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The Great Mini-Van Wars Of Aught Ten

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On: Mon, Jun 21, 2010 at 4:58PM | By: John Welch


The Great Mini-Van Wars Of Aught Ten

Over the decades there has been many a bloody struggle for supremacy over one segment of the car industry or another. In the late sixties, as we have all been told, Ford and Chevy were at each other’s throats over these "muscle car" thingees. Then we had the war to make the worst car possible. That one lasted through three decades, from '72 until '98 or so. The arms race for the dual-clutch 8-speed transmission is a current hot bed of automaker blood thirst. Bigger wheels, more rows of seating, fancier badges, higher fuel economy, the most towing power, the least drag coefficient. Many things can set a war off, and once the fuse is lit, almost nothing can stop it. Sheesh, the last Mini-Van War went for years; beginning in 1984 with the release of the first Chrysler Mini-Vans. This conflict involved almost every major automaker, and ended only when the SUV swooped in and extinguished all use anyone had for Mini-Vans in general.

Here we are again, on the battlefield of the most recent Auto-Conflict, the war to produce the sweetest Mini-Van. The players are fewer this time around; not because Mini-Vans aren't made by more companies, but because those vans are all garbage afterthoughts thrown together for the sole purpose of filling a hole in a line-up. The newest Chryslers have interesting seating, but otherwise are total crap. Does Ford make the Windstar anymore? How about GM and the awful Venture/Transpost? The Ford Flex and Chevy Traverse/GMC Acadia/ Buick Enclave have taken the place of those less-than-celebrated bread boxes. The Hyundai Entourage and Kia Sedona are outdated. The VW Routan? Give me a break.

There are more vehicles that could be considered Mini-Vans but really aren't. Box-mobiles like the Scion xB and Kia Soul come to mind. Along with the Kia Rondo and Mazda 5, these vehicles are just to small to be considered "vans", even if they fit the "mini" part nicely. The Ford TransitConnect is all work and no DVD screens, and the Mercedes R-Class is way out of this price league.

That leaves us with the major participants in this particular marketing/motor/innovative seating scuffle, Honda, Toyota and soon to be Nissan. We have covered the new Toyota Sienna in this blog before, finding it's styling to be fresh and its options plentiful. Read that report here. The Nissan Quest is several months away from its introduction, but from the looks of its teaser photos it may be stimulating in a "FordFlexGiantBox" sort of way. Drew hates the grill though, and I don't find the "yards of chrome" treatment to be all that appealing. We will reserve judgment until the vehicle is actually released.

. . . Bringing us to the perennial Mini Van favorite, the Honda Odyssey. In recent years the Honda has led the pack in horsepower, handling and overall people-moving ability. The problem has always been the existence of the SUV and the American ego. Fortunately for the Odyssey, Americans are also gullible, and sometimes we will use that gullibility to warp the sensibility of our ego's. No longer is it gay to be seen in a Mini-Van, mostly because it is pure evil to be seen in a full size SUV. Considering the space limitations of cross-over’s, and the fact that most of them are no more useful than a Mini-Van off road, SUV customers who can no longer stomach the fuel bill but still need space for ply-wood and kiddies are left with few options that don't sound like "Gini-Tan". Or "Winnie-Can". Or "Vinnie-Span".

Being the newest offering for the Mini-Van fracas, the Honda Odyssey has received several weird and wonderful design updates that we need to take a closer look at . . .

It is pretty safe to say that the Odyssey is a unique design, expressive even. It could be just plain weird, depending on your point of view. Honda has come up with a lot of weird stuff lately, the CrossTour being the obvious benchmark for the Odyssey’s styling. No one ever accused the CrossTour of being "beautiful" and certainly won't say that about the Odyssey either. The Odyssey comes off as a Picasso gone wrong. All messy angles that connect at the wrong places and strange, non linear shapes. Possibly confusing.

Then again, I can find functionality in all of the goofy Honda weirdness. The "lightning bolt" (Hondaspeak for the line created by the sliding door hinge and the bottom portion of the rear windows) takes a nose dive at the rear fender, giving third row passengers a much better view of their surroundings. It doesn't look right at first, as if the rear fenders were tacked-on afterthoughts. After careful study, however, one begins to see a flow and sway to the lines of the Odyssey that are unpredictably satisfying. The way the passenger door handles meet at the B-pillar is a detail that shouts "high design." Prior thoughts of "messiness" eventually give way to pondering the strategic placement of angles and slats. I don't understand that funky rear three-quarter view, but I like it!

The interior is just as ridonkulous in some ways, but more symmetrical the Toyota Sienna cabin. The center stack is where it is supposed to be, and it features a shape familiar to car buyers. Unlike the Toyota, all of the shapes are equal on either side of the dash making for a more ergonomic-appearing work space. I have yet to sit in one, so I don't know this for certain. As is absolutely required in a modern Honda, there are eight-and-a-half thousand random buttons festooning every available inch of dash space. I wonder how many dead buttons a spendthrift customer has to deal with. "What option that you don't have is that button supposed to operate?" is not a question new car buyers like to answer. I damn sure wouldn't want to, and I have no use for heated seats in Florida.

There is a flat screen that folds down from the headliner; of course, no parent is expected to actually parent while driving anymore. The screen is unique in its ability to divide itself in half, allowing for broadcast of two different Pixar movies at the same time. The seating comes with all the modern tricks—folding seats and storage bins. One such bin, behind the third row, is enormous, capable of swallowing your average full-size beer cooler. "Whoopdee-do, I'm going to be driving this rolling circus, what’s in it for the Dad that just couldn't get away with his 'Burban any longer?" As is the Odyssey standard, plenty.

Though details are sketchy on Honda's websites, expect a 3.5 liter Single Overhead Cam V6, making somewhere in the neighborhood of 280. Utilizing cylinder-deactivation, the engine should achieve 19 mpg city, 29 highway. Pretty impressive though offering a four-cylinder option might help company-wide economy ratings.

Comparatively the Toyota Sienna has more options, more toys, and more panache, but is typical and cookie-cutter in all the wrong ways. This Honda yanks Japanese humility around by its neck, stuffing it into every dumpster that can be found. That "lightning bolt" deal is just so different; it is difficult to not like a company that takes risks with styling on a class of vehicle whose selling points do not include the word "styling.” Nissan proved this with the flaccid sales of its previous Quest. Weird as all hell and nobody cared. If the new Toyota is "interesting", than this Honda is a whole other world of "new".


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