Wednesday, May 30, 2007
Pros: Seat comfort, upscale interior, roominess, ride, powertrain smoothness
Cons: Soggy handling, odd front end styling, pricey
The Bottom Line: Very comfy, roomy, and refined, but undermined by soggy handling and high price. Use this one for long hauls on the highway.
For 15 years Chrysler dominated the minivan market. This began to change—and fast—once Honda and Toyota introduced equally large front-wheel-drive minivans. Honda was first, in the 1999 model year. For five years the much larger second generation Odyssey was the “hot” van. Then in 2004 Toyota introduced an equally large second generation Sienna. It almost instantly supplanted the Odyssey as “the one to get.” I drove one as soon as I could get my hands on one—no easy thing the first few months. Unfortunately it was the very base CE model. (For more extensive background material see that review.)
This year Honda is seeking to regain its leading position in the hearts and minds of actively breeding suburbia with a redesigned Odyssey. I drove and reviewed one recently. For a fresher comparison, and because I drove the CE last time, I visited a Toyota/Dodge dealer and drove the Toyota Sienna XLE and Dodge Grand Caravan SXT. Like the Honda Touring I sampled, both were fitted with leather and listed for over $30,000. So, which is the best van? Well, it depends on your priorities. This review will focus on the Toyota.
I didn’t like the styling of the Toyota last year, and I still don’t. The Renault-like (or is it Peugeot-like? I just know it looks French) front end looked weird enough on the first Prius, much less on this large van. The round nose and way the headlamps pull back into the fenders suggest the effect of wearing a stocking over one’s face (as in “Boy, you got a panty on your [minivan’s] head”).
The sides and rear of the van are more successful, so Toyota most needs to fix the front. Honda pulls off similarly shaped headlamps on the new Odyssey more successfully. The Honda has a bulkier, more upright look, but looks at least as upscale and thankfully looks better in the metal than in photos. The Dodge (well, the Chrysler actually) remains the best looking to my eye.
Inside the Sienna’s design is more successful. The look is upscale, easily the nicest interior in the segment last year. In comparison the interior of the Odyssey felt like that of a cargo van. The Odyssey’s 2005 largely bridges this gap, but not entirely. In comparison to either the Dodge interior feels dated and almost cheap. I liked its Chrysler sibling when I drove it last spring, but driving the uplevel Toyota and new Honda revised my expectations in a minivan. It also became evident that the Dodge’s controls are much less ergonomic than the others (with the Honda the leader in this area).
Both the Sienna and Odyssey are very roomy minivans, with adult-worthy legroom and headroom in all three rows. The Dodge is a bit tighter, especially in the third row. Certainly no SUV save the largest can compare.
I had issues with the driver’s seat in the new Odyssey. I’ve always liked those in the Chrysler vans, wondering why the company doesn’t bolster the seats in its cars as well. (More lateral support would be helpful in the Magnum and 300, for example.) But the Toyota’s seats easily take the prize. Those in front are wonderfully comfortable, at least in the XLE. Compared to the others they are much more luxuriously padded. You sink into them just the right amount, and their shape perfectly fit at least this backside. Very nice. Good for trips.
The second- and third-row seats are similarly most comfortable in the Toyota, though the margin with the Honda is not as large. The Dodge’s second row seats continue to feel undersized and hard to me, I imagine because they must stuff beneath the floor.
Both the Honda and Toyota vans are loaded with innovative storage areas, consoles, and such. The Sienna XLE does lose a bin beneath the front passenger seat this year, though, to make way for power seat motors (a new feature). The XLE’s folding front passenger seat also disappears for the same reason. If you want these two features, you’ll have to save some money and buy the LE.
To enable the Stow n’ Go seats the Dodge lost the ability to move the console to the second row—an idea Toyota borrowed for the Sienna. On the other hand, the Dodge has a large amount of underfloor storage. The Honda provides some, but not as much, and the Toyota provides none at all. It’ll be easiest to keep the floor clear in the Dodge.
All three have a good amount of room behind the third row, but the Toyota appears to have the most, followed by the Honda. Folding and stowing the seats in pretty simple in all three minivans, much easier than in the Nissan Quest where the process left me with my first and still only test drive injury (to a few fingers). Here Dodge has its main advantage: as everyone knows by now, its second-row seats also stow beneath the floor. Pretty slick. In the others the seats can only be folded forward or removed. And removing and replacing them is never easy, in any van.
