When it comes to minivans in the USA, it’s often viewed as a two-horse race: You’re either a Honda Odyssey family or a Toyota Sienna family.
The Odyssey, first rolled out in the mid-1990s, has a reputation for better engineering and superior driving dynamics, while the Sienna, arriving a little later, has a smushier ride and is perhaps made to last a bit longer.
You could think of the Odyssey as the BMW of minivans and the Sienna the Mercedes — and you are free to do so because the Germans don’t sell a minivan in the US.
What about Dodge-Chrysler, you might ask? Didn’t they invent the minivan? Yes, they did, and with the Chrysler Town and Country, discontinued in 2016 after 27 years, they had the Cadillac of minivans. They now sell the Pacifica, which has famously become a platform for Waymo’s self-driving technology (minivans have been losing out to SUVs for a decade, but, funny enough, Silicon Valley might stage a renaissance). Thus far, the vehicle has been a big hit.
We’re checking out the Sienna later this year, but we recently borrowed an all-new Odyssey and spent a week sampling one-half of the magnificent minivan duo.
Here’s what we thought of our absolutely jammed-packed-with-features $US47,610 Elite trim-level test car. (The base LX is about $US30,000.)
Power sliding doors. Power liftgate. Seating for seven. Enough cargo capacity to transport half a youth soccer team or a newly formed garage band. Yes, it's the mighty 2018 Honda Odyssey, fifth-generation edition, built in Alabama, USA, all-new but still all Odyssey.
Full disclosure: I'm a former Odyssey owner. I had a 2007 model, also in burgundy ('Deep Scarlet,' for 2018). My family of five laid waste to it, but we loved it to pieces. So I've counted myself as member of Odyssey Nation, but I came to the new 2018 with objectivity.
... the back. Notice that line of chrome, slipping down slightly on its way to the rear. For the previous generation of the vehicle, Honda used a bold 'lightning bolt' zigzag, after the previous generation's line was straight. This was controversial, and the element has been dialed back for the 2018 model.
The idea with the original Z shape was to create a slightly larger window for the third-row occupants. Otherwise, Honda has flashed up the Odyssey a bit with a stylish, symmetrical curving indentation that flows across the vehicles flanks. It's attractive, but fans of the good old boxy body style from two generations ago will probably be miffed, just as they were by the lightning bolt with the fourth gen.
I consider myself a third-gen partisan, but that's also like being a fan of the C3 Corvette -- the 'Boogie Nights'-era Vette -- and expecting the classic design to never, ever change. The G3 Odyssey was perfect, but in many ways the G5 version lives up to the name better.
From the front, the presentation of chrome is more concentrated and connected more aggressively to the headlights. The trick with minivans obviously is to prevent the front fascia from appearing to blocky and panel-van-like. Honda has been good at this.
... when opened (it's power-assisted) the Odyssey's cargo capacity is simply vast, better than most SUVs due to the sunken well behind the rear wheels.
... and you've got enough space to travel in style. I had a tough time finding anything big enough to put in there to show the scale.
All righty -- so let's face facts. We're dealing with the minivan here. It's a large rectangular box with wheels. But let's give it to Honda for adding that groovy spoiler to the rear roofline.
There are quite a few controls on the fob. But you need a lot of control with a feature-packed beast like the Odyssey Elite: power liftgate, power sliding doors on both sides, remote start.
Speaking of the power sliding doors, Honda uses a design that involves a track that runs along the van's belt-line. The competing Toyota Sienna employs a 'hanging' design that has the track up at the roofline.
I could spend some time discussing the dimensions of the interior, but it all boils down to one word: ROOMY. Everywhere you look, space, space, and more space. Seven adults can be quite comfortable in this vehicle, and you really can't say that about even modern three-row SUVs.I get in and out of low-slung sports car for a living, and the Odyssey ease of ingress and egress were a welcome change.
So this part is going to take a while. I'll understand if you want to skip ahead to the verdict ... Reviewing the interior of a minivan is like covering a luxury hotel room or the bridge of submarine. We have oodles of things to talk about, culminating in a vacuum cleaner.
The instrument cluster and steering wheel continue a theme of ergonomic excellence for Honda. The leather-wrapped wheel feels good, the controls are simple to use, and the instruments in the main cluster are simple.
To be honest, as responsive as the Odyssey is to drive -- a longtime selling point -- the electric-assist steering felt a little funny to me. I liked the more direct sense of connection I got from my old '07 Odyssey. But hey, it's heated!
Seats? Up front, they are blissfully comfy.
The Odyssey Elite features paddle shifters, so you can shift gears in manual mode. In a minivan. Yes, in a minivan. I didn't really use them. Well, once. But it felt wrong. Not again.
Getting in and out of the second and third rows is what's most critical about a minivan. The Odyssey provides a step-in for row two ...
The second-row seats can be shifted around in rails, and the center seat can be removed altogether. This means you can create a center pass-through, or pair the two remaining center seats and slide them to one side, making an aisle on the side.
