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. Just helped a friend find and buy a 3rd gen Odyssey because he has a longish commute, kids and a business. But my family has always had suburbans starting with an ’89 equipped much the same as this one. We have owned 4 since and none has escaped our grasp with less than 400k and it was always the rust that killed them before anything else. I only have one kid and still find myself wanting suburbans just because they are so damn good at everything (except fuel mileage) and are one of the few take care of it and it will be the last car you need to buy. Suburban all the way.

    1. That’s why I picked the Odyssey. There is rust in Oregon but not in the desert. I lived in a Arizona town called Bullhead City. Yes it exists. Cars 50 years old not a speck of rust. But they do have sand storms. Two years in every car gets blasted with sand while driving down the road. But you can drive a stripped to bare metal for 2 years no rust. I also question the ability or desire of most people in the northwest, where I also lived, to take any kind of care of a car.

  2. C’mon, David… Casablanca? Really? I thought that was an easy one. “Here’s looking at you, kid” is one of the most famous lines in movie history. And the “soft-focus” refers to the trick in early movies of shooting actresses just slightly out of focus, or coating the lens with a thin layer of Vaseline, to hide flaws and make actresses appear sort of angelic.

    1. For a “newer” reference. Moonlighting, the 80’s Bruce Willis starter TV show was also really bad using the hazy filter for Cybil Shepard… I’ve been watching 80’s TV series at lunch and just finished up Moonlighting last month.

  3. The Odyssey is probably a great vehicle that has another few hundred thousand on it. It’s a great choice for anyone who needs an actual good car for cheap.

    But I am going to the Suburban. The Suburban is one of my favorite cars because I remember so many of them when I was a kid around 1990 when my grandparents took me to Yellowstone. They felt like the official car of western highways. They feel like equal parts practical people-mover and workhorse. And this era may be the last great gen of the Suburban, before Chevy decided to make them $100k luxo-barges.

  4. As a life long Chevy fan who has owned many, I will go for the ‘Burb. I owned a 3/4 T with similar mechanicals and got 350K miles on it before I sold it. I still see it around town to this day. What’s special about 350K? Well, the entire drivetrain was still original except for U-joints and clutch. I am totally sold on the 350!

    The Odyssey is a nice vehicle and possibly just as long lived. I wouldn’t kick it out of the driveway for making spots, but the ethos of the big Chevy speaks much louder to me. A couple of years ago I was searching for an Odyssey for a planned long family trip. At that time they were all rather expensive, so I gave up on the search. If this had popped up then, I would have been all over it.

    Great choices for today!

  5. I can’t believe all of the votes for the Suburban. Are people not paying attention to the price of gas these days? Is this the same mentality that makes the F150 (which costs my brother $200 to fill up) the top-selling North American vehicle?

    1. Well as someone who up until recently spent $300 a week or more on gasoline. If the vehicle makes you money you buy what suits you best. Or if as people say most people should buy EV because their commute is less than 50 miles. So an EV works but also just keep driving the gas guzzler because you ain’t driving that far.

    2. I have a 2007 Odyssey and a 2000 Suburban and they both get equally shitty gas mileage. The difference is the Suburban feels like it should, while the Odyssey seems like it must have a hole in the gas tank.

      I also have a ’97 Chevy K3500 6.5L V8 Diesel 4×4 crew cab long bed truck that gets better mileage than both.

        1. Suburban: 13
          Odyssey: 15
          K3500: 16.5

          For the early days of this fuel debacle low test gas was the same as diesel, so I drove the truck. I think today that’s not the best choice.

          But either way, I’m now on my 43mpg motorcycle in rain, snow, sleet, or hail, unless I have to haul my kids. And it still costs 22 bucks to fill its 4 gallon tank. Insanity.

    1. I agree even if he never watched Casablanca there are references in everything from Green Acres, McHale Navy, Hogan’s Heroes, Modern Family frankly any show that lasted 2 years probably has a passing references. Does anyone know if DT owns a TV set?

    2. At this point I’m starting to think he’s trolling us. I’ve never seen Casablanca and my parents are spanish speaking immigrants who didn’t watch english TV when I was a child and yet as a child I knew this line. Maybe Blast from the Past is a DT biopic and he lived in a fallout shelter for most of his life.

      1. He’s a born-in-Germany Army brat. He didn’t get any of the “normal” American TV brainwashing that the rest of us did. Hell, even any TV he watched was likely from the Armed Forces Network, so he wouldn’t have even had US commercials, just random stuff about OPSEC, COMSEC, and not letting the commies in.

