When people think about minivans, three models typically come to mind, effectively shutting out the excellent but essentially invisible Kia Sedona.
Chrysler popularized the segment in the 1980s, and so lots of people generically think of a “Chrysler minivan” without making much of a distinction between a Pacifica or a Grand Caravan. The Chrysler Pacifica replaced the Town & Country for 2017, and is an impressive effort. It is completely different from and a far more modern design than today’s Dodge Grand Caravan, which has never been impressive and which we strongly discourage you from buying.
The Toyota Sienna earns a place in America’s minivan consciousness, too, though today’s design is rapidly closing in on a decade old. Toyota has upgraded the Sienna over the years, but structurally it is the only minivan aside from the dopey Dodge that does not earn top marks in all Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) crash test assessments.
And then there is the Honda Odyssey, the favorite of moms and dads everywhere*. For 2018, the Odyssey is completely redesigned, now sitting on the same platform as the current Acura MDX and Honda Pilot, continuing to roll down the same Alabama assembly line as those two SUVs, and introducing a bevy of new features, some of which are more useful than others.
Daily News Autos editor Christian Wardlaw and his wife, contributing writer Liz Kim, are married with children. They took the first possible opportunity to borrow a 2018 Honda Odyssey, and proceeded to put well over 500 miles on it while road-tripping from one end of Southern California to the other.
Their test vehicle was an Obsidian Blue 2018 Odyssey Elite, which is the top trim level and includes everything except for dealer-installed accessories, many of which are actually useful depending on your lifestyle. The price tag came to $47,610 (including the destination charge of $940).
This is their story…
* Honda says that from 2010 to 2016 the Odyssey is been the best-selling minivan to actual car buyers like you. Other automakers sell their minivans to commercial and government entities such as rental car companies, local municipalities, etc.
How it Looks
We were at a crowded Southern California beach the other day, where I was covertly admiring a group of young folk with their toned, effortlessly fit bodies from behind my hat and sunnies. Hopefully, I wasn’t being creepy, but everyone notices nearly naked, good-looking people. They might have possessed sparking personalities, but I didn’t make the effort to get to know them.
Not nearly as conspicuous were the softer silhouettes of those who clearly had a couple of extra decades on their physical odometers, along with kids in tow behind them. They probably had sparkling personalities as well.
Metaphorically, owning a minivan makes you just as invisible as those moms and dads on the beach. When driving a minivan, strangers will not stare in envy, admiration, or appreciation. And for many people, that’s OK, because there is no way they would trade their satisfactorily cheerful and domesticated lives for the gut-wrenching turbulence and carefree lifestyles of their youth (well, maybe just for a couple of days).
No, no one notices a minivan, and if they do it’s never in the same way that they notice a low-slung, artfully sculpted vehicle, most likely wearing a luxury badge. Minivans have a wedge up front and a cube in the back, and no amount of finagling the angles changes that. But that’s the beauty of a minivan. It’s designed to carry people and things with as much efficiency as possible.
The 2018 Honda Odyssey stays true to the formula. It’s instantly recognizable as both a Honda and a minivan. The new-for-2018 design freshens almost every element, but when I walked out of our local Trader Joe’s and found my test vehicle flanked by examples of the previous two generations, it is clear that an Odyssey is an Odyssey is an Odyssey.
Overall, the 2018 Odyssey’s exterior styling is more harmonious than before, with a rounded snout and a less obvious kink in the beltline. Inside, our Elite-trim test vehicle was swathed in a whole lot of gray leather and soft-touch material, with nicely contrasting black carpets and dashboard. I’ve seen pictures of the beige interior, which in my opinion ups the upscale quotient.
Honda has taken smart steps with the new Odyssey’s styling.
As Liz points out, it is instantly identifiable as such, but modernized. In particular, I like that the mid-body kink is both softened and better tied in to the rest of the design through visually related door sculpturing. With the new Odyssey, Honda also hides the sliding door track under the rear side windows, giving the kink a functional reason for existence.
By using chrome trim only along the lower portion of the greenhouse, combined with a floating roof effect for the rearmost pillars, the new Odyssey looks sportier, too. New front and rear lighting signatures add personality, and no matter which trim level you choose, you’re getting an appealing set of aluminum wheels.
