Last time we checked, a typical SUV (a.k.a. crossover) had a boxy shape, a tailgate and a focus on practicality. All the above also apples to a minivan or a station wagon. Yet everybody lusts after SUVs, and nobody wants to be caught dead in a minivan or wagon.
Just ask my dental hygienist. While picking plaque out of my teeth, she picked my brain about a replacement for her aging minivan. After discussing her lifestyle and the size of her brood, I suggested a new minivan.
No. Freaking. Way. Wouldn’t even consider it. She already knew it had to be an SUV; she just wanted me to suggest which SUV.
There is no rationale for it. This bizarre prejudice is consumer flock-think manipulated by automakers addicted to the juicy profit margins on SUVs.
Yes, SUVs do confer certain advantages like all-wheel drive and a high-and-mighty seating position. But some minivans also have AWD these days, as do most wagons. You can also sit high in a minivan, although, when almost everybody else also drives SUVs, the lofty-seating advantage is effectively neutralized.
To make sense of it all, we borrowed a 2021 Honda Odyssey minivan and a Honda Pilot mid-size SUV. These corporate siblings share the same mechanical underpinnings and 3.5-litre, 280-horsepower V6 engine (though, for some odd reason, the Odyssey has a 10-speed transmission, and the Pilot only a nine-speed).
The Odyssey comes only with front-wheel drive, and in Canada it’s sold only in higher-spec trims starting at about $43,000 – there’s no $35,000 base model. The test sample was the flagship Touring trim, which is listed for $54,305.
Americans can buy front-wheel-drive Pilots, but in Canada, all-wheel drive is standard; six trim grades start at about $43,000 – the same as Odyssey, but in a barer-bones LX trim – and top out at $56,805 for the Black Edition, which is basically a Touring version with different cosmetic touches and only available in black paint … or, um, white.
So, pricing in this case is almost a wash, except that at the lower end the Pilot comes with all-wheel drive but fewer features than a similarly priced Odyssey.
They’re both two-box shapes – with a compartment each for the engine and passengers, but no separate trunk – so there’s no intrinsic reason why one species would look “cooler” than the other. It could go either way, depending on the proportions and the details. It’s your call, but to my eyes the Odyssey’s long-low-and-wide stance, wedgy nose and lightning-flash window-line kink are striking; the stubbier yet taller Pilot looks rotund and tippy-toed in comparison.
Being front-wheel drive isn’t all bad. The absence of driveshafts to the rear wheels allows the Odyssey to have a much lower floor. Combine that with a 15-centimetre longer wheelbase, and almost 36 centimetres of extra length over all, and the Odyssey totally owns the Pilot for carrying people and their stuff.
The minivan’s load height at the rear is 20 centimetres closer to the ground, its tailgate aperture is 19 centimetres taller, and cargo volume behind the third-row seats is more than double the Pilot’s – 1,092 litres versus 524. With the third-row seats down, the Odyssey has almost two-thirds more cargo volume.
Flopping down the second-row backrests does make it easier to max out the Pilot’s cargo hold (and gets you a more-or-less flat floor) but if you can muster the energy to remove the Odyssey’s second-row seats (and have somewhere to store them) you can open up 4,470 litres compared with Pilot’s 2,912. Note: Honda publishes two different sets of volumes for each model, based on different industry methodologies; we compared the higher figures in each case.
As for people, it’s a tie for legroom in the first and second rows, but in the third row, the Odyssey’s 21 centimetres of additional knee room makes the difference between having useable space for adults, or not. You’d have to move up to a Chevrolet Suburban to match or beat the third-row legroom of a minivan. But even then, a minivan’s low floor and sliding doors make the space much easier to enter and exit.
Once there, you’ll find similar shoulder and hip room on the Hondas’ rear benches, which are both three-person.
While the Pilot’s three-person, 60/40 split, second-row seating can slide fore and aft, so can the Odyssey’s three-way-split middle bench. Not only that, if you remove the Odyssey’s centre section, the remaining outer seats become captain’s chairs that can also be adjusted sideways for extra versatility.
