2018 Honda Odyssey First Drive Review: Tech Makes It the Ultimate People Hauler

The 2018 Honda Odyssey minivan may be the long-distance cruiser of choice for larger groups, rather than an SUV. Honda has crafted a vehicle capable of quiet, comfortable travel for six to eight. A raft of entertainment technology helps the passengers pass time, while a nearly state-of-the-art set of driver assists lightens the load.

In a game of leapfrog among the just-launched 2018 Odyssey, the year-old Chrysler Pacifica, and the aging but refreshed Toyota Sienna, the race favors Honda. Chrysler has a lot going for it, including hide-away second row seats and a plug-in hybrid version. The Sienna dates to 2011, but it’s the clear (as in only) choice if you want all-wheel-drive.


2018 Odyssey in a nutshell

This Odyssey offers 4G LTE Wi-Fi and video streaming; a simpler roof-mount video screen; smartphone control of rear entertainment and rear climate control, and the ability to send destinations from a smartphone to the car. Navigation is by Garmin, which translates to: very good. A rear-facing camera (CabinWatch) monitors the second and third rows, while a PA system (CabinTalk) can address the rear-seat miscreants. The Display Audio infotainment system center screen will continue to polarize owners, with just a single control knob (for volume) and 1-3 USB jacks for eight passengers.

The driver gets adaptive cruise control that is not yet full-range, blind spot detection, lane departure warning, and a lot more. The V6 engine jumps from 248 hp to 280 hp, while the automatic transmission either has nine or 10 speeds, depending on trim level. At 60 mph, the 10-speed I tested allows the engine to loaf at 1,560 rpm and get almost 30 mpg highway. The instrument panel is digital. With more advanced materials, including more sound deadening and laminated acoustic glass for a truly quiet cabin, vehicle weight is down by 75 pounds, to 4,400-4,600 (again depending on trim level).

The Odyssey holds as many as eight passengers. The Magic Slide second-row seats slide left-right to allow super-easy third row access if you remove the narrow middle seat of the second row. The Odyssey’s row-two seats are better padded, more comfortable, and heavier (to remove) than on Chrysler Pacifica, whose thinner (less comfortable) seats fold into the floor and don’t need to be removed.

More driver assist technology with Honda Sensing

Savvy family-oriented automakers are bundling their driver assist and safety offerings into a single branded package offered on virtually all models–except, sometimes, the lowest trim line that exists for a low teaser price in ads. Honda calls it Honda Sensing; Toyota the Toyota Safety System (TSS).

Honda Sensing is standard on every Odyssey, except the entry Odyssey LX that comprises 5 percent of sales. It includes:

  • Adaptive cruise control (ACC) paces the car ahead at speeds of 22 mph or more. It lacks full-range ACC capability or low-speed follow.
  • Forward collision warning (FCW) with collision mitigation braking (CMBS), at speeds above 10 mph (for tracking vehicles) and with a closing differential of at least 10 mph, warns the driver (“Brake!” flashes in the instrument panel), then applies the brakes to avoid or mitigate a collision with the car in front. Honda says CMBS differentiates between vehicles and pedestrians and brakes for both.
  • Lane keeping assist (LKAS) with road departure mitigation (RDM), a step up from lane departure warning. Together, they pull the car back into lane when it veers too close to the lane edge. It is not, however, continuously self-centering (lane-centering assist), as on some higher-end vehicles. Honda uses haptic feedback, a steering wheel shaker, to warn the driver. Road departure mitigation works at 45-90 mph.
  • Blind spot detection (BSD), called blind spot information by Honda, is not technically a part of Honda Sensing. But the trim lines that get Honda Sensing also get BSD, along with rear cross traffic alert (rear cross traffic monitor in Honda terminology). The warning is a beep, not haptic feedback, but at least the beep is not annoyingly loud. Blind spot detection replaces LaneWatch, the passenger-side-only camera that displayed a rear-facing view on the center stack screen, with three distance-gauging lines that let the driver decide if it was safe to change lanes.