Still, I think my styling preference in the segment remains the Kia Sedona. Though the Kia is more conventional, it’s not nearly as polarizing.
Open the Odyssey Elite’s driver’s door, and you’re greeted by a plush and upscale interior constructed of materials suitable for the Acura parts bin. This top trim level exudes refinement and attention to detail and, blessedly, eliminates the previous dual-screen infotainment setup. Also gone, a traditional PRNDL shifter. Instead, a set of buttons and switches is mounted to the dashboard.
Some people might not like this, but there are two good things about this new arrangement as compared to the Pilot SUV (which also uses this design, but mounted to the center console). First, they’re not positioned in a spot where you might accidentally spill a sugary, sticky drink on them. Second, they’re not surrounded by commonly used controls, which means it is less likely that you might try to put the van into Park while you’re flying down the freeway at 70 mph.
As far as a minivan’s image is concerned, an argument can be made that Odysseys are driven by people who make smart and rational decisions, people who value simplicity and practicality, and people who are confident enough in themselves not to care about the judgments made by others. After all, sex appeal isn’t limited to physical appearances, no matter what you’re ogling at the beach.
How it Feels
Slide into the 2018 Odyssey’s driver’s seat, and you’ll find that it has a similar position to the Pilot SUV (and even the Acura MDX). You sit somewhat lower than expected, and in most models the 12-way power adjustable seat’s cushion provides thigh adjustment that helps to ensure comfort. The seat itself is quite comfortable, and the leather upholstery, the leather steering wheel wrap, and, with few exceptions, the cabin’s surfaces look and feel like Acura-grade materials.
Still, I wasn’t quite as comfortable as I should have been. My body is oddly shaped, with long legs and a short torso. As a result, I like to sit up high while still needing generous legroom. When I raise the Odyssey’s driver’s seat, it seems to move up and forward at the same time, as though it assumes that only short people want to sit up nice and tall behind the steering wheel. As a result, my legs splayed a bit underneath the steering column.
Another apparent byproduct of my wonky physical characteristics, the inboard armrest remained too high and too short for comfort even when placed in its lowest setting, causing some shoulder pain on a longer drive. As a result, I needed to flip it up and out of the way, leaving me without a comfortable place to rest my arm.
Notably, I suffered none of these comfort complaints while riding in the front passenger’s seat. It lacks a seat height adjuster and adjustable thigh support, but I didn’t find these omissions worthy of complaint. Also, the armrest on this side of the van was just fine. Legroom is still unusually tight on the right, though, my knees enjoying just an inch or two of dashboard clearance even with the seat positioned as far back in its track as it would go.
Equipped with a new “Magic Slide” second-row design (nothing magic about it, actually), the Odyssey offers a wide range of seating positions and configurations designed to accommodate a range of family life stages and requirements.
Want an infant in the middle of the minivan, easily accessible to a parent? Want younger kids centered side-by-side away from the sliding doors for improved safety in a side-impact collision? Want teenagers separated into clearly defined regions with a central demilitarized zone? Want effortless access to the third-row seat, which in our test vehicle had its own air conditioning vents, headphone jacks, and side window shades? Honda accommodates all of these parental desires.
The Odyssey’s second- and third-row seats are quite comfortable, with plenty of legroom and thigh support in all outboard seating positions. Of course, the middle seats are best used only when necessary. Triple-zone automatic climate control is standard for all but the Odyssey LX model, and it includes both air filtration and a humidity sensor. Second-row sunshades are also standard on all but the LX, while third-row shades are reserved for Touring and Elite models.
Featuring a 60/40 split-folding design, the third-row “Magic Seat” folds and flips into the rear cargo well to create a flat load floor. Sometimes this works with a single, smooth, one-handed motion and sometimes it doesn’t, stalling instead in the reverse-facing position that is useful under a variety of circumstances, such as when watching your kid play soccer. No matter what, the “magic” only works if you’re not the kind of minivan owner who carries a bunch of junk in his or her trunk.
Putting the third-row seat into the floor expands the 32.8 cubic-foot trunk into an 86.6 cu.-ft. cavern (more for LX and EX models). To put that into perspective, the Honda Odyssey carries five people at the same time that it carries more cargo than a Honda Pilot can when it has just a driver and front passenger aboard. With the Odyssey, you don’t need to kick your offspring out of the vehicle in order to carry a whole bunch of stuff.
