The minivan market in the States has been declining slowly for awhile, but that won’t stop the three top dogs in the market (Toyota Sienna, Chrysler Pacifica, and Honda) from selling hundreds of thousands of them. Even as three-row crossovers and SUVs continue to grab more buyers, minivans won’t go away. Why? Because the people who drive minivans love them and there are millions of these people. (Full disclosure: my family has beaten the snot out our 2006 Honda Odyssey, logging 150K trouble-free miles on it so far).
So it comes as no surprise that Honda is upping the minivan arms race with the latest iteration of the Odyssey, which is now more powerful, smoother, more versatile, and more luxurious than its previous version. I had a chance to spend a week with the new van here in Colorado and see how it held up to the punishment that my family can dish out on a vehicle.
Base price for the new Odyssey starts at under $30K ($940 destination & handling charge not included). The top-shelf Elite model I drove came in at $46,670. That’s a lot of coin for a vehicle that’s going to be covered in drool, yogurt, melted Crayons, spilled milk, and the other mess bombs set off by small children in confined spaces. But its a sweet rig when it’s clean.
The big news is Honda’s new 10-speed automatic transmission, which at the time the Odyssey went on sale earlier this summer was the first 10-speed hooked up to a front-wheel-drive vehicle. Only available in the high-end Touring and Elite models, the new transmission promises a smoother power delivery band vs. the 9-speed trannie spec’d in the lower-priced LX and EX models. Oddly, the EPA numbers are the same no matter which transmission you get: 19 city/28 hwy/22 combined, but the 10-speed does up the towing capacity by 500 lbs. to 3,500 lbs.
The transmission is hooked up to a new 280-horsepower V6 with variable cylinder management, meaning that at highway cruising speeds, half the cylinders are deactivated to conserve fuel.
Inside the cabin, the big news is Honda’s “Magic Slide” system for the second row of seats. Take the middle seat out, squeeze a lever along the side of the remaining seats and you can slide a seat along a track to any position you want. It’s a quick and easier way to offer access to the 3rd row seats even if someone is sitting in the 2nd-row seat. It’s clever.
Honda also made a rear-cabin camera viewable on the touchscreen infotainment screen in the dash so parents can now see exactly which kid is starting fights in the rear. There’s even a in-cabin intercom system so parents in the front row can make use of to verbally enforce the law with those in the rear.
COMFORT & CONVENIENCE
The driver’s seat is built for long hours of driving. It’s comfortable and the ergonomics between the steering wheel and seat are well thought out. Honda greatly improved the infotainment user interface. The large, swipe-able touchscreen in the center of the dash is easy to see, read, and (finally) wonderfully intuitive. Bonus, there’s an actual volume knob–a missing feature that Honda owners have complained about for years. Likewise Honda was smart to keep the climate control separate from the touchscreen: a row of analog buttons below the touchscreen take care of it.
The second row Magic Slide seats struck me as a neat engineering trick until I realized what was lost. The seats are physically narrower than the ones on my 3rd generation Odyssey. Another difference: the 2nd-row center seat, while removable, doesn’t collapse into a stowable form that can fit into the secret storage compartment in the floor between the 1st and 2nd row. In the new Odyssey Elite, that space holds the spare tire.
The third-row seats are comfortable enough although the windows for those passengers are tiny. There’s a swooping exterior design element along the top rear side corners of the van that encompasses the rear pillars, and I’m assuming it is there to make the minivan look smaller. Unfortunately, for my kids, it exacerbates the tunnel-vision vibe back there and my kids’ potential for motion sickness (Trust me, the first time you clean up a kid’s vomit due to this issue it becomes something to think about.). Granted, there is a built-in vacuum cleaner accessible in the left, rear quarter panel, and it is hardy enough to suck up pea-gravel like debris through its lengthy hose that easily reaches the floor underneath the front seats. But it’s no a wet/dry vac.
As for the in-cabin view and intercom, I loved it. My kids? They thought is was creepy and invasive. In other words, it does exactly what it should do (Sorry, kids!)
