Minivans are made for parents, and there’s something about having children that changes one’s perspective about minivans. What was once an embarrassment becomes an object of desire or a source of quiet pride. Even if one doesn’t have kids, certain minivans can be appealing, be they guilty pleasures or not.
Take the Chrysler Pacifica, for instance. We’re not ashamed to say we think it’s a fine vehicle for hauling baggage or bodies (alive ones, of course), or that we found the plug-in Pacifica Hybrid to be downright exciting. Pacifica set a standard for a new generation of minivans at a time when crossovers have nearly cemented themselves as the popular, less-embarrassing family vehicle. The new Honda Odyssey has its work cut out for it, then, despite being the best-selling minivan in the US for the past six years. A trip to the Big Island of Hawaii with wife and toddler (and car seat, and stroller, and various toys, and lots of spare diapers) in tow was our test case to see if the Odyssey has what it takes to win over parents.
The styling of the minivan is nothing too adventurous, though it’s more complicated than the Pacifica. Exterior lines have a number of curves and bends, making it more interesting to behold, if slightly less elegant than the Chrysler. That feeling carries over to the interior of the Odyssey as well. The angular central touchscreen and the controls below it form the visual focal point, giving the cabin a tech-forward feeling, as does the all-digital instrument panel. In the Elite trim level, a strip of mood lighting separates the upper and lower dash, accentuating the futuristic look. As busy as it appears, though, it all ends up being very intuitive to use, and the Odyssey contains a number of swell features that add to its functionality, as we’d come to learn over the course of our time with it on the island.
Under the hood, Honda’s 3.5-liter V6 provides 280 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque. It doesn’t sound as macho as the Pentastar in the Chrysler Pacifica, but it does its job just as well. Most Odyssey trims mate the engine to a nine-speed automatic transmission, but Touring and Elite instead use a brand-new 10-speed automatic. We found that the 10-cog box in our tester makes the Odyssey easy to drive smoothly, as it finds the right gear without hunting around. The transmission knows when to hold onto a gear, which makes climbing several thousand feet up the mountains of Hawaii an easy, smooth task. It also drops to the correct gear for quick acceleration without having to poke the D/S button into Sport mode, though having that option is a nice touch, too.
For those who want to take control over swapping gears, the Odyssey is equipped with a pair of paddle shifters mounted to the back of the steering wheel. We found these useful when descending mountain roads, using lower gears to keep the load off the brakes, but with one flaw: in the amount of time it takes to get to a lower gear, the lack of resistance from the engine is long enough that gravity causes the Odyssey to accelerate. This gives the powertrain more momentum to overcome when the gear engages.
The Odyssey’s dual-pinion electronic power steering system has a tighter steering ratio than the outgoing model, with an 18-percent reduction lock-to-lock. The steering didn’t feel any quicker than we expected, but it did feel natural and appropriately responsive. There wasn’t much feedback beyond a progressive buildup of weight as we dialed in steering angle, but the Odyssey reacted smoothly to our inputs, again making it easy to drive calmly. Its suspension keeps larger body motions in check, maintaining composure over large bumps and swells, though the Pacifica feels better at soaking up some of the higher-frequency road irregularities. We found that not only was the Odyssey a breeze to drive, despite its size, it was sometimes even (dare we say it?) fun as we piloted it a few thousand feet above sea level through the scenic mountain roads of the Big Island. Furthermore, your author’s wife noted that it was the least carsick she has ever been as a passenger on curvy roads, in the heat, with the air conditioning on blast – a combination that usually adds up to a lost lunch and the remainder of the day completely ruined.
Despite its size, the Odyssey is surprisingly easy to place within its lane, tracking straight and true on the highway to an impressive degree. The EX trim level (starting at $34,800) and above offer adaptive cruise control (with which we didn’t encounter enough traffic to offer an opinion on) and lane keep assist (which we had plenty of miles to use). While the latter is not quite as refined and precise as, say, Mercedes-Benz’s system, the Odyssey’s augmented driving helper does an excellent job of keeping this big brick of a car, full of your most precious cargo, right where it should be on the road. It’ll nag you if you it senses you’re not providing steering input – as it ought – but it does a fantastic job of aiming this car along a curvy highway. Not only does lane keep assist provide an extra margin of safety to an attentive driver, it reduces the already minimal amount of corrections needed steering through turns. Passengers prone to motion sickness will commend your driving abilities in the Odyssey, especially with the help of the line-watching aids.