Maximum cargo capacity measures 140.7 cu.-ft. (more in LX and EX models), which is significantly more than even a Chevrolet Suburban. However, to use it you’ll need to remove the second-row seats and store them in your garage. You’re not going to want to do that. They’re heavy, requiring a healthy back to get them out of the vehicle and into storage.
Re-installing them is even more fun. While I wrestled the left second-row seat back into the van, sweat poured from my brow, and more than once while aligning it onto its base it slid and sucker-punched me, skewing my glasses and causing utterances unsafe for pre-teen ears.
If you think you’re ever going to need to require a minivan’s maximum cargo capacity, especially on a regular basis, just get a Chrysler Pacifica or a Kia Sedona because with those two models you never, ever, need to remove the second-row seats.
A part of the Odyssey’s appeal is that it’s like rolling around in your own living room. You can bring all the people, snacks and entertainment that you want, and you’ll easily find seats, nooks and crannies in which to store them.
The Odyssey’s seats are as comfy as the chairs in our living room, too, and I was able to find an ideal driving position. As for the front passenger’s seat, I usually complain about the lack of a seat height adjuster, but in minivans I don’t miss this feature as much because the windows are typically tall enough for a good view out.
Admittedly, I never wrestled with the second-row seats, but I can see how the design of the Chrysler and Kia would be superior to that of the Odyssey if you’re always in need of maximum cargo space. That said, if your steerage usually consists of people rather than stuff, the Odyssey’s crazy, origami-like methods of arranging the seats would be more helpful.
One of the features that makes a minivan superior to most crossover SUVs is the huge bin behind the third-row seats, which is just big enough and deep enough to hold a week’s worth of groceries, but not so big that they fall over, with said groceries rolling around everywhere.
How it Works
Chris, remember how you told me about the time that you were surreptitiously necking with your mom’s friend’s daughter in the cargo area of their station wagon when you were 10? On the day that Elvis died, as your mom and her mom cried about the loss of The King while driving south on Michigan’s I-75? You never would have gotten away with that in a 2018 Odyssey.
New this year, CabinWatch allows parents, who are so inclined, to spy on the villains in the second- and third-row seats. A camera is mounted right next to the rear entertainment system, and captures a real-time view of the entire back of the van, projecting it onto the infotainment system’s display screen.
Another new feature is CabinTalk. When the kids are focusing on a movie instead of the gorgeous wonders of the world outside the windows, you can interrupt their 22nd screening of “Moana” via CabinTalk. Accessed through the infotainment system, CabinTalk allows parents to narrate, tour-guide style, and in a normal tone of voice, transmitting what you’re saying into the headphones and through the third-row seat speakers.
CabinControl is also new, a smartphone app that provides access to a variety of climate, entertainment, and navigation functions. For example, the Social Playlist feature allows various passengers to connect via Bluetooth and to add their favorite songs to compiled playlist running through the main audio system. This is a great way to ward off arguments about who gets to play DJ, and if someone insists on playing anything other than a radio edit version of a particular song, you can just kick them off the system.
Our test vehicle was also equipped with a wireless charging tray that proved useless to our family. It’s about time those jerks at Apple made their devices compatible (they are rumored to offer a wireless charging feature with the iPhone 8). At least when I was plugged into Apple CarPlay, the quick-charge USB port speedily juiced my phone.
Honda has improved its infotainment system interface, too, ditching the previous dual-screen setup for a single screen display. It’s just about perfect, but lacks a tuning knob. Call me old-school, but I prefer to twist from station to station. I also prefer knobs rather than switches for adjusting climate system temperature, but at least the Odyssey’s were readily accessible.
Looks like you’ve covered all of the primary innovations associated with the new Odyssey’s technologies, as well as Honda’s continued insistence to leave a radio tuning knob off of the menu.
I don’t get it. And I can’t be the only person in 2017 America who is constantly switching from Fox to CNN to MSNBC to find out who said what and when. I just want to reach over without looking away from the road, twist from channel 116 to channel 118 and, if they’re running commercials, channel 114, and simmer in my dumbfounded disbelief.
