It seems there's always a new "minivan alternative" on the market, so it's easy to overlook the venerable family hauler. We drove two updated vans, which reinforced our view of them as the practical choice for many families.
2014 Honda Odyssey
Bland cars are often derided as "appliances." So when Honda introduced the new version of its popular Odyssey, it was surprising to hear the buzz surrounding it involved an appliance built into it.
The van's much-talked-about convenience feature is a Honda Vac, a built-in Shop-Vac brand vacuum cleaner for our tester's Touring Elite trim. It's located in the rear but the hose is long enough to reach the front. The vacuum parts, including two attachments and a removable bag, tuck away neatly behind a panel in the rear cargo area.
Is it more than a sales gimmick?
Yes. It will get most of the errant Cheerios, crumbs and dirt that seem to follow kids from home to car and back, but it's not the most powerful device. For a thorough cleaning, Lyra — the mom of a 10-year-old — says you'll be better off using a full-size Shop-Vac or a commercial vacuum at a local carwash.
Elsewhere, Honda added minor styling changes to the exterior and some new features for the interior (available safety systems such as forward-collision and lane-departure warning). Other family-friendy features: a 16.2-inch ultra-wide split-screen entertainment monitor to keep the kids happy; a removable bin between the front seats that can hold a small handbag; and a cool box that can hold six 12-ounce cans or four 20-ounce bottles.
We also appreciate the "wide mode" where the outboard seats on the second row can slide out 1.5 inches for more elbow room, and a walk-through option. In the EX trim or higher, the multifunction center seat can fold and become a drink holder and a tray.
So how is this latest Odyssey for the driver?
We're pleased to say that nothing has changed in this regard: The Odyssey still has an almost carlike ride, and it doesn't handle like a large vehicle. The acceleration is crisp with its 248-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6, and handling makes it pleasing to drive in city traffic or through crowded parking lots. The i-VTEC engine also has Variable Cylinder Management that shuts down cylinders at cruising speeds to save on fuel, and gives the van an estimated 19 mpg (city) and 28 (highway) — numbers that are more than respectable for a minivan.
2013 Nissan Quest
Nissan calls its Quest a "family limo." That description certainly fits the van in terms of its distinctive boxy look and the comfort of its interior, which are its strengths. The curious thing about the '13 Quest is that while it's actually slightly smaller in its dimensions than some other vans (such as the Odyssey), it feels much larger. That's fine if you are hitting the road, but not as pleasing in city driving.
Still, the well-appointed cabin makes it one of the most comfortable minivans we've experienced, as Peter found out when he drove our top-of-the-line LE tester to Tallahassee; his back appreciated the cushy leather seats. That trip also showed off some of the van's best features. Peter was moving his daughter back to college, and the Quest was easy to load. Both the second- and third-row seats fold forward and flat. In addition to the power liftgate, there's power folding and recovery for the third-row seats. (Peter's wife appreciated that there was no need to tug on any straps.)
Even though the Quest's cargo room trails some of the competition, it just feels bigger inside; Peter was able to fit all of his daughter's stuff without having to fold down the second row, which only has captain's chairs, limiting the Quest to seven passengers.
On the downside, the van feels huge in parking lots and tight spaces. You'll be thankful for Nissan's Around View monitor that shows the van from a top-down view in relation to its surroundings.
For us, the Quest seems more suited for long highway trips than city driving, but it should receive serious consideration against its more well-known competitors.