A huge part of the Odyssey’s comfort is in its quietness. Very little road noise comes in through the chassis, and the acoustic glass (windshield on EX-L and above, plus the front side windows on our Elite) means wind noise is at an absolute minimum. With the radio off, the test kid asleep, and the Hawaiian panorama of lava fields and grazing wild goats whizzing past the windows, this car is downright serene. We’re hoping for a near-future test drive in a lower trim level, on Michigan’s crumbling roads, with Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast piped through the speakers to see how this scenario holds up outside of a tropical paradise. We think it still sounds like a fine Sunday drive – we can always find goats at the nearby petting zoo.
One of our favorite, most useful features in the Odyssey is the Magic Slide seating in the second row. You can remove the center seat, and then slide the outboard seats from side to side, and forward and backward. It allows easy access to the third row, especially if a child seat prevents you from folding the chair forward. It also lets second-row occupants sit together, or, in the case of fighting siblings, separately in outboard positions. For our time with the car, with just one test toddler in the back, we found the feature helpful for getting him in and out of his rear-facing car seat. We could slide the chair to the door to put him in, then slide him back to the center of the vehicle, where it’s safest, and easier to pass snacks back to him. Little guy loves snacks.
The aforementioned infotainment touchscreen features prominently on the center stack, jutting out from the dash to make it easy to reach with just a glance out of the corner of one’s eye. While its angular geometry isn’t the staid, conservative design some might expect from a family hauler, it provides a bit of character without sacrificing its usefulness. It’s certainly a more thoughtful layout that should help people like this guy keep from flipping their lid, even if having the drive select buttons on the center console takes some getting used to. There’s even a regular old volume knob within easy reach of the driver (the lack of which can actually be a deal-breaker for certain customers according to our own anecdotal evidence). The touchscreen is easy to use, and snappy in its response. It uses large, square tile icons for the various apps, and they can be dragged around to arrange them as the driver likes. Three of the apps can be moved to the top corner of the screen as more permanent shortcuts for the features the driver uses the most. If you hate that – and you won’t – just use Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.
Our second favorite parent-focused feature, besides those sliding seats, lives within the touchscreen. It services that latent gene that triggers when a parent drives their newborn home from the hospital – you know, the one that makes you wish you had eyes in the back of your head, or at least one of those giant mirrors bus drivers use for glaring at kids. To satisfy this biological imperative to keep an eye on our young passengers, Honda offers the CabinWatch system in the Touring trim and Elite trim levels. This overhead camera offers a bird’s-eye view of the rear occupants – even rear-facing ones – displaying its images onto the infotainment touchscreen. Mom or Dad can pinch to zoom in on a specific kid, and it even has freakin’ night vision. If the kids are up to something, you can hit the CabinTalk icon (available on EX-L Nav trim and up) on the touchscreen to project your reprimands through the car speakers, or even through the Odyssey’s available wireless headphones. Our rear-facing test kid thought it was hilarious to hear his Papa’s voice through the speakers, so we used this function a lot on our drive trying to earn that belly laugh from the back seat.
For those longer journeys, there’s also an app that lets passengers control rear entertainment and climate control through their mobile device, or even add songs to the car’s audio playlist (the driver gets a veto vote on the infotainment touchscreen). This all helps keep them from bugging Mom and Dad to change the music or the temperature while they’re driving. There’s also a trip-tracking feature that shows the progress to your destination on the rear entertainment screen, similar to the flight tracker airlines offer on their back-of-the-seat displays. That app is called, appropriately, “How Much Farther?” (Apparently, “Are We There Yet?” is already copyrighted.)
There’s a ton of room in the Odyssey, too. Even the rear cargo space behind the third row is huge. Some people prefer a flat load space that is even with the bumper to easily plop in heavy items. The Odyssey, however, has a deep load floor. While it might make it a little more difficult to unload that 40-pound bag of cat litter, it provides more vertical room for storage, and has the added advantage of helping to keep your groceries from spilling out as soon as you open the liftgate. We were able to pile in a medium soft-sided cooler, a beach umbrella, two folding chairs, a stroller, a couple of large tote bags, a few loose beach towels, and some other random odds and ends behind the third row without it creeping up into our rear view. That deep well also accommodates the folding third row to fold flat if you need the extra space more than the extra seating.
Once your friends and their kids realize how cool the 2018 Honda Odyssey is, though, you’ll probably need to make full use of all available row of seats. Sure, the kind-of-hip Chrysler Pacifica feels poised to win over new converts to the minivan fan club. For buyers who are already all-in on the minivan concept, though, the Odyssey could be the more compelling choice. Especially in its top-of-the-line Elite trim, it offers parents – especially the one behind the wheel – and their young passengers a ton of features to make life easier.