Nice Sensible People-Movers: 2003 Honda Odyssey vs 1996 Chevy Suburban

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Welcome back! This week we’re going to take a break from the batshit-crazy choices and look at some nice sensible vehicles. You know, stuff you might actually want to drive. Why, you ask? Well, because last week’s overall winner was the most sensible choice:

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So we’ll just keep that ball rolling for a bit.

The truth is, there are still bargains to be found, even with the used car market all haywire like it is now. $2,500 isn’t a lot to work with, but you can still find something that will get the job done. So today, we’re going to look at two very different ways of moving seven people around, and then you get to decide which one is more suitable for the job. Let’s meet our two contenders:

The Minivan – 2003 Honda Odyssey – $2,500

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Engine/drivetrain: 3.5 liter V6, 5 speed automatic, FWD

Location: Las Vegas, NV

Odometer reading: 250,000 miles

Runs/drives? Very well, according to the seller

The second-generation Honda Odyssey was quite a departure from the earlier model. Larger, built in the U.S., and designed more in line with the conventions established by Chrysler’s class-leading vans, with rear sliding doors in place of the first-generation Odyssey’s standard rear doors. The result was a handsome (for a minivan), pleasant, successful vehicle, unfortunately plagued by transmission problems. This particular Odyssey, with over a quarter-million miles on it, has likely had those problems addressed, but it’s still something to keep in mind.

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Overall it’s in decent shape, though it looks like the right rear quarter window was recently replaced, judging by the tape residue. I guess they don’t have Goo-Gone in Nevada?  But then, the seller isn’t big on cleaning camera lenses either, or maybe they’re trying for a “soft-focus” look, like Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. Here’s squinting through the gunk at you, kid. [Editor’s Note: I don’t know what this last line means. Is it a reference to Casablanca? Or is it a grammatical error that I should delete? I’m going to leave it given my propensity to miss references. -DT]

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What we can see through the blurry mess looks like a nice honest, well-used van. It is said to run and drive without any problems, has working air conditioning (important in the desert, for sure), and is in “hop-in-and-go” condition. Obviously, a pre-purchase inspection would probably turn up something, but it does look like a good starting point. The paint is a little faded and I bet the bolsters in the driver’s seat have seen better days, but if you care about that stuff, you aren’t looking at $2,500 vans.

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The SUV – 1996 Chevrolet Suburban – $2,000

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Engine/drivetrain: 5.7 liter V8, 4 speed automatic, part-time 4WD

Location: Beaverton, OR

Odometer reading: 228,000 miles

Runs/drives? “Really good and strong,” we’re told

The Chevy Suburban has been around a long time. The model name dates all the way back to 1935, making it the longest-running nameplate ever. And in all that time, the formula hasn’t changed: put a big station-wagon body on a strong truck chassis, and use it to do, well, everything. It’s not the most efficient way to move people and stuff around, but it is a very reliable and certain way. Fuel economy be damned. The Suburban just works.

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This Suburban is based on the GMT400 truck platform, a personal favorite of mine. It’s durable, reliable, and a whole lot more refined than its predecessor, with independent front suspension on the 4WD models instead of a solid axle on leaf springs. There’s no reason for a truck to ride like an ox-cart. This is also a post-facelift model, with a more rounded, car-like dashboard in place of the severe rectangles and sea of tiny buttons the earlier GMT400s had. It also has the “barn doors” on the rear instead of the tailgate/flip-up rear window arrangement. Both were available, but the barn doors make more sense to a lot of people, including me.

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This is a pretty fancy Suburban, too, with leather seats and all the bells and whistles. It’s set up for towing, and it will tow a hell of a lot more than any minivan, if you need that capability. The third-row seat is a little harder to access, a consideration if you need the full seating capacity all the time.

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Mechanically, these things are solid, and this one is in good shape: the old 350 small-block just keeps humming along, and the transmission was rebuilt at 160,000 miles. The shift-on-the-fly 4WD system in these has a low-range transfer case, so you can go off the beaten path. A Suburban is kind of a big vehicle for serious off-roading, but it’s nice to know the capability is there.

