– Waikoloa Village, Hawaii
The old trope that minivans are detestable to the car-interested doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. Talk to anyone who cares a lot about driving, and there’s a better-than-average chance they’ve owned or appreciated a minivan at some point in their lives. Boring? Hardly.
Tall boxes on wheels are, as logic dictates, damned useful. Useful for hauling around kids; useful for hauling around tires for your race car (or being a race car); useful for calm commuting with visibility over a sea of traffic. Honda has, for decades now, made one of the very most useful boxes on wheels that money can buy – it’s called the Odyssey, perhaps you’ve heard of it?
Odyssey has succeeded – wildly succeeded – because of clever engineering lavished on how the stuff inside the cabin works, without ignoring the greasy bits that make any vehicle go down the road well, or poorly. All-new for 2018, I was unable to find a piece of this fifth-generation Odyssey that points to an abatement of that success.
In fact, if I were to judge the entire minivan segment on the way its furniture moves around to allow flexibility to passengers and cargo, the Odyssey might earn best-in-class honors without my typing another word.
The third row is still magical. Called “Magic Seat,” it folds into the floor with such ease, that I was able to pull off the trick while one-handing a video camera and recording a Facebook Live video. One pull on a nylon handle and the 60/40 split sections tumble quickly into a carpeted recess. Not only does that easily open up a huge, flat-floored cargo area for big and bulky items, but the well into which the seats fold is useful, even with all chairs operational, as a high-walled space to secure a grip of grocery bags, luggage, strollers, growlers of beer, what have you.
If I were to judge the entire minivan segment on the way its furniture moves around to allow flexibility to passengers and cargo, the Odyssey might earn best-in-class honors.
For 2018, the magic show has extended to the second-row captain’s chairs, too. And the new Magic Slide seats are almost certainly going to be more useful on a trip-by-trip basis than even their prestidigitator forebears. A lever mounted on the door-sides of the middle row allows each chair to be moved, and locked, to one of eight different inboard locations. Basically, this means you can open a big channel to the back seats with just one hand, for dead simple access to the ample third row. The slides also allow parents of young children to position a car seat right in the center of the vehicle – presumably in arm’s reach if you need to hand off cheerios, grab a bottle, or wipe a nose.
For parents of multiple kids with car seats, the ability to access that back row without having to unbuckle something, or climb in through the tailgate, also feels like a huge win.
The rest of the packaging, though more conventional in functionality, is equally well thought-out. There are cupholders everywhere; I didn’t count them but can’t imagine a family of six running out of beverage space quickly. Seat-back pockets, cubbies in doors, shelves, and bins seem to be just about everywhere. Bases should be covered for all the detritus of typical family life.
But Honda has gone far beyond covering the bases when it comes to the digital tech in this new minivan. To start, there are a couple of very useful systems for keeping those back passengers in proper order.
The first is a mic that allows the driver’s voice to be amplified by way of the rear speakers. Called Cabin Talk, the setup also pipes Mom or Dad’s voice through the rear-entertainment headphones, just like the pilot of a commercial aircraft. “Stop punching your brother!” will be delivered with more authority than ever before.
Honda has gone far beyond covering the bases when it comes to the digital tech in this new minivan.
Cabin Watch, meanwhile, is slightly less loud and a little more surreptitious. With the press of a button on the infotainment screen, a camera’s slightly fish-eyed view of the second and third rows can be pulled up – and zoomed in on.
If I were the one making the minivan payments, I might construct an argument that rear-seat entertainment doesn’t make a lot of financial sense in a world where internet-enabled tablets (the Odyssey also has 4G wi-fi, by the way) are so ubiquitous. Still, Honda hasn’t stood pat on the rear-screen and system. Kid-friendly apps like PBS Kids Video, TG, and HappyKids.TV are baked into the software, and there’s even a program called “How Much Farther?” that gives little ones a gamified answer to the world’s most common road-trip question (the new Chrysler Pacifica has a similar feature, for the record). The system will also play Blu-ray DVDs, so you won’t lose a ton of resolution when you take Finding Dory on the road.
There’s even a smartphone app that can add to the passenger experience. “Cabin Control” can let passengers adjust the rear HVAC settings, add songs to a communal playlist, and more. I’ll be honest in saying the idea of my 12-year-old changing the music from two seats behind me makes me squint with future rage… but I’m told I need to loosen up a little.
Returning to the fundamentals: The Odyssey doesn’t just swallow Costco purchases and keep the kiddos quiet when going to see your sister in Wisconsin… it drives! Honda has revamped the powertrain for 2018, with an easy-going 3.5-liter V6 at the heart of things. This new sixer makes a healthy 280 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque, a jump of 32 hp and 12 lb-ft from the outgoing 3.5L. Routed to a 10-speed automatic transmission – for the top two trims; LX, EX, EX-L, and EX-L Navi trims will get a 9-speed – the power quietly waits for a full throttle boot to make itself known. My test route was more two-lane roads than super highways, but I’ve no doubt the power on offer will allow the van to easily dice with traffic at 70 miles per hour and above. And, the transmission didn’t exhibit any untoward hunting behavior, which was a nice surprise.
Honda has covered every base, and meaningfully improved one of its core products with the 2018 Odyssey.
Ride and handling were superb for the class, as well. The roads we drove on the big island of Hawaii were, to be fair, almost uniformly glass-like. Still, the Odyssey was quiet at speed; even without family members hollering or a radio blaring, only a bit of wind noise could be heard at a 60-mph pace. Better still, the Honda felt completely up to the challenge of some rather twisting roads on my route. With finger-light steering and expected big-body roll, you won’t confuse the Odyssey with an S2000, but it doesn’t completely fall apart at the sight of a hairpin. That’s about as good as you can ask of a minivan, and this one is clearly in competition for the best-handling in the class right off the bat. What could be less boring?
The newest competition for Odyssey comes in the form of the very excellent Chrysler Pacifica. It’s a worthwhile battle to have on the ground (we’re working on our comparison test game as I write this, so stay tuned), and close on paper as well. Honda has priced Odyssey from $29,990 (for a stripper version that something like five percent of buyers will end up in) to $46,670 for the top-line Elite trim. The much better-looking (someone has to say it) Pacifica undercuts that, going from $28,995 to $42,895 for the non-hybrid versions, though it’s understood that the Honda has a much rosier long-term-value proposition to narrow that gap.
Fuel economy is very close, too. Honda will manage 19 miles per gallon in the city, 28 on the highway, and 22 combined with its van. The Pacifica is only fractionally worse than that at 18/28/22, though if you’re willing to splash out on the Hybrid, an impressive 32 mpg combined will be your reward. This might be the fiercest minivan battle we’ve seen in a decade – remember, they both have vacuums, too.
Honda has covered every base, and meaningfully improved one of its core products with the 2018 Odyssey. Making a choice on which brand you buy is harder than ever, but this is one box on wheels that is guaranteed to bring unbelievable function, and a little bit of actual fun, to drivers everywhere.
Gallery: 2018 Honda Odyssey: First Drive
2018 HONDA ODYSSEY ELITE