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2018 Honda Odyssey Elite First Drive – A Van For Drivers

“Remember, you are in a minivan,” my better half commanded as I tapped the left-hand gearshift paddle, grabbing a lower gear to power out of the improbably banked corner on a mountain two-lane. The 19-inch Bridgestones squealed in protest as I pushed it a bit wide, just as the kid squealed from the third row over a funny movie.

What was I to do? It’s not like the roads Honda chose for this drive are the typical minivan haunts — namely suburban surface streets or long interstate slabs. There are no real suburbs on the big island of Hawai’i, and interstate drives would get quite wet after a couple of hours in any direction. So I pressed on, trailbraking as if I were hustling a much smaller car around an autocross course.

It’s indeed a minivan, but the new 2018 Honda Odyssey is surprisingly rewarding to drive. While the majority of miles racked up by any minivan undoubtedly result from a commute, either on city streets or the interstate, taking the long way home in this Odyssey won’t feel like punishment.

Full disclosure: Honda flew my family and me to Hawaii and proceeded to stuff us full of food, all while allowing four pasty Ohioans to sunburn. Honda also provided sunblock, which we didn’t apply frequently enough.

It takes more than a few glances to distinguish this new Odyssey from its popular predecessor. Stand-out features include a floating D-pillar and hidden side door track. The hood is more sculpted than before, with slashes on either side of the power bulge mimicking the signature “lightning bolt” seen on the side doors. It’s handsome, inoffensive, and unmistakably an Odyssey.

The interior is what matters most to any minivan shopper, and Honda spent a great deal of time making improvements to the experience for both the driver and passengers.

Take the seats, for instance. While I’m on record as a fan of Chrysler’s second-row folding Stow ‘n Go seating, those seats aren’t the most comfortable on long drives. The kids don’t complain, but when I hauled my mother and my mother-in-law (yes, I’m a masochist) along with my kids to visit a mouse in a swamp last fall, those thinly padded seats became a topic of discussion.

Honda has taken a different tack with the second-row seating in the new Odyssey. While the seats need to be unlatched and lifted out for a big IKEA run, they offer significantly better support and comfort over the Chrysler option.

The big news with these seats is a new Magic Slide feature, which allows for side-to-side sliding, as well as fore-and-aft. A third seat can be fitted in the middle, or removed. The outboard seats can be slid together if the kids are behaving, or apart to create a demilitarized zone. Both second-row seats can be pushed to one side of the vehicle to allow easier access to the third row, or to allow more legroom for rearmost passengers. As well, the center second-row seat can be moved forward, within reach the front seats, to allow better infant access for the parents sitting up front.

The rear seat folds easily into the floor like every prior Odyssey. A single tug of a strap flips and folds the seats with ease.

Keeping an eye on those kids is easier with the CabinWatch rear-seat camera, which uses a roof-mounted lens to monitor any ongoing fight in the backseat. It works day or night, with an infrared night-vision mode giving a clear view of (hopefully) sleeping kids. The image can pan, tilt, or zoom with familiar pinch-to-zoom gestures on the dash-mounted 8-inch touchscreen.

I rather enjoyed the optional CabinTalk feature — or, in the words of Honda’s Dan Tiet, the “Voice Of God” mode. It allows the driver to easily project their voice to the rear passengers, either through the rear speakers or over the wireless entertainment system headphones. My youngest has a habit of ignoring me once she’s selected a movie, and inevitably won’t listen to my requests for a bathroom break until we’re 20 miles past the last exit.

By breaking into the audio of her most recent viewing of Frozen, I can interrupt her enough to elicit a tear-filled response. Isn’t parenting all about creating little disappointments to avoid the big ones? I’m good at that.

The Odyssey’s entertainment system is vastly improved. Besides the ability to play Blu-Ray discs, built-in 4G LTE streaming content is available, including a PBS Kids app to play on the go.

Of course, everything needs an app these days, and Honda has obliged with the CabinControl application for Apple and Android. The app allows up to seven passengers to connect to the Odyssey to control rear entertainment, temperature and fan speed, and even select songs from their various phones to create a playlist for the entire van. Honda was careful to note that phones do not have the ability to change volume, so startling the driver with full-volume tunes isn’t a concern.

One feature worthy of being called brilliant is the ability for passengers to input navigation waypoints. Handing those responsibilities to a passenger is a great safety choice.

Mechanically, the Odyssey has undergone some subtle changes that should make a big difference in both fuel economy and driving behavior. The 3.5-liter V6 is now fitted with direct fuel injection, adding 32 horsepower and 12 lb-ft of torque to last year’s model for a total of 280 hp and 262 lb-ft. The engine is mated to one of two new transmissions — either the ZF nine-speed automatic used in the Pilot, or an all-new Honda-built 10-speed in top trims.

I sampled the highest-spec Odyssey Elite, fitted with the 10-speed. Shifts were barely perceptible, and I never noticed any gear hunting as I cruised. While paddle shifters feel rather silly in a van, I used the feature a couple of times to induce engine braking on some steep descents.

Interestingly, Honda quotes identical fuel economy figures for both transmissions — 19 mpg city, 28 mpg highway, and 22 mpg combined. When pressed about these differences, Honda engineers noted the 10-speed allows for a wider spread of gear ratios, optimizing performance in all conditions. The top four gears in the Honda-built 10-speed are overdrive ratios.

Honda also paid significant attention to sound deadening in the new Odyssey. Most vans — the previous generation Odyssey included — tend to amplify road and wind noise due to the massive open cargo area. It’s basically one big subwoofer enclosure filled with people and dropped french fries. Honda added acoustic spray foam in various locations to block off hollow pillars and deaden road noises. On some trims, acoustic glass is added to further soak up the noise.

The other new-ish kid on the minivan block, of course, is Chrysler’s Pacifica, introduced last year and reviewed here a couple of times. Comparing the two yielded a couple of surprises. First, the church-like quietness of the new Odyssey’s cabin stands in stark contrast to the Pacifica. While the Chrysler improved upon the prior-generation Town & Country (currently in my stable), the Honda is a significant leap forward.

Another difference: the ride felt somewhat harsh in the new Odyssey. Upon reflection, I’d chalk it up to the 19-inch alloy wheels fitted to the Odyssey Elite trim I sampled, compared to the smaller 17-inch wheels (and correspondingly taller/softer tire sidewalls) fitted to my Pacifica tester. That extra rubber can help dull road imperfections.

Pricing seems to be in line with the market, starting at $30,930 (all prices including $940 destination charge) for the base LX trim, and $34,800 for the EX trim, which comes equipped with the full suite of Honda Sensing safety features, including adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning, and lane keeping assist. At $47,610, the Elite trim I sampled isn’t quite as budget friendly, but it comes packed with the 10-speed transmission, those 19-inch alloy wheels, heated and ventilated front seats, a wireless phone charging pad, and a stellar 11-speaker premium audio system.

While some manufacturers have abandoned the minivan segment, a few others soldier on building the best possible people movers. Chrysler fired the first salvo for a better, more premium box on wheels last year, and Honda has answered admirably with an improved, quieter, more fun-to-drive Odyssey.

[Images © 2017 Chris Tonn/The Truth About Cars]

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