On the Road
The Sienna’s 3.3-liter V6 / five-speed automatic powertrain is shared with the Camry, Highlander, and a pair of Lexus models. In all of them it’s a very smooth, quiet powerplant. In the over two-ton Sienna its more burdened than in the Camry SE, but it easily gets the job done, never sounding strained. Let’s face it, even an enthusiast like myself only needs so much grunt out of a minivan. That said, if you do need more than most because you live in the mountains, plan to fully load the minivan, or both, then the Honda is the leader here. Its engine is a bit less refined than the Toyota’s, but is and feels a bit more powerful. The Dodge trails the others here, with a considerably less refined engine that feels punchy enough around town but falls behind at highway speeds.
So far, all seems wonderful with the Toyota. But it falls apart—for me at least—in the handling department. It is much more softly sprung than the others. In turns it leans readily and understeers with a passion. I’m aware that minivans tend to be driven very casually, but I found the sponginess of the Toyota’s suspension unsettling. Very light steering also doesn’t help. I don’t mean to suggest that the Sienna is unsafe—I don’t think it would easily roll. But I simply did not feel confident driving it.
The Dodge was fitted with a “touring suspension.” It was the firmest of the trio, with much heavier steering than the others. Usually this would appeal to me, and as before I did find the Dodge easy to drive. But the steering was too heavy, and the heaviness was not simply the price for great feedback, as their was no more than in the others.
The firmness of the Honda’s suspension and the weight of its steering falls between the other two. It is the easiest and most confidence-inspiring to drive.
Generally a tradeoff exists between handling and ride quality. So the Toyota might be expected to ride the best. Well, it does ride much more smoothly than the relatively abrupt (though still far from uncomfortable) Dodge. (Low-profile 17-inch tires are no longer available on the Dodge; I can only imagine what it rode like with them.) But its margin over the Honda isn’t significant. If anything, the lesser amount of float over uneven pavement in the Honda translated to a better overall ride in my book, even if the Toyota ironed out harshness over the small stuff a bit better.
Toyotas tend to be quieter than their competitors. The second-generation Odyssey in particular was often criticized (but not by me—I’m used to much noisier vehicles) for being noisy. The Odyssey is quieter, such that the Toyota’s lead though possibly still present (I did drive the two a couple weeks apart) is not substantial. I heard more road noise than I expected in the Toyota, for one thing. Compared to the Japanese vans, the Dodge is less quiet and, of greater importance, lacks their smooth, solid, thoroughly refined “feel.”
Toyota Sienna Price Comparisons and Pricing
For quick, up-to-date pricing, and especially user-specified price comparisons, check out the website I created: www.truedelta.com. Why yet another vehicle pricing website? Well, I personally lacked the patience to keep using the others. They were too slow and required too much effort, especially when trying to compare prices. So I taught myself some programming and created a site where there is no need to dig through option packages, prerequisites, and the like one by one -- the TrueDelta algorithm figures these out for you in one swift pass.
I’ll use TrueDelta to compare the three minivans equipped as much as possible to the Odyssey EX-L (leather). In this case it is especially helpful, as Toyota has grouped all of the Sienna’s options into an array of bewildering packages. The results, after TrueDelta adjusts for differences in equipment is a $34,565 price on the Toyota (XLE with #6), a $30,810 price on the Honda, and a $29,920 price on the Dodge (with a $1,500 rebate included in the last). However, equipment differs considerably even after making them as similar as possible. TrueDelta adjusts for these differences, yielding a $340 advantage of the Dodge over the Honda, which in turn has a $1,640 advantage over the Toyota. To yield these numbers I set the engine to that in the Odyssey EX-L then asked for a "minimum" comparison. Different feature levels will yield different results--you can specify those you want when using my site.
Undoubtedly the dealer discount on the Dodge will be larger than on the others, widening the gap. But unless you plan to make extensive use of the Stow n’ Go second row, you should come up with the extra cash, especially since the others’ slower rate of depreciation will make them less expensive overall. But what about between the Honda and Toyota?
Generally I’d give the nod to the Honda. It handles far better while riding nearly as smoothly and quietly. It’s just as roomy, and now has an almost equally upscale interior. And it costs less. But the driver’s seat is not comfortable. Hopefully Honda will recognize that there is a problem and make a quick fix. Even then, the Toyota’s seats are better padded and flat out more comfy. So do you want your minivan to handle well, or make long hauls on the superslab as pain free as possible? Is this van for short jaunts around town, or long hauls on the road? For the long hauls, the Toyota’s the one. Otherwise, and especially if the seat doesn’t bother you, it’s the Honda.