While futzing around with the navigation system, I noticed that it includes a breadcrumbing feature. Usually this is helpful when exploring off-road, helping a driver to return safely to civilization. However, I can also see this as useful on a family road trip to parts unknown.
Oh, and by the way, you know way too much about me and have too sharp a memory. Strikes me as dangerous.
How it Drives
Let the record show that the 2018 Odyssey is the first vehicle I’ve ever driven equipped with a 10-speed automatic transmission. Furthermore, let the record show that I didn’t even notice the difference aside from the occasional delayed multi-gear downshift to obtain passing power on freeways.
This is a new Honda-engineered transmission, and its installation in the Odyssey Touring and Elite models represents the first time a front-drive vehicle has had this many gears. Aside from how it allows the van to roll too much after parking on a hill, and how you need to ride the brakes when descending a gentle grade, I’ve got no complaints. The transmission holds a lower gear for climbing hills and mountainsides, it has both Eco and Sport driving modes in addition to its normal setting, and it even comes with a set of paddle shifters that you are highly unlikely to ever use.
Based on our experience, however, fuel economy isn’t a dramatic benefactor of the change. According to the EPA, the 2018 Odyssey should get 22 mpg in combined driving, same as last year’s model and the same as 2018 models with the standard 9-speed automatic. Rather, I surmise that Honda simply wants to use its own transmission design instead of someone else’s, especially given the complaints voiced about the supplier-sourced 9-speed automatic the company employs in the Acura MDX, Honda Pilot, and new Odyssey LX, EX, and EX-L.
Power is provided by a direct-injected, 3.5-liter V6 engine equipped with fuel-saving variable cylinder management technology, which allows the engine to operate on four cylinders under certain driving conditions in order to conserve fuel. The Touring and Elite trim levels also include automatic engine stop/start technology, though official EPA ratings indicate that the system has zero impact on fuel efficiency.
Powerful and refined, the engine makes 280 horsepower and 262 lb.-ft. of torque, and had no trouble motivating the Odyssey Elite’s 4,593 pounds. Granted, we didn’t load it up with lots of people or cargo like we did recently while reviewing a Kia Sedona, but with just our family and beach gear aboard the Odyssey proved quick and responsive. During our test-driving, much of which was conducted on freeways, the Honda averaged 22.2 mpg for the week. Separately, I got 21.4 mpg on my usual test loop.
No matter where you drive the new Odyssey, you’re likely to notice two major improvements compared to the previous model. First, especially in Elite trim, it is remarkably quiet inside. Honda uses an acoustic windshield in all Odysseys with leather seats, and the Elite also gets acoustic glass for the front door and sliding door windows. Second, this minivan’s underlying architecture is remarkably robust. Unlike, say, a Toyota Sienna, the Odyssey doesn’t feel like a big, empty, wiggly box over broken pavement. It feels solid, secure, and able to shrug off road anomalies that have traditionally given minivans the jitters.
Combine the Odyssey’s next-generation Advanced Compatibility Engineering (ACE) body structure with its relatively low center of gravity and the Elite trim level’s exclusive 19-inch aluminum wheels, and you’ve got a remarkably athletic minivan. Even the snugged down seating position helps to impart a sensation of driving enjoyment.
On the twists and turns of Southern California’s Mulholland Highway, the Odyssey proved easy to place in corners thanks to its consistently weighted and accurate steering, while impressive roll control and weight management combined with good grip from the 235/55R19 tires instilled confidence in the driver. The Touring and Elite models also have a slightly thicker rear stabilizer bar, and the Elite benefits from a 55:45 front-to-rear weight distribution.
The Odyssey’s brakes, however, might require an upgrade. Granted, the only time I experienced any fade was while I hustled the van from nearly 2,000 feet of elevation down to sea level on a twisty mountain road. And to be fair, the fade was subtle rather than dramatic. But it did occur, with just a driver aboard, and with early morning temperatures in the high 50s. Aside from this, though, the Odyssey’s stoppers work beautifully, and pedal calibration is perfection.
While driving the Odyssey on the twisty section of my test loop, I zoomed up behind a vehicle that was going the posted speed. Ordinarily, when I’m testing a minivan, I follow behind, as long as the car up front is maintaining a reasonable pace. With the Odyssey, I pulled over for a few minutes, allowing for a nice, long interval to develop, because I wanted to shove this minivan into corners with a little more verve than usual.