Just so you know, I'm probably leaving some stuff out here. I had the Odyssey Elite for a week, which was barely enough time to get to know the basics, much less plunge into the depth of how its can configured and reconfigured.
The center second-row seat folds down to present three cupholders and a storage compartment. So let's talk cupholders. The 2018 Odyssey has over a dozen. Heck yeah! CUPHOLDERS!!!
Storage is EVERYWHERE. Owners will need discipline to avoid keeping half of everything they owned stashed in the Odyssey.
It's hard to do justice how large some of the trays and compartments are. You have to move up to big pickups to get anything similar.
By the way, a cool feature in the sunglasses compartment: a convex mirror that lets the driver or front passenger -- 'dad' or 'mum,' in no particular order -- see what's up in the back seats.
Before we get into the tech features, let's look at a throwback element to the entertainment system: a flip-down rear screen.
Two sets of wireless headphones enable rear passengers to watch what they want without disturbing everybody else.
These rear systems are intended to small kids who aren't into devices yet. The new Odyssey has 4G LTE WiFi connectivity, so many older kids and teenagers will simply prefer their own mobile gadgets. But for younger children, the value of being able to pop a DVD in or use some of the Odyssey's built in streaming and USB-interface options will be appealing to parents.
Honda doesn't have the best infotainment system in the business -- GM's and Audi's are better -- but in the Odyssey, you're not lacking for anything. There's an 11-speaker premium audio system. Bluetooth and USB connectivity, plenty of places to plug in (as well as 110V regular outlet), AUX ports, navigation, and a voice-command setup.
... and even speak to folks in the second and third rows using the CabinTalk feature! It works even with those who are wearing the wireless headphones.
The infotainment system is jam packed, but after all this is a minivan, so you can discover all manner of intriguing features if you root around. Such as this concealed funnel, in case you run our of gas and need to refuel from a gas can.
Let's get into some nuts and bolts. Honda used a push-button start-stop and a push-button shifting system. The old shift lever is gone. The transmission is a 10-speed automatic.
The motor will turn itself on and off to save fuel and reduce emissions, but you can disable the function. In addition to a normal drive mode, there's a 'sequential' mode that engages the paddle shifters. Econ and snow modes max out fuel economy (which is 19 city/28 highway/22 combined according to the EPA) and help with traction in sloppy weather.
Transmission with lots of gears like the Odyssey's 10-speed have come in for some criticism. They're designed to provide great MPGs, but some consumers have complained that drivetrains get confused with all the extra choices beyond the older six- and seven-speed units, particularly on downshifts.
The Odyssey presented none of those problems. Then again, most folks won't drive their minivans in a spirited enough fashion to notice anything, and while the fuel-economy is solid for a vehicle of this size, it isn't great, so every little bit helps.
And now for the coolest feature on the Odyssey Elite: the HondaVAC! That's right, Honda put a vacuum cleaner in a minivan. Genius!
This isn't a super-powerful vacuum, but it's good enough to keep the spills that naturally occur in a vehicle intended to haul around families from reaching critical mass.
I wanted to test out the HondaVAC on the Honda, but I didn't get it dirty enough. Then I thought, hey, why not use the HondaVAC to tidy up my Prius! That's right, I used to HONDA to clean a TOYOTA!
Frankly, I don't think it drives as well as earlier generations, but it still drives better than the competition. The 0-60 is a shocking 6.6 seconds, but to be expected from the Odyssey's tasty 3.5-litre, 280-horsepower V6, one of the greatest engines available on any vehicle. If you want merging and passing power, the Odyssey delivers, as it always has.
The minivan is large and weighs over 4,000 pounds, but it's easy to manoeuvre, with responsive steering and good brakes. As with most vehicles in this price range, a host of safety features are on deck: adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist, lane-departure warning, emergency braking. You are surrounded by the air bags and the Odyssey typically receives high marks for crashworthiness, although our tester model year hadn't yet been rated by the government.
In my experience as an Odyssey owner, reliability is good and it doesn't cost that much to maintain this minivan. Longevity is also notable. I've seen ancient examples still performing admirable family duty, and although you might bang a minivan up and render the seating areas sort of disgusting, the vehicle always cleans up well.
The versatility is unbeatable and always has been, and Honda has done great job of updating and upgrading a venerable platform. The latest generation is completely current as far as modern infotainment and connectivity go.
Obviously, there are minivan people and there are SUV people. For the SUV people, Honda has the excellent Pilot, a three-row ute that avoids the minivan stigma.
But for those who don't care and simply want a multipurpose hauler that won't fail, is sort of fun to drive, and can carry tons and tons of stuff on vacation, to sports practices, and is relatively economical to operate as a daily vehicle, the Odyssey is tough to beat. It even comes with an extra dash of exterior style for the 2018 edition.
It's difficult to know where Honda goes next with its wonderful minivan. Perhaps a snazzier infotainment system is in order, but that's about all I can think if to complain about. Otherwise, if you're looking for the finest minivan ever built by human hands, look no further than the 2018 Odyssey.
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