The one advantage the Pilot does have in loadability is its tow rating – 5,000 lbs., vs. 3,500 for the Odyssey.
At the wheel
The SUV has a classic off-roader, tall-in-the-saddle feel. Historically that’s true of minivans too, but sitting in the Odyssey is more like being at the wheel of a sedan. Both have ample range of power adjustment, but it’s as if you sit on the Pilot, and in the Odyssey. As measured, the Pilot’s seat is about 55 millimetres further above the road but it felt like more.
The U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gives the Odyssey a Top Safety Pick+ rating – its highest – but not the Pilot, citing a poorer rating in one crash test, and harder-to-use child-seat anchors.
The U.S. government gives both Hondas four stars out of five for rollover risk – that is, low – but the Pilot’s 16.4-per-cent score was worse than the Odyssey’s 13.6 per cent. For perspective, a Jeep Wrangler scores 27.9 per cent (high) and a Chevrolet Camaro 8.3 per cent (low).
Official city fuel-consumption ratings are very similar, but the Odyssey does better on the highway, resulting in combined numbers of 10.6 litres per 100 kilometres for Odyssey and 11.0 for Pilot. A bigger factor is insurance: Rates for SUVs on average are higher because they cost insurers significantly more in claims. According to Insurance Bureau of Canada data, the tally of comprehensive claims (which include theft) for the Pilot are double the Odyssey’s.
Their engines are identical, but the Pilot is a little lighter and geared better for quick getaways, which gets it to 100 kilometres an hour a few tenths of a second quicker. Of course, that’s on a dry test track – you’d hardly feel the difference in daily driving. Throw in some slithery surfaces, however, and the Pilot’s all-wheel-drive traction would greatly extend its advantage.
While neither is especially engaging or athletic – even by the lower expectations of utility vehicles – we were surprised how the Pilot hunkered down when motored “expressively” through an on-ramp. Its bigger, lower-profile Continental tires hung on silently at speeds that provoked tortured howls from the Odyssey’s Bridgestones (all-seasons in both cases).
The Pilot’s suspension is stiffer – no doubt to compensate for its higher centre of gravity – and you feel the difference over bigger bumps. The Odyssey felt more like driving a large, semi-luxury sedan. That said, the differences here are specific to these two Hondas and their particular tire choices. If you compared a different SUV with a different minivan, the results might well be reversed.
There are legitimate reasons to drive an SUV. Depending on your lifestyle and where you drive, there are clear advantages to all-wheel drive and extra ground clearance. You may even need to tow things heavier than a minivan’s typical 3,500-lbs tow rating. If that’s what you need, fine, go for it.
But don’t diss the minivan. For those who really need space, comfort and versatility, no SUV comes close at the price. Fuel economy is likely to be the same or better, it’ll cost you less to insure, and the driving experience is perfectly fine. There is no rational reason for believing one species of two-box vehicle seems cool and another species doesn’t. Minivans deserve respect.
Honda Odyssey Touring
- Price: $54,005
- Engine: 3.5-litre V6, 280 horsepower
- Transmission/drive: 10-speed automatic/FWD
- Fuel consumption (L/100 km): 12.2 City/8.5 Highway
- Alternatives: Chrysler Pacifica/Grand Caravan, Kia Carnival, Toyota Sienna
Honda Pilot Black Edition
- Price: $56,805
- Engine: 3.5-litre V6, 280 horsepower
- Transmission/drive: 9-speed automatic/AWD
- Fuel consumption (L/100 km): 12.4 City/9.3 Highway
Alternatives: Chevrolet Traverse, Dodge Durango, Ford Explorer, GMC Acadia Hyundai Palisade, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Kia Telluride, Mazda CX-9, Nissan Pathfinder, Subaru Ascent, Volkswagen Atlas, Toyota Highlander, Toyota 4Runner