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2017 Chrysler Pacifica vs. 2018 Honda Odyssey, 2017 Toyota Sienna

Car and Driver logo Car and Driver 8/28/2017 JEFF SABATINI

2017 Chrysler Pacifica Limited, 2017 Toyota Sienna Limited Premium, and 2018 Honda Odyssey Elite
From the September 2017 issue

You have likely seen the images on social media: iridescent playas, emerald forest canopies, frozen mountain peaks. Beaches and sunsets and other gorgeous scenery, the kinds of pictures that make you stop and say, “Wow, this could be my screensaver!” Except, that is, for the van parked in the shot, sometimes accompanied by its young neo-hippie owner doing Half Lord of the Fishes poses while dressed in as little clothing as the Insta­gram Terms of Use will allow. This is #vanlife, a social-media phenomenon in which classic automotive wanderlust gets whacked with a selfie stick.

These are not those vans. Those vans are vintage Volkswagens or commercial Ford Econolines, campers and conversions as colorful and full of character as their live-in owners. These are minivans, loaded with Blu-ray players and vacuums and three rows of kid-friendly buckets and benches. These are vehicles designed for parenthood and responsibility, their owners having traded character for characters. “Barbie, Elmo, or SpongeBob? Which do you want to watch, honey?”

The redesigned 2018 Odyssey is the newest minivan on the market, the fifth generation of Honda’s people mover. The company claims that it has made the segment’s best seller for seven years running, but Honda likes to count only retail sales. If you look at both retail and fleet numbers, the 2016 title went to the Toyota Sienna by a narrow margin; the Sienna also won our last minivan comparo in 2015. However, Toyota sold just 127,791 Siennas last year, while FCA moved a total of 249,115 minivans split among three nameplates. The Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country twins accounted for more than 186,000 units, with the rest of those sales belonging to the new-for-2017 Chrysler Pacifica. The old Grand Caravan still soldiers on—and leads the 2017 sales race so far. But it’s the Pacifica that represents the latest and greatest from the company that invented the soccer mom.

2017 Chrysler Pacifica Limited, 2018 Honda Odyssey Elite, and 2017 Toyota Sienna Limited Premium© Marc Urbano 2017 Chrysler Pacifica Limited, 2018 Honda Odyssey Elite, and 2017 Toyota Sienna Limited Premium

While brand-spanking-new Dodges are being advertised locally for under $17,000, our test vehicles occupy the opposite end of the minivan pricing spectrum. These fully loaded examples bear prices close to $50,000. The Pacifica Limited has the lowest starting price, at $43,990, though once we added a rear-seat entertainment system and driver-assistance features, it became the most expensive, at $48,780. Our Sienna Limited Premium is missing the advanced safety features of the other two competitors, but still stickers for $47,855. The Elite-trimmed Odyssey carries a $47,610 base price, which covers almost everything you can throw at the Honda, including a welcome new infotainment system.

This is a robust and competitive market, in part because minivan design has coalesced around one formula: front-wheel drive, automatic transmissions, just over 200 inches in length, seven- or eight-passenger seating, a curb weight near 4600 pounds, and a V-6 engine making about 285 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. It has made minivans as interchangeable as pickups and just as likely to engender the same fierce brand loyalty. Still, there is one with which we’d most like to photobomb the Lake Michigan sunset.

2018 Honda Odyssey Elite and 2017 Toyota Sienna Limited Premium© Marc Urbano 2018 Honda Odyssey Elite and 2017 Toyota Sienna Limited Premium 2017 Toyota Sienna Limited Premium: Third place

HIGHS Great engine, excellent transmission, loungelike second row.

LOWS Feels cheap, isn’t cheap; looks old, is old.

VERDICT An engine swap keeps it competitive, but the Sienna needs a redesign.

Toyota’s minivan has been on sale for seven years without a full overhaul. A cursory examination revealed our 2017 model-year van to be identical to the one we last tested. Except this one is a silvery color, which made us think that maybe the gray one we had the last time had simply been parked outside in the sun for too long.

Pulling onto the highway, we discovered what had changed in one swiftly executed merge: A new version of the corporate 3.5-liter V-6 is now underhood, updated to include both port and direct injection and mated to a new eight-speed transmission. This gives the Sienna the most power in our test at 296 horses, and it ranks as our favorite of the three engines. Weighing almost 150 pounds more than the lightest van (the 4583-pound Honda), the Toyota isn’t as quick, but who cares about two-tenths of a second in the quarter-mile in a minivan, really? The Sienna still moves when asked thanks to its quick-shifting and entirely predictable transmission, though a long throttle-pedal travel seems designed to thwart enthusiastic driving. The Sienna’s muted intake noise even sounds pretty good, certainly better than the raspy Honda.

2017 Toyota Sienna Limited Premium© Marc Urbano 2017 Toyota Sienna Limited Premium

The rest of this van, however, is showing its age. Like most Toyotas, it appears to be engineered to be functional rather than exceptional. Its front seats are flat and hard. The lounge seats in the second row have footrests, but this makes the seats bulky when folded and hard to remove. The interior is noticeably inferior, with more hard plastic and a cheaper feel to the ma­teri­als than the others. The wood grain on the dashboard is embarrassingly phony. Toyota will be remedying the Sienna’s paucity of USB ports for 2018, adding to the one currently offered, but we worry that this will just exacerbate the somewhat random placement of switchgear that can only seem logical to someone who has driven a long succession of Toyota products.

It’s not hard to find such people, however, which is why the Sienna marches on. But until Toyota brings the rest of the package in line with its new powertrain, there are better choices.

