Although the rise of Sport Utility Vehicles has been responsible for the declining popularity of minivans, I take a look at one of the most popular choices in today’s crowded minivan market, the Honda Odyssey.
First, a little history
In 1950, Volkswagen adapted a bus-shaped body to their iconic VW Beetle and low-and-behold, the VW Bus was born. In 1968, a sliding side door was introduced to the VW van, along with all of the other features that define a modern day minivan. These include three rows of forward-facing seats, sliding side doors, and a non-truck unibody passenger car platform.
In North America, Chrysler popularized the whole idea of using a passenger van with their Plymouth Voyager/Chrysler Town & Country / Dodge Caravan triplets. This trio, introduced in 1984, has largely been credited with revolutionizing the family car market in the US and Canada, displacing station wagons and becoming the choice for baby boomers.
Over two decades later, the minivan market is absolutely full of competitors from both domestic and Japanese manufacturers.
When a box is not quite a box
Honda redesigned the Odyssey in 2011 and tried to make its latest box look a little less like a box. The curving roofline helps to make the van look a bit sleeker than a cargo van.
Whether you like it or not, it definitely helps the van to look a lot less conservative.
Giddy-up and Go
All Odysseys come with a 248-hp 3.5L V6 engine with cylinder deactivation that shuts down cylinders, depending on the load situation, to save fuel economy. This is the only engine available but that’s just fine and dandy because it is a good one.
This powertrain is energetic and smooth, with Honda’s ubiquitous i-VTEC system for some extra oomph. It is hooked up to a 6 speed automatic transmission that does the job smoothly and imperceptibly. Just the way you want it in a minivan.
Like previous generations of the Odyssey, handling is one of this people mover’s strong suit. This big box really does feel smaller to drive than it actual is.
I found the Odyssey is more engaging to drive and more agile than its other major Japanese competitor, the Toyota Sienna. My only quibble is that in order to address customer complaints, Honda increased power steering assistance, making the steering feel too light and numb for my taste.
To those shopping for a minivan, what really matters is the inside. Huge doors and a low step-in height make getting into the Odyssey very easy. There is no big climb unlike some SUVs, and no running boards needed here.
A simple push of a button on the remote opens either power sliding door or the power tailgate.
Inside, you’ll find that the front seats are wide and comfortable. The second row seats? Probably some of the best that you can find.
Most Odysseys are going to be fitted with the eight passenger seating arrangement which results in a three person bench for the second row. It’s roomy and even has armrests and separate recline adjustments. The second row seats can also be removed individually, but they’re still quite heavy and bulky to lift out.
This van truly gives parents a lot of flexibility when fitting child seats. There are LATCH anchors and top tethers in almost every seat position. Honda engineers have also included a feature that allows the outboard second row seats to be slid outwards more towards the sliding doors. This means that fitting three child seats across is a snap due to the extra width afforded by this feature.
The big Honda also shines thanks to its trademark “magic” third row seats. Third row passengers get full-sized comfortable head restraints and also the ability to adjust the seatback angle.
Being relegated to the back (something I used to always hate as a child in parents’ minivan) is actually no longer like getting a time out in the corner.
When the 3rd row is up, there is still a deep well for luggage. But the party trick is that the seats fold down into this luggage well with just a one-handed pull. It’s really that simple and voila, you have a flat cargo floor.
With its cushy leather seats, rear air conditioning, and Honda’s ultra-wide screen Rear Entertainment System, the Odyssey Touring edition’s rear cabin is a very pleasant place to be
It’s also a quiet place to relax, with Honda’s efforts to dampen wind and road noise clearly prevalent even at highway speeds.
Up front in the cockpit, the driver faces a dash and instrument cluster with a mostly logical layout. My Touring edition test vehicle had Honda’s dual screen system with a secondary lower touchscreen that is supposed to reduce the amount of button clutter.
However, the touchscreen user interface could use some further refinement. Some of the simple functions were needlessly multi-stepped procedures, such as how to adjust the navigation system volume or even just to delete a previously paired Bluetooth device.
Thankfully, the GPS navigation screen is positioned high up on the dash and is nice and large. This top screen also serves as the display for the excellent multi-angle rearview camera.
Like most other Honda/Acura vehicles, a large control knob with force feedback technology now controls the GPS navigation system’s functions.
Unfortunately this knob is also a bit complex to use without some practice. I found it to have a much steeper learning curve than touchscreen systems in other vehicles.
Studying what is being displayed on both screens simultaneously also takes some practice.
Honda definitely consulted with parents when it came to upping up the count of useful gadgets in the Odyssey.
In addition to the widescreen rear entertainment system, there is also a child cubby at the bottom of the dash for bottles and cans.
Whoever thought of the fold-out plastic loop at the back of the centre console for trash bags is an absolute genius!
My test van was equipped with a brainchild that is the result of an unexpected partnership between Honda and ShopVac.
This minivan literally sucks! And by that I mean that there is an available integrated Shopvac in left wall of the cargo area, complete with attachments and a vacuum hose that can reach to the front of the van.
Parents can finally say cheerio to Cheerios and Fruit Loops dropped in nooks and crannies without even having to wrestle the Hoover from the utility closet at home.
This is another clever way that Honda continues to innovate, keeping the Odyssey as one of the top sellers in its category.
Safety is an important consideration in any family vehicle, which is why Honda has a plethora of active and passive safety features fitted to the Odyssey.
My Touring edition Odyssey was equipped with forward collision and lane departure warning systems that worked well in real world conditions.
The US Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rated the Odyssey as a Good performer in their tough new small overlap offset crash test.
Other than the non-intuitive dual touchscreen system, there really isn’t much to complain about with the Odyssey.
At the end of the day, it’s is a comfortable and practical vehicle that is surprisingly nimble to drive. It’s certainly the minivan that I would choose to have in my garage if I ever had the need for one!