In planning where exactly to drive the four contenders in this most epic of minivan showdown, our own Mr. Banovsky suggested we go for pie at a little rural Ontario haunt he knows. Who’s to argue against lemon meringue, said we? 

And so after gathering on the outskirts of Toronto we set off northwest. And drove. And drove. An ice age passed. We stopped for a pee… and then drove some more. Finally we arrived in the quiet village of Floradale, ON and Bonnie Lou’s Cafe housed in a former general store. 

For the record, the pie was worth the drive. More important here though, it showed that the ‘minivan’ – long-maligned as the conveyance of soccer moms and a symbol of surrender to adulthood, is alive, well and believe it not, hipper than ever (is it hip to use the word ‘hip,’ still kids? Mine hurts…). Sure, crossovers are the popular choice now, but when it comes to mixing family and cargo hauling needs in a safe, easy-to-drive and practical package, nothing beats a minivan. Make peace with that statement people. We have.

Note that all four of our entries – the Toyota Sienna, Honda Odyssey, Nissan Quest and Chrysler Town & Country – have all been refreshed or completely redesigned in the last 24 months. So, obviously the world’s auto manufacturers are still dedicated to the minivan segment (cough, cough what happened to you GM and Ford?) and in it to win it. On that note then, who does?

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Before you get all huffy about us using Chrysler Co.‘s upmarket $33,995 minivan here instead of the value-leading Grand Caravan ($20,995), we wanted this to be as fair a fight as possible for the Yank Tank, so we opted for Auburn Hills’ most polished people-mover with a price closest to its rivals.

For the 2011 model year, the Windsor, Ontario-built T&C was given a major refresh to try and fix the fit, finish and powertrain downfalls it suffered. With a little help from its new Fiat owners, Chrysler’s done a bang-up job seriously upgrading the interior and pumping up performance. The automaker’s new Pentastar V6 is now standard, making a best-in-class 283 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque via a six-speed automatic gearbox (with a class-exclusive Fuel Economizer Mode, which gets the transmission shifting more frugally). Fuel economy’s pegged at 12.2 L/100 km city and 7.9 highway. All our contenders are neck-and-neck in this department, by the way.

From a practicality standpoint, the Town & Country’s gets major points for its Stow ‘n Go seats. Unlike all of its rivals, you never have to pull a ham lugging seats into the garage to turn the Chrysler from a family hauler into a cargo van. All of the seats flip and fold flat into wells in the floor, creating an impressive open cargo cave in minutes. Bonus, those massive in-floor bins in the second row are great to stowing stuff on a family vacation when all seven seats are occupied. As with the Sienna and Odyssey, there’s a huge storage well aft of the third row too, hungry for hockey bags.

The Chrysler also offers heated second row seats, blind-spot monitoring with cross path detection (handy when backing this beast out of a parking space) and all-too-rare power adjustable pedals. The latter’s ideal for short drivers – and should be legislated into larger cars, but that’s a discussion for another day… Minivan-firsts here include a heated steering wheel and the clever Stow ‘n Place roof rack system, which hinges the cross bars into the roof rails until needed. Even loaded with equipment, a T&C is our least expensive entry topping out at $39,995.
 
All these features though, can’t make up for the flaws in the T&C. There’s a bunch of minor things like the fiddling required with the front chairs to get the second row Stow ‘n Go seats to tumble and the slow, gimmicky power folding third row, but let’s go big picture here: this van is the heaviest of our lot and drives like it. “Lumbering and floaty,” is how one tester described it. We’re not after “sport” here by any means, but the Chrysler just falls way behind its rivals in drivability especially in the city where its cumbersome. We’re not 100 percent hot on the quality, either. The doors don’t close with a nice thunk, there’s rattles and wind noise and some materials are still just okay. We fear what everyday kid brutality would do to the T&C.

Chrysler invented this segment 30 year ago and it’s modern vans now have more features and practicality than most rivals. Now it’s time to improve the basics.

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The Nissan Quest has always been an odd duck. It started life in the early 1990s as a rebadged Mercury Villager. By the mid-2000s the van was being designed in-house, but wore bizarre styling in and out and was hit with quality issue wrought from a move to a then-new plant in Canton, Mississippi. For 2011, the all-new Quest – starting at $29,998 – is still an odd machine, but not necessarily for the negative.

The Nissan ranked third in this comparo largely because of cargo and passenger hauling shortfalls. First off, the third row seats are for Oompa-Loompas only. Second, pop the rear hatch and there’s no open well back there for swallowing beer kegs as in the rival vans. Instead there are just two smaller covered bins (six-packs only?). Third, because neither the second nor third row folds into the floor, cargo volume inside the Quest is at least 35 cubic feet behind its next closest rival, the Chrysler.  

That said, this van’s a total win for empty-nesters or grandparents. Check all the boxes and a Quest – now built in Shatai, Kyushu, Japan – will touch $48,498, but you are getting a machine that could easily wear the premium Infiniti badge without snickers. The leather seats are soft, wide and comfortable, materials and fits are world-class and optional tech ranges from standard push-button start, to tri-zone climate control, Bose audio, blind-spot monitoring and even a clever feature that beeps the horn when the right tire pressure’s reached on fill up.