Now for something out of left field: none of the three is quite there for me. I drove the new Ford Freestyle crossover the same day as the Odyssey. It can also seat adults in all three rows, though the third is more cramped than in the vans, and I much prefer its much tidier, nimbler feel. If only the Ford had their powertrains and interior materials.
A Note on Toyota Sienna Reliability
I cannot practically cover reliability within the context of this review. However, many people are interested in such information, so I've started collecting my own data. Results, once they are available, will be posted to my site, www.truedelta.com, with updates every three months.
Unlike other sources, TrueDelta will clearly identify what difference it will make if you buy a Sienna rather than another vehicle by providing "times in the shop" and "days in the shop" stats (among others). You will be able to specify the number of years, annual miles, and types of repairs to include in Toyota Sienna reliability comparisons.
Before I can report results, I need data on all cars--not just the Sienna--from people like you. To encourage participation, those who help provide the data will receive free access to the site's reliability information. Non-participants will have to pay an access fee.
Monday, May 28, 2007
Steven Spielberg would be happy. He wouldn't have imagined he would be vindicated thus, but A.I. seems to have arrived. With cars pushing the cause of Artificial Intelligence, how could it be otherwise?
The Camry, with its VVT-i engine, was already, um..., intelligent. And it would never do for Honda to be left behind, so the new Accord has an i-VTEC engine now.
As you would guess, the 'i' in both cases denotes intelligence. Variable Valve Timing - intelligent, for the Camry, and intelligent-Variable Valve Timing and lift Electronic Control, for the Accord.
With intelligence in such abundance, do we have a Mensa candidate here? Is sheer size their only virtue, or do these cars have other talents to their name? Let's see if we can determine which car has the higher Intelligence Quotient.
Couture: How haute?
Before we actually get down to putting the cars' brains/brawn to test, let's take a minute to see how they look in person. Which is important, after all.
The most intelligent girl may top the class, but it's the looker who has the class chasing after her. Well, at least the male segment of the said class anyway.
The 'looker' thing gets a bit difficult here, for between the Accord and the Camry, there's little to choose. For the Camry, I'll repeat my old refrain -- its styling is the very embodiment of the word 'bland'.
The lines are unremarkable, I struggle to find anything to say about them. Remember the Zeppelin air balloon of first World War vintage? Supremely functional? Yes. Featureless?
Also, sadly, yes. It does look big though, if that counts.
The new Accord is a mild improvement over the old one. This time, it looks like some design house -- and not a psychography expert -- has actually spent time penning its lines, etching its curves and working out detail embellishments.
The European-spec Accord (which we don't get) definitely looks sharper and more aggressive, but the American-spec car, which they've brought here is also passable. Just about.
There is a certain family resemblance to other Honda cars now -- take a look at the headlamps sitting pretty and flush on the flared wheelarches and tell me if you don't think there's hint of the S2000 there.
It isn't as muscular of proportion as a Mondeo or as assertive of stance as a Vectra -- not at all -- but neither is it as plain-jane as the Camry.
With the Accord, we had people saying it looks smaller than the old one, though it's actually larger.
Both cars are fitted with 15-inch alloys that look smallish for the cars' heft. Sixteen-inch alloys, as used on the Vectra or the Mondeo, would have looked much better.
Style-wise, I'm still undecided if any one of these cars has an edge over the other, but things are clearer inside.
Undeniably, the Accord's twin-tone, tan and black interiors are more contemporary than the Camry's. Both cars get full leather upholstery, a smattering of plastic-wood trim and power adjustments for front seats, but where the Accord really scores over the Camry is dashboard layout.
The Camry's facia features a Sony Xplod 11-CD changer, which is powerful and sounds good, but is burdened with excessively flashy lights and animated displays.
Frankly, the thing looks a bit out of place in a car, which belongs in this segment. The Accord's 6-CD changer is much better integrated with the car's interiors, and appearance is much neater overall.
The Accord also has dual-zone air-conditioning, with separate temperature settings for driver and passenger sides of the cabin.
The Camry doesn't have a dual-zone set-up, but quality of plastics used is similar on both cars, and both cabins are pleasant, comfortable places to be in for the long haul.
The Camry's Mercedes-Benz E-Class size (well, almost) interiors feel a mite plusher and more spacious, but even the Accord seats five without trouble. With their superb ergonomics, adjustable driving positions, comfy seats, powerful music and aircon systems and intuitive controls, the cars beg to be driven long and hard.
You're waiting for me to stop talking about cabin ergonomics and design, and get on with what these cars are like to drive. Of course. We'll get to that in a minute.