And kudos to whoever originally chose the color of this one. It seems sometimes like these were only offered in white or forest green; this dusky pink is a strange choice, but a pleasant one. GM calls it “Red Maple Metallic,” according to the info I found. I like it.

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So there you have it: two nice sensible ways of carrying seven people and their stuff. Which way makes more sense to you?


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73 Responses

  1. Run from the Odyssey. I purchased a one-owner, 2000 Honda Odyssey for my brother-in-law (I occasionally help people buy cars) with 139,000 miles for $4000 last October. The whole car seemed to be in fairly good shape. Minimal rust, well cared-for interior, recent services, etc. After I bought it, and before I sent it to my brother-in-law several states away, I personally replaced the timing belt and water pump right and gave it a full once-over. After about a week of driving (yes I did the TB correctly), the problems started popping up. Sometimes it just wouldn’t start at all, then half an hour later it would turn on and run just fine like nothing ever happened. Sometimes it would start first try, then idle rough and die. 30 minutes later it might proceed normally. Despite the issues, my BIL needed the car so I drove it 1,800 miles to him. Once it was running, it ran great. Smooth, quiet, plenty of power. Now that he has the car, he’s had nothing but issues. It still occasionally has the no-start issues, though replacing the main relay seems to have solved that. Sometimes it misfires. The check engine light is perpetually on. No mechanic he’s taken it to can figure it out. Honda products from 2000-2005 were, in my opinion, some of the worst ever produced. My 2003 Honda Accord went through 3 transmissions in 100k miles, had a fisher price quality interior, and the world’s worst paint job despite being well maintained.

  2. The chances that either of these are going to be used to haul people are VERY slim given their ages, and parents being (rightfully) obsessed with safety. That in mind, for hauling crap and towing, the Suburban is better in every way. As others have mentioned, parts are plentiful, and they are WAY easier to work on than a FWD minivan, too. Just get your feet set for the $200 fill-ups when you actually use it. I like the Honda, but for the likely use case, the ‘Burban is the better bet.

  3. Tough choice, I used to own an ’06 Odyssey for years, but also various GMT 400 trucks and my current GMT800 Tahoe. But before getting the Tahoe I was looking for a mid to late 90’s Suburban as I like the body style, used to have a 94 Z71 pick up that I felt bad for getting rid of. I’m sure it’s the difference in gearing and the work I put into the truck, but boy were those Suburbans pooches to drive, so I looked at newer Suburbans and Tahoes, and found my ’02, what a difference (which I mostly knew already from my time working in a dealership, but still, hearing talk vs ownership experience is much different.)
    Also during I had the mini-van and the Z71, I found myself using the van more for hauling things compared to the pick up, it was just more useful. I’ve since come around to the opinion that pick up trucks are useless except for specific use cases, and enclosed back is the better way to go. But that said, we aren’t comparing Suburban body styles, or vans to pick ups, so between these two I’m picking the Suburban.

  4. I’ve opted for the Suburban, because I’ve already done the run-down MPV thing with my first car (strange choice for a single bloke who, at the time, was single and had no kids). My Hyundai Trajet was probably more of a flea pit than the Honda, but still… no thank you. The Suburban is just so alien compared to anything I see on roads where I’m from, and paying nearly €2 per litre of fuel wouldn’t make it practical, but it would still be fun to pull up behind my neighbour in her Clio, the wizened oul tit.

  5. Had a newer version of the Suburban and it was fantastic, the Swiss army knife of vehicle’s. Able to haul people comfortably and tow comfortably. Surprisingly good off-road due to the weight distribution and handled really well on road with a decent set of tires. Suburban all day every day.

  6. For the price, neither one is a bad choice.

    I chose the Suburban just because I like those beasts.

    As for a pre purchase inspection. For this level of car, I would not waste the money. It would cost nearly as much in money and time. This is gamble level of vehicle. I also look at parts value. For anything under 3 grand, I will take the risk

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