Minivans hardly get the recognition they deserve as functional family utensils. They're big, comfortable, relatively frugal, and can take toddler temper tantrums in stride.
Two of the biggest names in the minivan world are fresh from complete overhauls and ready to vie for families attentions.
The Honda Odyssey boasts new interior tech and an updated face, while the Chrysler Pacifica combines our perennial favorite mix-and-match seating arrangement with better tech—even a hybrid model.
By the numbers, the Chrysler Pacifica wins by a nose. It shouldn't be much of a surprise either: we named it our 2017 Best Car to Buy because it represented a rethink of minivans on par with the Town & Country model it replaced. The Pacifica looks great, drives well, and nails all the details like Stow 'N Go seats.
The Honda Odyssey is a formidable force for families, and it scores very well overall on our scales. But the Pacifica's looks and small conveniences like easy-opening doors and a common-sense infotainment setup help it outpoint the Honda in the end. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
Judging a minivan by its exterior looks feels like judging a pizza by the box it comes in; what's inside probably matters more. Still, the Pacifica manages to smooth over its boxy assignment with a handsome shape and a sharp nose that doesn't run from its vast expanses of metal and glass—it embraces them. The Pacifica's big windows are framed with chrome and kick back gently to hide the sliding door rails. Its graceful fenders and subtle flylines underneath the windows have so far escaped the tendencies to "man up" minivans, and it's better for it.
The Odyssey largely takes the same approach, in most places. The stylish "lightning bolts" along the sides of the Odyssey have been tamed this time around. Up front, the Odyssey wears a corporate nose adapted from the Pilot and Civic, although we're not as sold on the look. The Odyssey's face is much more upright and when coupled with a creased hood, daytime running lights, and a descending grille—there's a lot going on is what we're saying.
Inside, both vans are awash in durable materials and surfaces, although the Pacifica reads bigger in our eyes thanks to better packaging. The Honda Odyssey feels much more utilitarian in its dash structure and control arrangement; the Pacifica is just a hint friendlier.
Neither minivan trades on its performance potential, so it's a wash here. The Pacifica (mostly) is powered by 3.6-liter V-6 that makes 287 horsepower and drives the front wheels via a 9-speed automatic transmission. The derided 9-speed from Chrysler has largely met its match in the Pacifica by offering smooth shifts and quick kickdowns—we wish we could say the same about other applications for this transmission. We've only noticed occasional hiccups on long highway jaunts, particularly with cruise control engaged; engine braking and downshifts will take some finesse.
The Honda Odyssey uses a 3.5-liter V-6 that makes 280 horsepower mated to a 9- or 10-speed automatic. Our time behind the wheel has been limited to the 10-speed, which is a new unit for Honda and is only included on high-spec trim levels of this van. The Odyssey is stiffer and stronger this time around, and feels like the stronger of the two—even though it's down on horsepower. Honda's 10-speed fades into the background and drives the front wheels only (among minivans, all-wheel drive is only available on the Toyota Sienna). Both minivans will scoot in and around town, but the Odyssey is the only one that drives "big." Namely, the Odyssey feels a little cumbersome to park, and outward visibility can be a challenge.
The Odyssey and Pacifica have long lists of optional features and accessories that ease the burden of family commutes—or at least quiet the pain to a dull roar. What's more impressive is the standard three rows of seats—all of them comfortable for adults—and the flexibility to store and fold those seats when more cargo space is needed. Honda offers a sliding seat system than can move the outboard second row seats across the cabin for a flexible layout, but requires removing the center console and exposes some easily tripable rails. Pulling out the second row requires removing the seats, which weigh 70 pounds each, and not tripping on the rails.
The Pacifica skips it all. Chrysler's Stow 'N Go system tumbles the second row into a flat floor in a breeze and is one of the smartest systems on the planet. We like that.
The minivans carve their own niches for tech goodies. The Honda Odyssey can project the driver's voice through the third-row speakers (we call it "Shout and pout") or give front-row riders a peek into the second row with a in-car camera—useful for rear facing car seats—or warring siblings in the second row (we call it "Crime cam").
The Pacifica offers seat-mounted touchscreens with road-trip apps such as Checkers or "Are We There Yet?" that display trip and navigation information. Offering dual touchscreens is very nice for long trips, although we noticed that big families may not be able to put them to best use: infant car seats are best accessed in the second row, and older siblings who could use the touchscreen could be relegated to the third row.
Thankfully, the features that we couldn't live without made it to both minivans: in-car vacuum and a surround-view camera system—the former for helping clean up messes, and the latter for helping to avoid them in parking lots.
In the end, the Pacifica earns our nod for the little things that don't show up in the scores, but add up in our minds. The Pacifica's sliding doors can be opened with a button, while the Odyssey's open by pulling a handle that'd be hard for a small child to reach or pull. The Odyssey requires drivers to engage lane-keep assist every time the van is started; the Pacifica remembers the last setting by default. And so on.
Day in, day out, both vans will get the job done. Perhaps the Pacifica will do it all with a little less headache? That's what the kids are for, after all.