Let's take a look at the two inline-fours first. The Camry is fitted with a 2362 CC, DOHC, VVT-i unit that makes 141 horsepower and 20.9 kgm of torque.
Though that seems fairly prosaic on paper, the pace at which this engine picks up revs is quite something.
In fact, with its 3.86 second 0 - 60 kph time, the Camry remains the quickest D-segment car we've ever tested. The Accord is no slouch either. Its 2345 CC, DOHC, i-VTEC mill makes 1 bhp more than the Camry, though torque, at 20.0 kgm, is slightly lower.
Due to an unfortunate mismatch in testing schedules (or maybe an unforeseen misalignment of stars, or overworked Honda personnel...), we got an Accord with a 5-speed automatic rather than the 5-speed manual we would have liked.
Yet, its 5.02 second 0 - 60 kph time would be somewhat indicative of what the manual would have done.
At 10.34 seconds, the automatic Accord was also 1.79 seconds slower than the manual Camry in the 0-100 kph sprint.
Actually, the stopwatch only confirmed what I felt when I first drove the new Accord (that one being a manual) - no way the thing would get off the line as quickly as a Camry.
Honda make brilliant engines, but in this case, Toyota seem to have outdone them -- the Camry's seamlessly smooth VVT-i is more eager to rev harder, higher and quicker, though the Honda unit, which spreads the torque more evenly, does make a nicer ripping sound when accelerating hard.
Right from the word go, the Camry inches ahead, which is also reflected in the cars' in-gear acceleration times. And though it would not be of much consequence for most, the (manual) Camry was still accelerating at 220 kph, while the (automatic) Accord seemed to start running out of puff at 210.
I suppose a manual Accord would have been a lot quicker and bit faster too, though the 5-speed auto gave us no cause for complaint.
This electronically-controlled 'box is fitted with Honda's grade logic control, shifts cleanly, and there is no inordinate hunting for ratios.
It even lets you manually select any of the first three gears, though in the D3 mode, it will upshift automatically once it hits the rev-limiter.
If the Camry has a slight advantage in the engine department, the Honda has a small edge when it comes to high-speed handling. The new Accord features an independent double wishbone set-up at front, and independent 5-link double wishbones at back.
Ride is not as compliant as the Camry's (independent, McPherson struts at front, independent, dual-link at back), but the Accord does feel marginally more composed at very high speeds.
You think twice before attempting to throw the Camry around, but the Accord is more willing to play along. The Accord's smaller steering wheel feels sportier than the Camry's, and overall, the former feels like a smaller, tauter and slightly more composed package.
Chassis dynamics are definitely not in the league of a Mondeo or a Mercedes-Benz C-Class, but the new Accord's chassis/suspension combo is better than the old car's, which had a marked tendency to get out of line very quickly (and rather unpredictably) when pushed hard.
Both cars are fitted with tubeless radials, though I somewhat preferred the Camry's 205/65 Dunlop SP Sport 300s to the Accord's similarly-sized Bridgestone Turans.
Both cars have anti-lock disc brakes all around, and these are quite adequate when it's time to haul the cars down from the 200+ kph speeds they are capable of.
If I were to choose, I'd take the Camry's brakes, which somehow feel more reassuring. When braked hard on wet surfaces at very high speeds, the Honda tended to feel slightly more fidgety and skittish, though of course, the ABS never failed to work.
To recap quickly, both cars are more or less equally competent overall. They also offer just about as much driver involvement as the other, which is not much, really.
The Camry scores marginally higher on ride comfort, the Accord offers slightly better noise insulation and its high-speed handling is a smidge better.
Fuel efficiency is similar, at about 7 kpl or thereabouts. Speed is a non-issue – both will happily do 200+ if you are up to it.
If that's not nearly enough, we'll have V6-engined Camrys and Accords by the end of this year, so you can go even faster if you can ever find the roads for that sort of thing.
With capabilities so similar, how do you choose? The clincher could be the big difference in their prices. Ex-showroom Mumbai, the Camry will cost you between Rs 17.85 and Rs 18.50 lakh, depending on trim level etc.
The Accord is pegged at Rs 15.35 lakh for the manual, and Rs 16.07 for the automatic.
Of the two, the Accord is more contemporary, and after the C-Class and the Sonata V6, the only other car in its segment which you can buy with an automatic transmission.It may not look as big as the Camry, but given its price/performance combination, the new Accord's IQ is sizeable, and for now, it's the car we would recommend.