The top two trim lines, Touring and Elite, the ones selling in the mid-forties, also get front and rear parking sonar. Lower grades can add it as a dealer option, but the labor charge makes it pricy.

Other active safety features across the line include electronic stability control (vehicle stability assist, VSA, in Honda parlance), traction control, electronic brake distribution, a multi-angle rear camera with dynamic backing-up guidelines, tire pressure monitoring and Tire Fill Assist (the horn chirps while adding air when the tire reaches the proper pressure), auto high beams, and daytime running lights.

One disappointment among driver assists, as mentioned above, is that adaptive cruise control doesn’t go down to 0 mph and back to speed, as is available on other, less expensive Hondas including the Civic and CR-V. Honda says the vehicle platform that includes the Odyssey, the Ridgeline pickup, and the Pilot midsize SUV would need a new VSA (vehicle stability assist) system to allow full-range ACC. (The platform also includes the Acura MDX, which does have full-range ACC.) Dealers selling the Chrysler Pacifica or Toyota Sienna will be happy to note their minivans do full-range ACC.

Infotainment done right on higher trim levels

Entertainment is key on a vehicle chauffeuring kids on long trips, or well as around town. Honda upped its game with the 2018 Odyssey, adding a telematics module on the top two lines for streaming entertainment (AT&T service), Wi-Fi, and infotainment updates (but not engine software updates). The system is Android-based and quicker to respond than the previous generation.

The integrated cellular link is only on the top two Odysseys, Touring and Elite. The midgrade EX-L offers rear entertainment and can use a tethered phone for internet access. There’s even a built-in PBS Kids app. If navigation is set to a destination, a How Much Farther app shows time to the destination. For limited access interstates, it would be nice if it showed the time to the next rest area as well–although as parents well know, a child never admits to a nearly full bladder until you’ve just passed the rest stop.

Honda CabinControl

The outgoing Odyssey’s 16.2-inch dual image screen for the second and third rows gives way to a more practical 10.2-inch, single-image WSVGA (1024 x 600) display (photo above), Honda realizing more passengers have their own tablets or phones for viewing. (The Chrysler Pacifica offers two screens, with each set in the front seat seatback.)

CabinWatch and CabinTalk let the front seat keep an eye on the back seat, and keep order if necessary. CabinWatch is an ultra wide-angle camera with IR illuminators that covers all rear seats and shows the video image on the 8-inch front display. Using pinch and scroll finger movements, you can zoom in on a single seat to keep an eye on a sleeping child. CabinTalk is a PA system to pass along orders to the rear seat miscreants. It interrupts the infotainment programming audio for anyone connected via the infrared headphones, the third-row headset jacks, or listening to the rear speakers. The sound is a little spooky and echo-y because feedback from the rear speakers gets picked up by the front microphones. It’s overcome by mom or dad speaking louder.

The Odyssey has its own smartphone app, CabinControl. Load the app and you can control the rear entertainment system, cabin heat, and AC, and send directions to the navigation system. This last feature is a way around nav systems that lock out touch-screen address entry once the car starts rolling. Until Honda and others figure a way to tell the nav system it’s the passenger directly entering a destination onscreen, not the driver, this is a passable workaround.

Last generation Display Audio annoyed owners because it had no physical buttons or knobs. Now there’s a volume knob.

Display Audio: They added one knob

Honda’s center touch-screen display and interface is called Display Audio. Originally, it was touch-screen exclusively, with no knobs or buttons. But customers and focus groups whimpered about the difficulty of hitting the right part of the screen on all but the smoothest highways, not to mention having to tap at small up-down icons to control volume or tune station-to-station. Long-time Honda customers recalled the good old days with big physical buttons to the left and right of the screen.

Honda listened. Honda acted. Honda added a volume knob.