        1. Oh yea duh! I knew that but clearly it slipped my mind. Carry on then.

          In too deep like Omar Epps? Ah forget it you probably won’t get that one either. Haha. Glad you’re in this deep and are partially responsible for giving us this wonderful website.

  6. Finally, cars I can actually debate the merits of! Instead of just violently retching at the mere thought of.

    That said, this one’s genuinely tough. Because neither of these are really ‘shitboxes.’ The Honda won’t be setting any track records – oh wait, HAM did set track records with one of these at Mid-Ohio for giggles – and it’ll probably run another 100k. I’d be very wary of the transmission at those miles, and there’s absolutely no way it hasn’t been rebuilt. But all in all… I mean, where’s the shitbox portion? I guess having to clean up all that tape mess?
    Barndoor Suburban, hell yeah. Worst thing about these is pulling the third row if you don’t need it. Pain in the ass. 90’s GM interior is definitely a big minus, but it’s got the 5.7 truck motor and if the transmission was rebuilt correctly, another 100k before it needs overhauled again. And being a 5.7 4L60 combo, throw a rock in a junkyard and you’ll hit 30. Sure, the paint’s tired, but again: where’s the shitbox part?

    With either car, parts are fairly easy to find. Won’t have any problems finding anything you need. LKQ’s got a literal baker’s dozen of 3.5L Odysseys at my local. Barndoor Suburbans are a little harder in the body parts department, but 5.7/4L60/4×4 parts? Yeah.

    Either one of these is 100% get in and drive, with maybe a few hours of work to really shine. We need a “both of these are solid” option.

      1. Very much so. Both will haul 7 passengers, both could greatly benefit from a junkyard trip but certainly don’t require one. Pending a basic inspection, I’d wager either one could make a cross-country trip with no concerns as-is. (Might need some bushings or the like.) I mean, it’s going to cost you an absolute fucking fortune in the Suburban. But as long as your credit card holds up and you hold off the existential dread, I don’t see any reason the car wouldn’t.

        And I talk shit about GM interiors, but honestly, 2006 was lightyears better than anything from the 90’s. It’s not a buzzing, rattling collection of scrap that will routinely just fall off while driving and disintegrate in the first 100k miles. My only real bitching point is many of the plastics being too hard and cheap feeling. (Which definitely doesn’t apply to the seats and leather. They stole ’em from Buick. They’re really quite nice.)

        1. Derp. Uh. I mixed up Suburbans. (Though 42 gallons is correct.)
          Please don’t look at Doug’s site.

          Still, the ’96 does have nice seats lifted from Buick too. Just, uh, don’t yank that door handle too hard unless you’ve got a slimjim on hand. This goes triple if you’re inside the car because otherwise you’ll have to try and exit through the passenger side. It’s not fun.

    1. I think you might be taking the term “shitbox” too literally. It’s just a nice bit of alliteration (coined by Jason, I’m pretty sure) and shorthand for anything under $2500 that I feel like writing about. Some of them might very well be actual decent cars! Purely by coincidence, of course.

    2. The thing that makes these shitboxes is more subtle. The whole reason that you have lots of cheap 01-05 Odysseys and Accords is that the transmission is questionable and the ones in the junkyard were probably put there by a bad transmission, so you can’t trust that you can grab a junkyard part and go.

      And the whole reason that you have a bunch of cheap west coast Suburbans is that gas has been punishingly expensive for a long time, so they’re expensive as a daily family hauler.

      Of the two, the Suburban is less likely to strand me away from home, but I’m going to wince every time I spend as much as $200 to fill it up.

  7. The Odyssey would make a great getaway vehicle. Just pull onto a busy street and vanish.
    “Uh, were looking for a bronzish/taupish/beigish minivan, keep your eyes peeled.”

    The quality of pictures posted here is actually pretty good. You can really smell the interiors just by looking at the images.

  8. 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

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. So many times these choices are both giant pieces of crap and it’s hard to hold your nose and pick. Today, both vehicles are great deals. The answer to the question is, which one will serve your own personal needs better? For me personally it’s the Suburban by a mile because I actually go off-road and on bad roads plus I occasionally tow, and I have a Suburban right now for those very purposes. Clean this candidate Suburban up a bit mechanically and throw some KO2s on there and you’re good to go. But 20 year ago me raising two kids at the time would have taken the Odyssey in a heartbeat. I’m not ashamed of my love for minivans. The only real knock on the Odyssey is that transmission made out of glass but it’s a solvable problem.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. This is a tough one. The Odyssey is the better choice for moving people with its fuel economy and accessible interior. If you want to haul all of the things in any conditions, the Suburban rises to the top. I’ll vote for the Suburban because my family already has a couple of efficient daily drivers. For something that does my weekend garden and home improvement hauling, I really can’t go wrong with a Suburban.