The Elite model came with a ceiling-mounted Blu-ray screen, wireless headphones for the 2nd-row seats. Standard stuff in premium family haulers, but I was impressed to see that Honda put headphone jacks and a volume control in the third-row seats so kids back there can watch and hear what’s playing. That’s indicative of the amount of thought and care that went into this vehicle. Weird, while there are plenty of power outlets and an HDMI jack for the video screen there are only 3 USB ports throughout the vehicle.
The Odyssey also comes available with 4G/LTE WiFi capability through AT&T’s network. As with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto ability (which the new Odyssey has) this should be a standard feature on any vehicle sold today for families. Essentially it turns the entire vehicle into one giant cellular antenna and significantly boosting the range and quality of your cellular connection over the puny antenna in your smartphone. With it you can wire your phones into the car’s network, and, if I understand this correctly, use the Bluetooth connection to stream video or music through the Odyssey’s stereo or video screen.
My kids couldn’t wait to make this work, but after consulting the owner’s manual and several Honda-produced YouTube instructional videos, we never got our phones to connect to the network. (To Honda’s credit, they did offer me a step-by-step install on this set-up when they dropped off the van, but I declined. How hard could it be? I figured).
Outside of moving up to eight people with enough room left over for their luggage, the appeal of a minivan is how easy it is to haul a myriad of stuff. Just fold the 3rd row seats into the floor and there’s enough room for bikes, strollers, pool floats, dogs, etc. Take the 2nd row out and you’re left with a cargo van big enough to hold kayaks, lumber, a make shift bed to live out your #vanlife dreams. Minivans make so many errands so much easier.
The new Odyssey does the same although I found two things to quibble about compared to my ancient 2006 Odyssey: First the roof is nearly two inches lower. That’s great for accessing gear on a roof rack, but not so much for shoving bikes or other tall objects into the rear of the van. Second, with the 3rd row seats folded into the floor and the 2nd-row of seats removed, there is even less flat space than in my gen-van. Between the fat hinges for the 3rd row seats, the floor vents for heat, and the tracks for the Magic Slide 2nd row seats there’s really no evenly flat surface for stacking anything such as moving boxes.
Here’s where the new Odyssey absolutely shines. The engine and transmission, the suspension, and the type of all-season tires spec’d by Honda make this minivan that people who love driving should buy. The 262 lb-ft. of torque that the V6 dumps into the front wheels will make the tires squawk. I’ve never seen or heard a stock minivan do that before. The 10-speed with the paddle shifter set-up in the Elite made downshifts into the corners of mountain switchbacks welcome. For such a purposely functional vehicle, it’s engaging to drive. There’s even a Sport mode; amusing but fun nonetheless.
The steering feels more precise than what I’ve experienced in the Odyssey’s competitive set. But don’t misunderstand me: it still handles like a minivan. Once up to speed, the Honda cruises along effortlessly and significantly quieter than my old van.
My test model came with an Eco mode that modifies the shift points to maximize fuel economy, however I found that the mode gutted the Odyssey’s performance with minimal boost in fuel economy. There’s also a Snow mode button that puts the vehicle’s traction control system on high alert and adjust the transmission’s shift points to reduce tire-spinning grunt.
In many Honda vehicles these days, the gear shifter is gone, replaced with push buttons. Many people don’t like the change, but the Odyssey is first time where I finally experienced its appeal. To Reverse, I pulled a small button down. To put it into Drive, I pushed a button. And what I found was that after a couple of days, I was going between each without needing to look at the gear selector. I could keep my eyes on the road or school parking lot around me. In some ways, it reminded me of working a manual gear shift in that you know what gear you’re in by feel.
TFLCAR’s TAKE: If you want bleeding edge technology, try the Chrysler Pacifica Plug-In Hybrid. If you want all-wheel-drive, try the Toyota Sienna. If you want a minivan that is (relatively) fun to drive, buy the Odyssey.
To see the 2018 Honda Odyssey in action, check out TFL’s Roman Mica and his review below.