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2018 Honda Odyssey Is A Family Road Trip Champion

Forbes logo Forbes 9/28/2017 Michael Harley, Contributor

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I’ve been doing family road trips all wrong.

For the past five summers, I’ve been loading my wife and kids into a sport utility vehicle for a 1,000-mile trek from Los Angeles to Lake Tahoe. We pack the crossover with our gear (effectively blocking the view out the rear window) and shoehorn everyone into the cabin – two adults and two teenagers – for a tight fit. Eight hours of driving, with a couple stops for fuel (22 mpg, at best, in the SUV), always made for a long day.

Then Honda lent my family its new 2018 Odyssey minivan for this year’s summer road trip, and my family saw a new light.

No stranger to the minivan segment, Honda has been producing its award-winning Odyssey for more than two decades. This year, the company introduced an all-new, completely redesigned, model. The fifth-generation iteration boasts seating for up to eight passengers, a new chassis that is stronger, lighter, and safer, and an improved V6 engine – offered with an innovative 10-speed automatic transmission – that is more powerful and efficient than the one it replaces. Further setting itself apart, Honda also fits its new minivan with available Magic Slide seats, CabinWatch and CabinTalk technology, and 4G LTE Wi-Fi capabilities. And to reduce the likelihood of a crash or injury, the automaker has put its Honda Sensing suite of safety technology as standard equipment on EX and above trim levels. It’s a formidable opponent in a very crowded segment.

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There are two routes to Lake Tahoe from Los Angeles. The boring way is to drive up tedious Interstate 5, which is literally straight, and then cut over to the lake via Interstate 80 or Highway 50. The more scenic route, which is the way we always go, is to take State Route 14 to U.S. Route 395. The route runs up the rustic Owens Valley, on the east side of the Sierra Nevada mountains, crossing over several high passes during the drive (Deadman Summit, the tallest, is a lofty 8,036 feet above sea level). The road is a mix of divided and undivided two-lane highways – long straights and twisty canyons – it’s not a sleeper.

Intrigued by Honda’s newest flagship, and curious to see if a minivan would live up my family’s expectations, I asked to borrow a range-topping Odyssey Elite for the adventure. But, instead of packing four into its cabin, we invited a fifth passenger – my son’s girlfriend — increasing the vehicle occupancy and our carried luggage by a decent amount.

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The van arrived in a seven-passenger configuration, but thanks to a configurable floorplan (no tools needed), I immediately removed the small center seat from the middle row. The teenagers wanted the pass-through, plus it cleared room to put an ice chest with cold drinks on the floor. I toyed with the idea of tumbling one of the rear seats into the floor, but I instead kept both raised as the storage behind them is deep and expansive – we fit several 22-inch roller bags, several duffle bags, backpacks, wetsuits, food, drinks, and emergency supplies (I never road trip without them) into that space. Seemingly loaded with everything shy of the kitchen sink, the Odyssey swallowed it all without compromising any of driver’s vision – everyone was impressed.

Loaded with five passengers and luggage, the 4,593-pound minivan was tipping the scales at over three tons. Not to worry, as Honda’s updated 3.5-liter V6, rated at 280 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque, was easily up to the task. Combined with the premium 10-speed automatic gearbox (more gears allow the engineers to make a vehicle quicker off the line and more fuel efficient), the Odyssey moved quickly off the line, never feeling lethargic, and acceleration onto the highway was uneventful.

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Honda went to great lengths to ensure the cabin would be a low-stress environment for the family — this means quiet and free of unwelcomed noise. In addition to extensive sound deadening materials, they fitted the minivan with triple door seals, acoustic-laminated windshield and front glass (which is trim level specific), thicker rear panel glass, and standard Active Noise Control technology. Their perseverance paid off, as the minivan’s cabin is surprisingly serene. Not only is wind and tire noise hushed, but the five of us had zero difficulty holding conversations between the three rows. (The Cabin Watch and Cabin Talk technologies, which allow the driver to see and hold a conversation with those in the rear seats with minimal distraction, were useful. However, my teenage passengers found them a bit too invasive – we resorted to normal “indoor voices” instead.)

The driving position is commanding, which allows the Odyssey operator to see over most traffic. Big door-mounted exterior mirrors make spotting obstacles to the side easy, while a back-up camera fills in the blanks while in reverse. Outward vision is strong even to the front quarters — typical blind spots on minivans (thanks for the small side windows at the base of each A-pillar, Honda).

