just $30,360. A cloth-trimmed, steel-wheeled, modestly equipped LX example can be had for $24,860. Our tester was blessed with every power accessory in the Honda repertoire except the optional navigation system.
A 3.5-liter, 240-horsepower V-6 is the only engine currently available in an Odyssey. It's aided by Honda's version of variable-valve timing to offer low-end torque and high-rev horsepower. All three minivans have similar powertrain architecture, engineering, and efficiency. The Odyssey's mileage is rated at 18 mpg in city driving and 25 on the highway, while emissions are kept to low-emissions-vehicle standards. The Quest also is rated at 18/25 mpg and it, too, is an LEV. Toyota trumps them both with 19/27 mpg and a ULEV EPA rating. The Odyssey's power delivery is more linear (less peaky) than we've grown to expect from SOHC VTEC-equipped Hondas, but it's the least transparent among this group.
Power is routed through a five-speed automatic with effective, grade-logic programming. While this transmission is intelligent and smooth, the steering-column shifter draws complaints. Moving the dashboard-obscuring lever from Park to any gear (or among fifth, fourth, or third on the fly) is frustrating because the resistance between gears is greater than the detents that define them; it's difficult to select the desired gear on the first attempt without zipping right past it, sometimes twice. It's a small blemish on an otherwise polished presentation, but it's been like that for as long as we can remember. The Nissan and Toyota feature fore/aft navigation through the gears from their dashboard consoles.
The Odyssey has a hard, slender steering wheel that doesn't offer a connected feel to the road, but the chassis itself is still responsive by minivan standards. Though more capable than one might expect, the Odyssey is by no means silent doing its work--especially under full throttle--despite sound-isolation materials that were bulked up in recent years. Road grain, engine, and some wind noise still get through; these annoyances are better isolated in the Nissan and Toyota.
Photo 3/10   |   Though the Odyssey's second-row seats can be removed completely, adding useful cargo space, the third seat row is cumbersome to stow. Fit and finish are Honda-excellent, and even when loaded with such options as leather and a rear-entertainment system, the aging Odyssey remains a minivan bargain.
2004 Nissan Quest 3.5SE
Nissan has been playing fifth or sixth fiddle since it introduced the first-generation compact Quest with 151-170 horsepower (1993-2002). Despite a steady flow of refinements, upgrades, and improvements over the years, the Quest remained relatively unchanged and uncompetitive until it went into hibernation in 2003. With a year off for previous marginal behavior, a new Quest will be on the roads by the time you read this, bigger and bolder than ever. It's grown up in every measurable and qualitative way. The new, uniquely designed Quest joins the ranks of other full-size (full-powered) minivans, boasting the longest wheelbase of these three and a competitive horsepower rating. The base-model price for a Quest S is $24,780, but our fully equipped SE totaled just over $37,000 (as did the loaded Sienna).
Nissan tackled the size, power, and price challenge by styling its 2004 Quest like no other minivan. The company's research showed that an opportunity existed (among a sea of Chevrolet, Dodge, Honda, Kia, and Toyota minivans) "for a highly differentiated product that satisfies all the required, rational needs, but delivers design and styling that connect on an emotional level." Okay, but why force people to ask, "Do I or don't I like the styling of this minivan?" Historically, minivan buyers don't want to make a styling statement, as evidenced by Pontiac's failed attempts with the Transport and Aztek. Perhaps for this very reason, the Quest will be a tough sell--unless Nissan can get people to test drive one. The Quest is designed to a purpose, not to an aesthetic.
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The Quest's interior continues to challenge the observer. Luckily, the function isn't sacrificed to the style. It's packed with clever features like a second row of seats that squashes almost flat to the floor. The benefit of this is that an owner doesn't have to plan ahead to remove the second row when loading large or bulky items like sheets of plywood. The Honda and Toyota do different tricks: The Odyssey's second row doesn't tumble forward, but slides side to side or removes completely. The Sienna's seats tumble forward and/or remove.
What's with that metallic cylinder bisecting the Quest's dashboard? We love the center-stack tower for all its storage capacity and how easily our hands find the table-top controls. It does, however, take some familiarization to locate the driver-adjacent speedometer and navigation screen. On the other hand, passengers will love the four-panel Skyview roof, most generous seating accommodations, and airliner-inspired overhead console.