Another issue is the stingy supply of USB jacks. On a vehicle that holds up to eight passengers, you get one minimum, three maximum (with the rear entertainment system). The third row gets headphone jacks and 12-volt sockets. Want USB charging back there? Buy a couple of USB power adapters, Honda says. And try not to lose them.

The only way to get a 115-volt AC outlet is to buy an Odyssey with the rear entertainment system, meaning you’re paying at least $ 40K. Honda links 115 VAC to RES because some passengers will bring game consoles along to plug into the overhead display, says Honda, ignoring passengers who want to run a laptop, recharge camera batteries, or run any other device that uses AC and not 12-volt battery power.

On the road with the Odyssey

2018 Honda Odyssey shifter.

Honda introduced the 2018 Odyssey on Hawaii’s Big Island, so we didn’t get in any long-distance interstate driving. But at 55 mph, the Odyssey Elite with extra noise insulation, active noise cancellation, and laminated front and side glass, provided what Honda bills as a “conversational cabin.” It is. The digital instrument panel has a digital (always displayed) speedometer, a ribbon tachometer at the top with a faint rpm needle, and a color multi-information display showing the driver’s choice of audio, navigation, phone, or car functions.

A new-design shifter mechanism (photo right) is moving across Honda models, with a vertical stack of center stack buttons you can press or, in the case of reverse, pull backwards. It takes getting used to. Paddle shifters let you shift gears manually.

The V6 now directly injects gasoline into the combustion chambers, allowing for a higher compression ratio (11.5:1) and 32 more horsepower (280 total). Combined with the Honda-designed 10-speed automatic, the market now has a 2.25-ton minivan capable of hitting 60 mph in about 7 seconds by my stopwatch tests. The 10-speed is on the top two trim lines only, Touring and Elite. The entry and middle levels get a ZF nine-speed automatic (on LX, EX, EX-L) that has generated some user feedback on other Hondas about rough shifting, odd noises, dropping into neutral, and early reliability issues.

Overall, Honda has engineered a minivan that’s fun to drive. You won’t mistake it for a Civic Type R. (Hint: only one autocrosses competitively and only one carries three cubic yards of bagged cedar mulch). But Honda is the benchmark for fun-t0-drive among minivans.

The second row seats are plenty comfy for adults, more so than in the Pacifica. The third row actually fits adults reasonably well, better than any SUV (discounting the 225-inch SUVs) I’ve ever driven. The Odyssey is 203 inches long, about the same as a Chevrolet Tahoe, but the Odyssey will be much better for three rows of passengers. On the flip side, a full-size SUV like the Tahoe tows about 6,000 pounds, whereas the Odyssey can only pull 3,000.

With the new transmission, active grille shutters and a body one inch narrower, all trim lines return 19 mpg city, 28 mpg highway, 22 mpg combined on regular fuel, meaning a highway cruising range of 500-plus miles. Compared with the outgoing Odyssey, that’s a 1 mpg improvement on highway mileage. All have eight airbags including Honda’s first driver/passenger knee airbags.

The trim walk: What’s on what model

The base Odyssey, the LX, $ 30,930 including $ 940 freight, exists mostly to say there’s an Odyssey priced under $ 30,000, ignoring that you must pay shipping; you can’t get it waived by picking it up at the Lincoln, Alabama Odyssey factory. Just one in 20 Odyssey buyers goes with the LX. It’s missing several driver assist safety features that help avoid accidents, but it has the same airbag configuration, seat belt, and Advanced Compatibility Engineering (ACE) body structure as the rest of the line. The transmission is a nine-speed with paddle shifters. There’s one USB jack and two 12-volt sockets. The audio system has seven speakers. The center console color LCD is 5 inches diagonal. Tail lamps are LED.