I’m not a huge fan of Honda’s new transmission switchgear, which debuted on its premium Acura line. The “PRND/S” buttons and levers aren’t intuitive, frequently requiring the driver to look down and confirm (by week’s end I was more familiar, but never completely at-ease). Other than one ergonomic misstep, the Odyssey’s instrumentation is very legible and easy to interact with. Kudos to the design team for providing the driver and front passenger with an unimaginable amount of storage and personal space — there are compartments, nooks, and crannies galore.

Most crossovers and SUVs seat second-row passengers on a shared three-person bench, but no the Odyssey. Each of my teenage passengers enjoyed their own seats, completely free to recline at will (the second-row seats slide fore/aft and in/out, which gives them even more versatility). Second and third passengers also enjoyed their own HVAC vents, which are mounted low so they don’t blow annoyingly on foreheads. Toss in the oversize tinted side windows for viewing the scenery, and a variety of infotainment options, and there wasn’t a negative peep from any passenger — when they weren’t gazing out the windows or singing with the radio, they were sleeping.

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Crossovers, SUVs, and minivans have always driven with a “tall” demeanor — feeling rather top heavy. The Odyssey bucks the trend with car-like driving dynamics. I’d stop short of calling it sporty, but I was impressed with how well a vehicle equipped with sliding doors maneuvered through the challenging canyons. Credit goes to near-perfect tuning of the independent suspension, the vehicle’s wide track, and the stability of the 19-inch wheels (wrapped in 235/55-R19 all-season tires). I drove at my preferred speed during the entire route — spirited at times — never once having to make “minivan concessions” for lackluster driving dynamics. Again, I won’t call it sporty, but I will say it was competent and enjoyable.

The redesigned V6 is wonderful around town at sea level, but altitude did affect its performance. As expected, it was down nearly 70 horsepower in the highest Sierra mountain passes (naturally aspirated engines lose about three percent of their power for every 1,000 feet of elevation gain). The transmission wisely compensated by dropping several gears, which left the engine spinning above 4,000 rpm at times to maintain the speed. While I assumed fuel economy would suffer with the high-altitude workout, it didn’t. Overall, the new Honda Odyssey returned a very impressive 28.1 mpg, which slightly beat the EPA ratings (19 mpg city/28 mpg highway). Most important, it surpassed the fuel economy of every single SUV and crossover that I had ever taken on the same trip — I squeezed an average 21.8 mpg out of Dodge Durango in 2015, for comparison.

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My 1,000-mile drive gave me plenty of time to think about the minivan. It may seem trivial to many, but my biggest gripe with the Odyssey is pointed at Honda’s Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC), which is a premium cruise control that uses a variety of radars and sensors to automatically hold the vehicle at a set speed and distance from traffic ahead. As a big proponent of the technology, I used ACC extensively during our drive. Most of the time I was quite pleased. But, more than once when there were no other vehicles ahead of the Odyssey, the system would allow unrestrained overspeed while descending large hills – I’d have ACC set at 72 mph and I’d look down and the van was doing 80+ mph without any automatic intervening braking. While the vehicle was completely stable and moderate braking would effortlessly bring it back down to my desired speed, I could have easily been popped by law enforcement for inadvertently speeding. Honda’s ACC should automatically accelerate and brake a vehicle while the system is engaged, regardless of the grade. 

On a positive note, I was most impressed with the Odyssey’s minivan traits, which Honda has polished to a mirror finish. We stopped countless times to take in the view, throw rocks in a stream, grab a coffee, or eat. With power-operated sliding doors on each side, and plenty of floor space for walking-through, the exercise was always effortless (this is never the case with an SUV or crossover, especially with people in the third row). Everyone loved the versatility of the interior, moving the seats at will, and they also appreciated the countless cup holders and power outlets, which we used to charge more than a half-dozen devices. And, don’t ever discount an unobstructed view out the back window — it’s a big safety benefit that the Odyssey swallowed everything we brought without obstructing any of the driver’s vision.

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Overall, Honda has hit quite a home run with its new fifth-generation minivan. A few of my personal nitpicks aside, it’s a near-perfect interpretation of the ultimate family vehicle — it’s roomy, practical, versatile, efficient, and safe. My wife and teenagers, accustomed to family road trips in SUVs and crossovers, have apparently been bit by the bug, too. While our next family road trip is still more than a half-year away, they’ve already requested that we go in a 2018 Honda Odyssey — that’s an endorsement that I’ll gladly stand behind.

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