Road Tests

First Drive: 2018 Honda Odyssey

A better, if not exactly cooler, minivan

WAIKOLOA, HAWAII – It’s 82 degrees and sunny, with a faint tropical crosswind sweeping across the billiard table-smooth highway. My family — conveniently flown in to accompany me on this 2018 Honda Odyssey test drive — is dishing about seat comfort and visibility after a multi-hour, cross-island drive. You may accuse Honda of tilting the playing field by flying the whole brood across the Pacific, but the move is a stroke of brilliance, really: come for the eight-passenger people-mover press launch, stay for experiential gold.

We took to the mean streets of Hawaii in a top-end Odyssey Elite under auspiciously ideal circumstances — that is, balmy weather, great roads, and minimal traffic. Remote operated dual power doors, relatively low step-in, and easily maneuvered second row seats made load-in easy. Once settled in, CabinWatch — a new monitoring system that uses a ceiling-mounted infrared camera to keep tabs on second and third row occupants that also offers night vision and pinch/zoom views — makes it easy to make sure everyone’s belted in (and not wrestling each other).

Honda launched the first-gen Odyssey in 1994 on a modified Accord chassis, a connection that remains to this day thanks to the automaker’s platform strategy. The 2018 Odyssey receives an updated structure that strategically uses high-strength steel, aluminum, and magnesium to increase torsional rigidity by 44 percent while reducing weight by as much as 75 pounds.

As a counter-measure against the genre’s reputation for uninspiring driving dynamics, Honda reworked the rear suspension with a compact trailing arm design and, for the first time, incorporated a rear anti-roll bar, moving the springs and dampers outboard. Up front, a new dual-pinion electronic steering system claims an 18 percent quicker ratio and better feel.

Powering the 2018 Odyssey is Honda’s familiar 3.5-liter V-6, tuned to make 280 hp and 262 lb-ft of torque — increases of 32 hp and 12 lb-ft. Not familiar, however, are the new 9- and 10-speed automatic gearboxes (the latter is standard on Touring and Elite models, like our tester) the engine is mated to, which replace the outgoing model’s 6-speed. The 9-speed is sourced from ZF, while the 10-speed is Honda’s in-house creation.

All models feature paddle shifters for the first time and claim a nearly one second advantage from 0 to 60 mph compared to the nearest competitors. Fuel economy is rated at 19/28 mpg city/highway, aided by a new active shutter grille which promises to aid aerodynamics by redirecting airflow when engine cooling is less critical.

A push-button shifter replaces the small outgoing shift knob on the center stack (a la NSX), and works easily enough. Press “D/S” once, and you’re in standard automatic mode; dip it again, and you switch — confusingly — to “Sequential,” not “Sport.” Go figure. And no, the provocatively named Sequential mode doesn’t refer to an automated single-clutch transmission; this setting simply encourages the driver to do his best mid-life crisis racer impersonation and shift via the paddles, which respond lazily but smoothly to inputs.

Though power never feels explosive, the engine plays well with the 10-speed, offering eager revving, flexible power, and the impression that regardless of speed or engine rpm, the gearbox seemed to be in the right gear. It also makes high-speed driving fairly effortless, allowing the engine to remain below a leisurely 2,000 rpm even while cruising at 80 mph.

The average red-blooded enthusiast might feel socially sheepish at the controls of this (up to) 4,593-pound vehicle, but at least on Hawaii’s open roads, the Odyssey manages to lurch past dilly-dallying locals and rental cars with ease. Cornering reveals good body control and solid steering feedback, while the long wheelbase and revised suspension seems to be well-equipped for bumpy surfaces (road quality on the Big Island was admittedly excellent).

Despite the drivetrain’s intuitive responses to driver input, the Odyssey’s automated features lack refinement — particularly the adaptive cruise system, which tends to repeatedly dab, rather than smoothly apply, the brakes. Frustratingly, the system also ceases to operate below 25 mph, exposing the driver to the full drudgery of stop and go traffic crawls.

Helping manage said drudgery are numerous interior enhancements. Softer, higher quality materials are employed throughout the cabin, which is highlighted by a new one-piece instrument panel surrounded in a padded surface. It’s a quieter space as well, thanks to extensive use of noise quelling measures throughout.

All trim levels benefit from active noise cancellation technology, while physical improvements include the addition of acoustical glass at the windshield and side glass, sound deadening carpet, and triple door seals. Also incorporated under the skin are copious amounts of spray foam, acoustic tape, and foam stoppers for good, noise-killing measure.

These refinements to NVH are palpable within the cabin, offering excellent sound and ride isolation. A side effect of the reduced wind, road, and tire noise is that engine noise is more prominent than before and your ears will pick up the refined but nonetheless mechanical sounds of the otherwise innocuous six-cylinder.

In addition to its greatly reduced noise levels, the cabin of the 2018 Odyssey features a strong lineup of communications and entertainment features, such as the aforementioned CabinWatch system.

Featured front and center on all models but the base LX is a new 8-inch touchscreen. The display uses an Android operating system, features customizable apps, and receives over-the-air updates to stay current. With what it says is first-in-segment in-car 4G LTE connectivity, the Odyssey’s multimedia system can also connect to up to 8 smartphones, feeding music playlist choices into the stereo system.

Key controls can also be managed using Honda’s proprietary CabinControl system, which enables HVAC, stereo, and nav system management via a smartphone app. And should CabinWatch show the need to threaten to turn this van around, the driver can use the included CabinTalk system to broadcast his or her words through the vehicle’s speakers and headphones. Although it projects a comically tinny, metallic version of the driver’s voice throughout the interior, it beats the old-fashioned approach of raising your voice.

The strains of long distance driving can be softened by Honda’s kitschy How Much Further app, which portrays a time remaining graphic in a cartoon format on the flip-down, roof-mounted 10.2-inch display. Due to our personal ban on in-car entertainment, we didn’t sample built-in streaming apps like PBS Kids, which displays video on the rear screen. However, the old fashioned picture window did the trick, offering excellent visibility on the Big Island’s famously volcanic landscapes. Your scenery may vary.

On the packaging side of things, although they’re not as flexible as the Stow ’n Go seats found in the Chrysler Pacifica, the Odyssey’s ‘MagicSlide’ second row seats can slide front-to-back and side-to-side in order to aid ingress and egress, and can be manipulated from the front seats in order to fine tune access and visibility. Rear seating space is excellent, and a deep storage bin behind the third row offers plenty of cargo room.

Say what you will about the genre’s intrinsic social liabilities, the minivan is the most efficient way to haul people and cargo – cool factor be damned. The Odyssey has been the best seller within this half-million unit segment for seven consecutive years, and is the fourth best-selling Honda in U.S. history. Given its undisputable utility and functionality, I would be hard pressed to create a compelling argument against the 2018 Honda Odyssey’s ability to retain that title.

2018 Honda Odyssey Specifications

ON SALE Now
PRICE $30,930/$47,610 (base/as tested)
ENGINE 3.5L SOHC 24-valve V-6/280 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 262 lb-ft @ 4,700 rpm
TRANSMISSIONS 9-speed automatic, 10-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 7-8-passenger, front-engine, FWD van
EPA MILEAGE 19/22 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 203.2 x 78.5 x 68.3 in
WHEELBASE 118.1 in
WEIGHT 4,354-4,593 lb
0-60 MPH 7.5 sec (est)
TOP SPEED N/A

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