Research the Toyota Sienna on MSN Autos | Find a Toyota Sienna near you

2018 Honda Odyssey Elite© Marc Urbano 2018 Honda Odyssey Elite 2018 Honda Odyssey Elite: Second place

HIGHS Drives like a sedan, 10-speed transmission, now has a physical volume knob.

LOWS No stowable second row, it’s only one knob.

VERDICT A great-driving van in search of better seating flexibility.

The first thing you notice about the new Odyssey is that it looks a lot like last year’s model, minus the gashes in the rear fenders. After 19 model years of selling minivans with sliding rear doors, Honda has finally figured out how to hide the track under the window trim. Chrysler did it in 1995, back when the Odyssey still had conventionally hinged rear doors. But those Odysseys drove like cars, a trait that we’re happy to say is back in this new one. It feels less like the Pilot, with which it shares a platform, and more like an extra-large Accord.

The Odyssey’s seating position is lower than that of the others, and its suspension does a better job of managing rough roads. There’s too much crash over bumps in the Sienna, and the Pacifica has a bad habit of bouncing over undulations. The Odyssey has a more direct feel to its steering than the others do.

2018 Honda Odyssey Elite© Marc Urbano 2018 Honda Odyssey Elite

Honda offers a new 10-speed automatic with paddle shifters in the Touring and Elite trim levels of the Odyssey. We consider this a must-have, given our experiences with the erratic nine-speed in other Hondas. Unlike the Pacifica’s nine-gear transmission, Honda’s 10-speed unit never refuses to downshift, though it sometimes gets confused in low-speed transitional situations. Regardless, we credit it with helping the Honda achieve the best fuel economy in our test at 23 mpg, 1 mpg better than both its EPA-combined rating and the other two vans.

What Honda still hasn’t cribbed from its American rival, however, is how to make its second-row seats disappear—unless you count removing them to stash in the garage. Which is actually more difficult than it sounds thanks to both a convoluted release mechanism and their hefty weight. Even then, there’s no flat load floor; you have to work around an omnipresent and bulky seat track. While this system allows the Honda’s chairs to slide laterally in addition to fore and aft, we’re skeptical that such a feature would prove anywhere near as useful as the Pacifica’s Stow ’n Go system. Chrysler’s second row has grown even simpler to dispatch and deploy since it made its debut for the 2005 model year; two generations of Chrysler minivan later, it remains the segment’s killer app.

Research the Honda Odyssey on MSN Autos | Find a Honda Odyssey near you

2017 Chrysler Pacifica Limited© Marc Urbano 2017 Chrysler Pacifica Limited 2017 Chrysler Pacifica Limited: First place

HIGHS Excellent front seats, disappearing second row.

LOWS Floaty suspension, transmission hates downshifting.

VERDICT Practicality plus personality make the Pacifica (almost) perfect.

Minivan life is less a lifestyle than mere parental survival. It’s catching a 15-minute nap in the parking lot while waiting to pick your kid and her friends up from hockey practice. It’s driving five hours through a blizzard with said hockey team stuffed in the back after losing a tournament. Or worse, after winning. It’s finally unpacking the hockey duffels two months after the season ended because it’s only then that you need the cargo space to go on vacation. How far away is the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, anyway?

The Pacifica has it all covered. Its front seats are the most comfortable here, and we found them the most supportive over a long drive. While the Chrysler’s steering is artificially heavy, it tracks straight down the freeway as if it’s already had Waymo self-driving hardware installed. And unlike the Honda’s cheapo adaptive cruise control, which cuts out at low speed, the Chrysler can automatically brake all the way down to a stop.

While its Stow ’n Go seats may not be the Barcaloungers of the Sienna, the Chrysler’s second row is no longer two thin pads strapped to an Erector set. When it comes to interior storage, the big in-floor bins that swallow the Pacifica’s second-row captain’s chairs give it an exponential advantage.

2017 Chrysler Pacifica Limited© Marc Urbano 2017 Chrysler Pacifica Limited

The Chrysler also has the best distribution of cupholders and power ports throughout the vehicle. Driver ergonomics are outstanding, and Chrysler’s infotainment system is simple and easy to use, with large graphics and clean fonts designed to work with even kielbasa-like fingers. Honda’s system is improved and highly capable, but unnecessarily complicated with “apps,” settings, and options for customization. The Pacifica may not be the objectively roomiest minivan, but it feels bigger than it is. It has a narrow dashboard, which shrinks the glovebox but makes the front cabin seem spacious; its skinny second-row seat bottoms perform a similar trick.

The Pacifica even has an in-car vacuum now, aping the Honda, although we aren’t so impressed with this gimmick in either van. Nor does the Honda’s latest trick, a surveillance camera pointing at the rear rows, seem like something the world—or the Pacifica—needs. Please don’t feed the helicopter moms.

Minivans get used up as a matter of course. Owners tend to care little about how they look, or at least it seems that way given how many we see on the road that appear to have gone months (years?) between washings. But the Pacifica seems like something you’d want to take care of, with luxury pretensions absent in the others. Its interior is nicer and appears to be better assembled, with more isolation from the outside world. Fancy little touches abound, such as the piping around the seats, real stitching on the steering wheel, and anodized-metal dash inserts. Remember, someone in Italy thought some of these parts were good enough for Maserati to use.

The Toyota has the nice engine and the Honda the chassis, but the Chrysler has more of the things that matter in a minivan. It’s the one we’d most like to live with, even if we have no intention of living in it.

Research the Chrysler Pacifica on MSN Autos | Find a Chrysler Pacifica near you


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