  16. Suburban arguably didn’t become a model name at Chevrolet until GM trademarked the name in 1988. Prior to that, Suburban was more of a body style designation (like coupe, sedan, or wagon) that dates back to the 1930’s.

    Over the years, Studebaker, Hudson, Willys, DeSoto, Plymouth (and probably others) all have released “Suburban” models. Plymouth used the name as late as 1978 on their Fury Suburban wagon.

    See this link for more about the origins of the Suburban bodystyle.

  17. If it’s a daily driver for running people around, the Odyssey wins all day every day. If it’s only going to be needed to haul ALL the things around on a weekend, the Suburban is the right choice (but you should probably double-check the tow rating on the Odyssey just to make sure it can’t meet your needs).

    1. Towing with a FWD transmission already known for being made of glass? I wouldn’t care if it were rated for 10k lbs, I’d be worried about towing a lawnmower with it.

  18. These are both good choices. Get the Odyssey if you need to get better than 13 mpg (19 mpg still ain’t great, but it’s better enough to make up the $500 price differential pretty quickly) and get the Suburban if you need 4WD and towing capability. Both vehicles can potentially run forever; the Odyssey may break less often, but the ‘Burb will be simpler to fix.

    For me personally, I’d prefer the Odyssey as a daily since the mileage won’t make me cry whenever I go to the pump, and it’s going to have a quieter, more refined ride and be easier to maneuver in parking lots and such. I’d prefer the Suburban though for a second or third car that didn’t get used so often, but was there when I needed a big ol’ lump hammer of a vehicle to drag some stuff around with.

    1. Well as someone who up until recently spent $300 a week or more on gasoline. If the vehicle makes you money you buy what suits you best. Or if as people say most people should buy EV because their commute is less than 50 miles. So an EV works but also just keep driving the gas guzzler because you ain’t driving that far.

  19. My vote is the Suburban. I’ve spent some time in variations of both models, and while the Honda is a really comfortable cruiser, you can’t beat the versatility of a Suburban. Tow pig? Check. People Hauler? Check. Unstoppable Winter Beater? Check check check. The 5.7L V8/4L60E is a pretty robust combination, parts are super common and stupid cheap. Its a win-win for a people mover, at least for me.

    1. Yeah I used to believe that before I ran a fleet of 4 of these stalwart vehicles. Turns out the parts differ year to year and the electronics and other settings absolutely destroyed the ability to transfer a different engine or transmission between vehicles.

  20. Those GMT 400’s are pretty damn reliable but with fuel costs the way they are now and Honda reliability being on par or better than the GMT – I’m going with the Odyssey.
    Plus I imagine the 4speed in the suburban has gotta be an absolute dog

    1. Nah. GMT400’s got the 4L60 for the 1500’s. Won’t be blowing doors off anyone with this one, but it’s perfectly fine. Worst part of these has always been trying to park them – they’re genuinely massive, even the 1500’s. And the turning radius is measured in miles.
      Oh, and the fuel. Single digit city isn’t atypical, 14-16 MPG highway, and a 42 gallon tank. Probably should call it $2700, because yeah, it’s a $200 fill up.

      1. Not in my neighborhood. That’s a $264 fill-up. Two years ago I would have merrily picked the Suburban as the fun shitbox, but I don’t have anything to tow, and I’d have to pull out the seats to use the Suburban as anything other than a peoplemover. It’s simply become totally and completely impractical for that purpose. If I wanted to go offroad, I’d want something considerably smaller. If I wanted to haul stuff, I’d want something without 3 rows of leather seats. If I wanted to tow a trailer, I’d consider it. But if I want to move people around in relative comfort and only bleed money out my ears and no other orifices, then the Odyssey gets the vote. I currently have a 2011 Odyssey. It’s fine.

        1. About 20 years ago I obtained a 1968 F250 Camper Special with a 360 big block and a lovely old camper on it. Got it from the original owner. He’d taken excellent care of it, and had recently sunk $5K into the transmission and various other bits. Quite a cream puff. He gave it to me for $0 because gasoline had just recently topped $2/gallon for the first time in SoCal and it appeared to be permanent, and he honestly thought he’d never be able to sell that 7 mpg beast for any real money, nor would he ever be able to afford to drive it again. This is like that. That Suburban’s useful days are over.

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