Goodness, you can carry quite a bit of speed in the Odyssey. The ride and handling amount to more than just competence. There is a spirit and liveliness here that you really don’t expect in a minivan, and which you won’t find in the competition. In fact, I enjoyed driving the Odyssey more than I did a Pilot Elite that we tested a few months back.
The Odyssey’s steering seems sharper, the brake pedal feels good underfoot, and the minivan simply displays more eagerness to play than a Pilot. It actually communicates what’s going on beneath the wheels, and there is a sense of solidity that promotes confidence in its driver. The firmly planted feel doesn’t result in harshness on broken city pavement or a jarring ride over pavement undulations, the sophisticated suspension successfully maintaining cabin serenity. The new Odyssey is much quieter inside, too, in Elite trim anyway.
Kudos are due to Honda for the 3.5-liter V6 engine, which supplies broad-shouldered strength all across its rev range. The only gripe I had with the engine is that the fuel-saving automatic engine start/stop feature is a little harsh when the engine re-engages, and is not as seamless in operation as I’ve experienced in other vehicles.
The Honda-engineered 10-speed transmission is an improvement over the complaint-laden 9-speed ZF unit that Honda uses in the Pilot (and in less expensive versions of the new Odyssey). My biggest peeve with the transmission is the collection of buttons and switches mounted on the dashboard. The array is integrated into the center stack of controls, which is an awful place for them. Not only would it be easy to accidentally push a transmission button while your hands are reaching for something entirely different, but I can also imagine scenarios where you just forget to put the Odyssey into Park in the midst of the button-pushing frenzy required by modern vehicles.
Remember how easy it was to pull into a parking space, shift the lever up into Park, and twist the keys out of the ignition? So do I. Was anyone really bothered so much by it? I think not.
My, don’t we sound like a cranky old lady who just watched “Gran Torino”?
I think the reasons that you found the new Odyssey so much more enjoyable to drive than the Pilot, despite their shared vehicle architectures, is that the minivan benefits from a lower center of gravity, a longer wheelbase, a wider track, and a better balanced distribution of weight over the front and rear wheels. The minivan weighs a couple of hundred pounds more, too, which possibly helps to enhance that solid and secure feeling you discussed.
Expectations also account for a lot. We’ve driven three minivans in a row now (Sedona, Pacifica, and now Odyssey), and have reminded ourselves of what a typical minivan feels like. The Odyssey’s surprisingly deft moves make it the only one I’d want for taking the long, scenic way home. (Slow clap for Honda’s suspension engineers.)
Would we buy one?
For the better part of the past two decades, people shopping for a new minivan had to see if every other minivan on the market could measure up to the Odyssey. That’s because the Odyssey has been considered the ne plus ultra of family haulers, with its reputation for dependability, people-friendly features, and decent driving characteristics.
Anecdotally, I know plenty of families who own a Honda Odyssey, and pretty much every one of them have expressed happiness with their trusty steed, which has faithfully performed as a low-maintenance and loyal companion on family adventures.
The 2018 Odyssey improves upon these traits. Were I in the market for a minivan, the Odyssey would be on the top of my list. It’s got every feature imaginable, it’s fun to drive, it’s flexible, and it’s made in America.
Yeah, I would buy a 2018 Honda Odyssey. In fact, I’m ready to go to the Honda dealership right now.
Liz and I prefer cloth seats but refuse to buy a new vehicle that doesn’t include automatic emergency braking or a blind-spot warning system. Furthermore, we don’t want a DVD entertainment system. Honda’s reworking of its standard equipment lists means that a 2018 Odyssey EX is our dream family car, and it costs less than $35,000. I even like the 18-inch aluminum wheel design on this model, and the next-generation ACE vehicle architecture is almost certain to result in top-notch crash protection ratings.
Thus, with the rap of a figurative gavel, Honda has sold this middle-aged suburbanite father on the merits of the 2018 Odyssey. Now, when can I get a plug-in hybrid version?
Did you find this article helpful? If so, please share it using the “Join the Conversation” buttons below, and thank you for visiting Daily News Autos.