The Odyssey EX, $ 34,800, adds Honda Sensing. Running lights are LED. Row two seats have the Magic Slide feature. It gets Display Audio with an 8-inch screen, HD and satellite radio, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, heated front seats and outside mirrors, and second row sunshades (very useful). Sliding doors are powered. The engine can be remotely started.

The Odyssey EX-L, $ 38,300, gets leather interior trim that includes the steering wheel, an auto-dim rearview mirror, HomeLink (garage door opener), a power moonroof, and a power tailgate.

The Odyssey EX-L Nav/RES, $ 40,300, gets navigation, voice recognition, a multi-review rear camera, a rear entertainment system with a Blu-ray player and wireless headsets, CabinTalk, and a 115-volt outlet.

The Odyssey Touring, $ 45,450, adds the 10-speed automatic and engine stop/start, CabinWatch, mobile hotspot, HondaVac, second-and-third row sunshades, a hands-free power tailgate (kick under the bumper to open), LED headlamps with auto-high beam, LED fog lamps, and front-rear parking sonar.

The Odyssey Elite, $ 47,610, adds premium 11-speaker audio, a wireless phone charger, a heated steering wheel, ventilated/heated front seats, ambient cockpit lighting, 19-inch alloy wheels, rain-sensing wipers, and power-folding mirrors. It also gets even more acoustic treatments. Despite prices in the mid-forties, Honda estimates one in four Odyssey sales will be either the top-level Touring or Elite.

Should you buy?

The US market for SUVs and crossovers, ranging from the Bentley Bentayga ($ 250,000, 884 sales last year) to the Honda CR-V ($ 30,000, 357,000 sales), amounted to 100 models and 7.0 million units. That’s 13 times the size of the minivan market (550,000 in 2016). Millennials who rode to soccer practice when the minivan market peaked circa 2000 with 1.3 million sales may have fond memories of them, and they might create a second wave of demand. Maybe the stigma will go away.

The two top minivan sellers in 2016 were the aging Toyota Sienna, and Chrysler’s legacy edition Dodge Grand Caravan, essentially the frozen-in-time Grand Caravan held over with affordable pricing ($ 27,000 entry model) compared with the Chrysler Pacifica ($ 30,000 with shipping). Both sold about 130,000 units (Odyssey sold about 5,000 less). The Grand Caravan is old; buy it if you want to haul a lot of people cheaply. The Sienna at least has the all-wheel-drive option and a very good powertrain to recommend it in its final two years before a complete 2019 do-over.

The Chrysler Town & Country is the upscale cousin to the aging Grand Caravan. The Kia Sedona is a recent entry in the minivan category and has a catchy feature: second row captain’s chairs with fold-out leg rests, like business class airplane seats. The Nissan Quest was recently discontinued. That’s pretty much the minivan market. Ford and GM are long gone.

So, for the many looking for the newest and most useful technology, it comes down to the Odyssey versus the Pacifica. Chrysler’s is nearly as new, and feature-rich, as the Odyssey. The second-row Chrysler Stow ‘n’ Go seats that fold into the floor make sense for people who don’t want to wrestle them in and out every time they’ve got lots of cargo to haul. The Pacifica offers a plug-in hybrid version (called “hybrid” by Chrysler) that goes 33 miles on batteries, perhaps good enough for soccer practice chauffeuring and shopping chores. You might never need gasoline except on weekends.

The Pacifica also wins a few features battles against the Odyssey, such as full-range adaptive cruise control or 20 speakers to Honda’s 11, and matches Honda in offering a built-in vacuum cleaner (Honda had it first), Garmin navigation (Chrysler had it first), active noise cancellation to damp road noise, and tailgates that open when you make a kicking motion under the rear bumper (Ford and BMW had it first).

Otherwise, it’s advantage Honda: more and newer features, a quieter cockpit, more comfortable second row seats, and better driving dynamics. If anything helps push minivans back toward a million sales, it will be vehicles such as Odyssey. That, and perhaps a generation that grew up in the back of minivans.

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