The Quest's 3.5-liter V-6 from Nissan's acclaimed VQ engine family--powering everything from Altimas and 350Z sports cars to Infiniti G35s and FX35 SUVs--produces 240 horsepower. Our initial impression that the Quest is the hot rod of the group was incorrect, and we discovered a strikingly equal field with effectively identical acceleration and braking and nearly even handling figures. Yet the enthusiastic driver's choice is, indeed, the Quest. Everybody who drives it says its thick, meaty steering wheel and slightly firmer suspension give it a far more sporty demeanor.
Photo 5/10   |   Love it or hate it, the Quest's radical styling ensures that this mini is no wallflower. The interior's innovative details include second-row seats that fold down almost flat and a handy map pocket (left) that pops up just behind the steering wheel.
2004 Toyota Sienna XLE Limited
The second-generation Sienna is already on the road winning the accolades of minivan drivers. It starts at $23,465 for a base CE model, but Toyota loaned us a feature-packed XLE Limited, which tops the test at $37,136. We know that's a bunch of money, but the Sienna is worth every penny. From the moment we sat behind the wheel, we were impressed at how refined, upscale, and content-rich the Sienna has become.
Editor-in-Chief Kevin Smith writes, "Forget the minivan label. This is a luxury car in a high-efficiency layout. The audience will love it." Somehow, Toyota has managed to steal a vehicle away from its upscale Lexus division and nobody's yet noticed. With the same silent, smooth 3.3-liter V-6 as an RX 330, the Sienna runs eagerly but never raucously. Occasionally, we perceive some gear hunting, but the electronic five-speed automatic and engine swiftly find equilibrium.
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If you expect nothing more from a minivan than basic transportation, look elsewhere. The Toyota matches the features, item for item (minus a nav system), of the other two and offers a list of innovations they can't: removable floor console that can dock between front- or second-row seats, sunshades for the second- and third-row side glass, power side glass in the sliding doors, Xenon headlamps, adaptive (laser) distance-controlled cruise control, and two 115-volt A/C power outlets.
The second- and third-row seats are engineered and presprung in such a way that they nearly stow themselves. Likewise, the 60/40-split third row almost levitates in and out of the cargo floor and into position. Both the Quest's and Odyssey's seating gymnastics require far more brain and muscle power to master. An attractive mix of faux wood, leather, and soft-touch two-tone vinyl decorates the Sienna's interior with style and visual interest. Topping it off is the Sienna's 10-speaker JBL sound system, which we feel is superior in range and audio quality to the Quest's Bose system.
If there's one criticism of the Lexus...er, Toyota, it's that it's almost too-isolated from the environment through which it travels. But the smooth suspension and light steering did keep driver fatigue at bay on a 600-mile test journey.
Photo 7/10   |   Is this a Toyota--or a Lexus? You could easily guess the latter after first setting eyes on the Sienna's scrumptious cabin of rich leather, gleaming wood, and bountiful electronic gizmos. Welcome details include power side glass in the sliding door, rear sunshades, and two 115-volt A/C power outlets.
Conclusion
After an exhaustive drive from the Los Angeles freeways to the desert to the coastal mountains to the ocean, we had a clear but challenging decision to make. Can Honda's continued good value, conservative styling, and competitive performance still win when the competitors have significantly raised the bar in every other category? Does the 2004 Quest point in such a bold new direction for minivans that the old standards simply no longer apply? Has Toyota dipped into the Lexus brand to produce a luxury vehicle offering comfort, convenience, and refinement previously unimagined for minivans?
The Honda is still an excellent choice for buyers on a budget, who don't care for edgy styling, and who think bells and whistles are for the other guy. It's a solid, practical, well-built, and conservative alternative to this year's crop of inventive new minivans.
Nissan has taken a risk with its new Quest. The styling (inside and out) will either attract or repel prospective buyers. It won't win potential Honda buyers--they don't like risk. Nor will it appeal to the Toyota camp, who prefer a soft, supple, and silent ride. That leaves those who've never considered/owned a minivan--or perhaps even SUV defectors. Are there enough of these people out there? Perhaps, but in our reckoning, it's a close second place.