On the powertrain front, the Japanese automaker’s perpetually award-winning 3.5-litre direct injection V6 is the Quest’s sole engine mated to the segment’s only gearless Countinously Variable Transmission (CVT). We usually rank CVTs down there with foot massages from your weird uncle Lester, but Nissan’s are the biz’s best. Output is pegged at 260 hp and 240 lb-ft.

The Quest and the Honda Odyssey are also the only two contenders in our quartet to bolt in proper fully independent suspensions instead of low-brow torsion beams at the rear, which does wonders for their drivability and comfort.

Ultimately, we see the Quest as the perfect conveyance for empty-nesters or some oh-so-hip grandparents. It would be a fine machine for day-to-day Home Depot trips, etc., but the Infiniti-like quality, tech and comfort (especially those second-row buckets) means it would be the perfect car for that annual Snowbird’s drive to Florida or taking the grandkids to the zoo on the weekend.

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Like the existence of Bigfoot and Emma Watson’s undying love for my pithy car reviews, I have zero evidence to support the following: after Honda ended the S2000 sports car program in 2009, it’s handling engineer was left with little to do but sweep the shop floors and play Solitaire. Then, he heard that the Odyssey minivan program was looking for an expert to tune the people mover’s road manners… The result? MInivans aren’t supposed to clip apexes like this.

All joking aside, the Honda does distinguish itself amongst its peers by offering the sportiest ride and handling in this class. We credit two factors: the smartly-tuned fully-independent suspension and the fact that this van is light on its feet at a comparo-best 1,969 kg (4,340 lbs.). That featherweight means the Honda’s 3.5-litre V6 engine – using only a five-speed auto gearbox and making the least power in this test at 248 hp and 250 lb-ft of torque – feels quite muscular. The six-pot can also be ordered with Variable Cylinder Management which shuts down three pistons when you’re driving gently to save fuel.

A six-speed automatic is available, but only on higher end models and brings a test-best fuel economy of 10.9 L/100 km city and 7.1 highway. The Lincoln, Alabama-built Odyssey can reach $46,990.

The Honda falls to second place in our test-o-rama for two reasons: First, all that lightness and sharp handling (for a van at least…), runs amuck with the Odyssey’s ride and interior quiet. Over broken pavement the kin will feel every bump and road noise is loudest amongst our quartet of testers. That means the kids will have to SPEAK EVEN LOUDER ABOUT HOW SMELLY THEIR BROTHER IS…

Second, the Honda’s simply on-par with its rivals in terms of equipment and utility. A few standout features: that classic 4×8 sheet of plywood can fit in back; you can move the second row seats nearly six-inches closer to the first row to satiate screaming brat… err… kids; a blind spot information system and backup camera are available as well as an “Ultrawide” rear entertainment screen. Not total innovation here, just a solid, safe entry.

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You’ll have to excuse us for borrowing that headline from Toyota’s own ads for the Sienna, but really, kitted out in $36,600 SE trim, this is about the coolest-looking minivan to ever roll up on the soccer pitch, yo. (click here to see TMC’s music video for the ‘Swagger Wagon.’ on YouTube – with nine million hits).

The Princeton, Indiana-built Toyota is the gold standard in our test partly because of its exclusive equipment. The entry-level $27,900 model is powered by the segment’s only four-banger: a 2.7L making 187 hp and 186 lb-ft of torque via a six-speed automatic transmission. Its fuel economy is as good as 10.4 L/100 km city and 7.5 highway. Surely not a sporty machine, but for the miserly family man, a good choice. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the full-jam $49,100 Limited model offers the van land’s only all-wheel drive system, making a (more cramped) seven-passenger crossover look like a poor choice.

Our tester was powered by a smooth and responsive 3.5L V6, making 266 hp and 245 lb-ft of torque, again paired with a six-cog auto box. Because it was the hotted up SE model, this Sienna was also rockin’ the illiest 19-inch rims, unique bumpers, smoked head- and tail-lamps and even a “sport-tuned” suspension, which basically made the van less wallowy, though not quite a corner carver like the Odyssey.

To be fair, not all is rosy in Sienna country. For example, some interior plastics are decidedly low-grade and the exposed sliding tracks of the seats are unsightly and sure to become clogged with errant Cheerios. Details too were lacking: Toyota scraggly cuts the floor carpet to let the seat retainers through instead of installing a nice finisher we’d expect of the brand and the armatures for folding the third row seat intrude into the rear cargo well and are sure to get badly beaten up with said hockey bags. Our biggest complaint though – quite literally- is that the Sienna feels large from the driver’s seat. You never forget this is the USS Nimitz of family transportation.

Back on the positive, the Sienna driver does have a commanding view of the road and best-in-class head- and legroom, as is second row leg- and and hip-room. Even riding in the third row is not some form of torture dreamt up by Poe. Pull all of the seats out and the Toyota has the most cargo volume in our test.

Other Toyota standout traits include a multi-panel moonroof, reverse auto-tilting side mirrors, a tri-zone climate system and a dual-view rear DVD system for Handy Manny and Dora the Explorer at the same time. Bonus points for the ultra-cool removable second row centre seat which stows neatly in the side of the rear cargo well. Very clever and very cool – which, come to think of it, is actually is a good way of summing up how the Sienna won this minivan face-off…