First Drive: 2018 Honda Odyssey

Putting some "fun" in functional.

by on May.15, 2017

Is this a minivan you can go nuts for?

The locals will tell you that if you don’t like the weather on the Big Island of Hawaii, you just have to drive 15 minutes. With 11 of the world’s 13 climactic zones on one volcanic rock in the middle of the Pacific, that gives us plenty of opportunity to check out the 2018 Honda Odyssey. About the only place we won’t be driving during our visit is up to the peak of Mauna Kea where there’s still some snow in the early days of May.

The Odyssey has long been at the top of the people-mover sales charts, and with the launch of the fifth-generation van, Honda is determined not to cede ground despite the fact that its key rival, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, launched a complete remake of its own minivan – renamed the Chrysler Pacifica – just last year.

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Together the two dominate the segment, and while minivans have lost a lot of momentum in recent years — millions of owners and potential buyers opting instead for SUVs and CUVs — there’s still a sizable market, especially among family buyers and, to a lesser degree empty-nesters and retirees. While minivans may long ago have lost their cool factor, they remain the vehicle of choice for those who put a premium on space, flexibility and creature features.

(Honda adds two new versions of its Clarity green machine. Click Here to check them out.)

While a number of media colleagues have come to Hawaii with children in tow, we fall into the empty-nest category, but while we might not be so worried about mounting child seats, we share an appreciation for much of what a minivan has to offer, including space for bringing along plenty of friends, as well as the slick new digital infotainment system that allows virtually everyone onboard to choose their own music and videos.

The 2018 Honda Odyssey offers reasonable pep and surprisingly supple handling.

A first look at the 2018 Honda Civic doesn’t reveal any major, visual surprises. Honda has made only modest tweaks to the new van, among other things maintaining the distinctive “lightning bolt” dip and kick to the rear windows. The van does adopt Honda’s new “flying wing” front grille, which can be paired with optional LED headlamps – standard on Elite and Touring models. Less visible, the 2018 minivan introduces a new Active Shutter Grille to improve aerodynamics and reduce fuel consumption when cruising. The door tracks have also been tweaked to make those dual sliders less visible.

At the rear, the 2018 Honda Odyssey now features LED taillights and an available, hands-free power tailgate that can be activated with a waggle of the foot. A new “floating D-pillar” design gives a little lightness to the back end. Meanwhile, larger tires and wheels give the Odyssey a bit more muscular overall appearance.

If you had a tape measure handy, you might discover that the ’18 Odyssey is a wee bit longer, by about 0.3 inches, almost an inch narrower and 0.1 inches lower. It’s also based on an all-new architecture, which Honda calls the Global Light Truck platform that it will be sharing with a lot of its utility vehicles going forward.

One of the big selling points for the 2018 Odyssey is its Magic Slide Seats.

The Odyssey also features the newest iteration of Honda’s Advanced Compatability Engineering, or ACE, body structure. While that may seem like the sort of thing product development types worry about, parents should be particularly pleased. By introducing more ultra-high-strength steels, along with the use of more adhesives to join body panels and other improvements, Odyssey’s torsional rigidity increases by 44%. That means a more solid ride – and improvements in the way energy is deflected away from the passenger compartment in the event of a crash.

Add acoustic laminated glass and a variety of other engineering tricks and the 2018 Honda Odyssey also boasts the quietest people-mover cabin we’ve ever experienced, in line with some far more expensive luxury sedans. That’s something we quickly come to appreciate driving over Hawaii’s often rough pavement.

That also makes it a lot easier to communicate with the family without shouting – though Honda has even introduced a new feature that’s much like the PA system on our airplane. Kids in the third row blasting Beyonce on their headphones? No problem, as it will briefly mute their music as you tell them to buckle up for the ride ahead.

The front seat features controls for a sophisticated digital infotainment system.

That feature is in keeping with the way electronics have come to play such an important role in our everyday lives. The new Odyssey offers a dizzying array of high-tech features for both parents and kids, much of it through the HondaLink infotainment system. It allows you to tap into a variety of sources for both audio and video. Some can be played on the large touchscreen display in the center console. There’s also a ceiling-mounted 10.2-inch video display for those in the second and third rows – optional on some models, standard on the Elite trim we drove in Hawaii.

We’d have preferred twin monitors but Honda is betting that passengers who want to watch their own show – or play games – will do so on their own smartphone, tablet or laptop computer. And on higher trim levels, the new Odyssey now comes with a built-in 4G LTE WiFi hotspot capable of letting everyone in the vehicle tap in with their own devices.

What this adds up to is a system so flexible and sophisticated kids are more likely to complain that the trip is over, rather than ask, “Are we there yet?”

The 3.5-liter V-6 uses Stop-Start, cylinder deactivation and grille shutters to boost mileage.

HondaLink also adds some nifty features like a rear-seat Cabin Watch monitor that can keep its digital eye on a child seat, whether junior is facing forward or rearward. There are USB ports seemingly everywhere, an HDMI input for the overhear screen. And for the Elite line, there’s a 550-watt, 11-speaker audio system. Other trim levels get a 7-speaker, 150-watt package.

The control system for all these features, incidentally, operates much like the display on an Android phone, allowing you to reorganize its layout, even hide features you don’t need. Better yet, Honda has finally returned a volume knob, rather than forcing us to use the clunky virtual slidebar.