Toyota's Sienna better demonstrates a state-of-the-art minivan with its easy-going driving dynamics, unmatched feature content, and just-right styling. It's obvious that teams of engineers worked on the details, such as the seating mechanicals to ensure they could be operated by a small-statured person, even a child. The Sienna's available feature content might outdo every other Toyota-branded product. And while $37,000 is a large sum to pay for a minivan, remember, there's the $23,500 CE model alternative that's equipped with the same reliability, 3.3-liter V-6, amazing fuel mileage, friendly interior mechanicals, and expected residual value. The Sienna might not represent the boldest movement in the world of minivans, but it is several steps beyond what we expected.
Mini or SUV?
In the (large) shadow of sport/utility vehicles, are minivans becoming obsolete? Three American-made family haulers, loaded to the max, suggest otherwise. Some people say sport/utilities solve more problems than minivans due to their off-road abilities. In truth, a small percentage of SUVs are used on anything but a highway. Sport/utilities offer less room for people and cargo while achieving poorer emissions and fuel efficiency and, if you believe the hype, aren't as safe as minivans, which are also less expensive to operate and insure.
Minivans are the best family vehicles on the planet, unless you do serious off-roading or tow a 6000-pound boat. Get past the stigma associated with them, and there's nothing that can match the versatility, performance, and value of minivans. Certainly, you can't argue with Newtonian physics that suggest Bradley Fighting Vehicles are safer, as they're less likely to move when hit by a less massive object. But we know that's only part of an SUV's safety record.
Few, if any, SUVs offer as much active and passive safety equipment as the 2004 Nissan Quest and Toyota Sienna: Four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, electronic brake-force distribution, emergency brake assist, stability- and traction-control systems, dual front, front-side, and three-row head curtain airbags, and tire-pressure monitoring. What's more, the cargo capacity in all these minivans outmeasures Ford's hot-selling Explorer and even the larger Expedition.
Adding insult to injury, all three minivans here achieve at least 18 mpg in EPA city testing and 25 on the highway while qualifying for LEV (or better) overall emissions. The most efficient Expedition gets 15/19 mpg. And while neither the Quest nor the Sienna could traverse the Rubicon Trail (and only a handful of SUVs ever do), the Toyota and the Nissan are available with foul-weather-ready all-wheel drive.
Since 2000, total minivan sales have declined, while sport/utility sales have exploded. Despite the obvious advantages of more practical, less expensive minivans, why have people run away from them and toward SUVs? It boils down to the divergent statements each one makes: "I'm manly and ready for anything" versus "I'm Mommy and don't have time for anything." It's unfortunate; many consumers have no idea what family values they're missing.--Chris Walton
Now that you've read about these three, share your opinion in our related minivan poll: Suburban Warriors: Which 2004 minivan would you choose to conquer suburbia?
Please click on any of the images below to see the entire interior as viewed from the second row seat.
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Honda Odyssey EX L-RES
What's Hot: * Undeniable value leader
* Renowned reliability
* Built-in residual value
What's Not: * Stoic styling inside and out
* Heavy/awkward third-row-seat stowage
* Column shifter needs more positive detents
Don't Miss: Second-row seats can be removed entirely
Bottom Line: Once a pioneer, now a lower-price alternative
Photo 9/10

Nissan Quest 3.5SE
What's Hot: * Not the same old minivan
* Squash-flat second-row seating is a minivan first
* Yet another good application of Nissan's brilliant 3.5L V-6
What's Not: * Not the same old minivan
* Designed to a purpose, not an aesthetic
* Unknown quantity for quality and resale
Don't Miss: Exhaustively planned and designed interior
Bottom Line: Home-run or foul-ball styling will determine its fate
Photo 10/10

Toyota Sienna XLE Limited
What's Hot: * Could get away with wearing a Lexus badge
* Premium interior details and content
* Innovative seating configurations
What's Not: * Most expensive base and as-tested prices
* A tad too-soft riding and handling
* Pricier premium fuel is recommended
Don't Miss: Best fuel economy and cleanest-running V-6 here
Bottom Line: The minivan other minivan drivers will covet

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