Now, for all the interest in things high tech, the real appeal of a minivan is the cavernous interior – and the way it utilizes all that space. Honda engineers have done a marvelous job integrating nooks and crannies just about everywhere – including a place for mom to stow her purse within easy reach of the driver’s seat.

Here’s where someone choosing between the Honda Odyssey and the Chrysler Pacifica might have to stop and think about how they’ll be using their minivan. The Pacifica features the familiar Stow-n-Go seating system that lets mid and rear seats fold into the floor, providing a tremendous amount of cargo space. Honda engineers told us they opted for what they’ve dubbed calls the Magic Slide Seats, something that seems to catch everyone’s interest.

The Odyssey features standard seating for eight.

Pop out the easy-to-remove center seats and the two remaining middle-row seats can slide both left and right, as well as fore and aft. Even with the middle seat in place, they’re designed to tilt enough to let someone climb into the back without removing a rear-facing child seat. You can fold the second and third-row seats flat, though not into the floor. You can also remove all of the middle seats, though that really requires two sets of hands. If you’re not carrying a lot of cargo, the Oddysey likely wins out. Hauling plywood and boxes, as well as the kids, you might like the Pacifica.

The Chrysler and Honda minivans also provide some interesting choices when it comes to powertrain options. The Pacifica starts out with a 3.6-liter V-6 that makes 287 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque pumping through a nine-speed automatic into the front wheels. But it’s also got the world’s first minivan plug-in hybrid option.

For its part, all Odyssey models use Honda’s peppy 3.5-liter V-6, which delivers 280 hp and 262 lb-ft, (32 hp and 12 lb-ft more than the gen-four minivan), through a new 10-speed automatic. With those active grille shutters, variable valves, cylinder deactivation and an engine Stop-Start system, the 2018 Honda Odyssey delivers solid, if not stellar, fuel economy of 19 mpg City, 28 Highway and 22 Combined.

Honda has long dominated the minivan segment.

One of the nice little features on our Elite trim package was the availability of paddle-shifters for the delightfully smooth 10-speed, a transmission that never appeared to suffer from the stuttering hunt-and-seek problems we’ve experienced with a number of other high gear-range automatics – including some applications of the FCA 9-speed.

(To see how Honda muscled up for the Civic Type R, Click Here.)

One might ask why bother with paddle-shifters on a minivan. Well, yeah, if we had kids loaded up three rows deep we probably wouldn’t even think about them. But with just adults in the Odyssey we had the opportunity to put the van through more aggressive paces, especially when running along the scenically treacherous Hawaii 250.

It’s easily the single most exciting road we’ve yet discovered on the Hawaiian Islands. If you’ve ever had the chance to run some of the mountainous terrain between San Diego and Palm Springs you’ve got a good idea what you’ll experience along this route, which also seems to run through a new climactic zone every few miles. The route also provided us a chance to do an apples-to-apples comparison, having driven the standard gas version of the Pacifica on similar roads near, yep, San Diego.

As impressive as the Chrysler was, we found the 2018 Odyssey even more impressive. Dare we use the term, fun-to-drive, when describing a minivan? For fear of losing our reviewers permit we will stand by that description. No, it’s no sports car. There’s a lot of mass to fling around, but we found ourselves increasing our speed around corners as our confidence grew with each mile.

This is the fifth-generation Odyssey.

Odyssey features a precise, dual-pinion electic power-assist steering, or EPAS, system. It’s not as quick as one might like – but this is a minivan, after all – and it proved as precise as one could expect of any box on wheels. The suspension, meanwhile, kept things admirably in check, with surprisingly little body roll and only the most occasional squeal of tires when overcooking into a corner.

Performance is great, but one factor parents are more likely to consider in a people-move is safety, and the new Odyssey offers the HondaSense package of features, including Blind Spot monior, cross-traffic alert, lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control with collision warning, lane departure warning and lane-keeping assist. Honda is shooting for top ratings from both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety when it goes through testing in the months to come.

A few other features round out the package, including that build-in vacuum Honda promoted heavily with the fourth-generation van, a three-zone climate system, a massive moonroof and remote start.

The base 2018 Honda Odyssey LX will set you back $31,930, delivery fees. Honda expects deand for this stripped-down model to be relatively modest. The more popular EX comes in at a base MSRP of $34,800, and you then can climb through the rank, with six trim levels in all. The well-equipped Touring trim comes in at $45,450, while the all-but fully loaded Odyssey Elite starts at $47,610.

Is it the best choice in the minivan segment? To their credit, the remaining competitors, including Chrysler, Toyota, Kia and Hyundai, have found their own little niches. The Pacifica has a lot going for it, especially when you need to use all that space for cargo, as well as passengers. The Koreans and the Toyota Sienna have some nice touches of their own, including reclining second-row seats.

But when you add it all up, the 2018 Honda Odyssey is hard to beat. As minivans go, it’s reasonably pleasing to the eye, and incredibly functional. If you’re willing to spend, it has the best combination of features and options in the segment. And it actually can be fun to drive if you have the opportunity to push things more than you normally would on the way to soccer practice. Overall, Honda has delivered the sort of people-mover package that is likely to keep it the leader in minivan sales.

(Honda fires up its Silicon Valley research arm in search of innovation. Click Here for the story.)

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