The minivan has been derided as the ultimate symbol of a boring suburban existence. Men and women who once dreamed of leading exciting, international jet-setting lives now walk out to this sign planted in the driveway, one which says evenings are spent at home in front of the television and weekends are devoted to household chores.
Despite these negative connotations, the minivan lives on in the line-ups of Toyota, Nissan, Chrysler, Dodge, and Honda, the latter in the form of the 2014 Odyssey.
And no, these companies have not found a way to make the minivan exciting. Instead, the vehicle remains a comfortable second home on wheels suitable for long trips with multiple children, pets, luggage, and the variety of things needed for household chores.
Honda's Odyssey is a veteran in the minivan trade, a road warrior that serves the needs of families year after year. The 2014 Odyssey shows modern, almost futuristic styling, with a simple line down the side that drops behind the C-pillar. The stubby front end rakes downward from windshield to grille, helping frontward visibility. The two-bar grille, bookended by integrated headlight casings, is unmistakably Honda, echoing that of the Accord and other models.
The example of the 2014 Odyssey I got into was the top Touring Elite trim, but one of the most convenient features, power sliding doors, comes standard in all but the LX trim Odyssey. The power rear hatch comes standard on EX-L and up.
With seating for eight, the 2014 Odyssey looked designed for larger families. The middle row is configured as a three seater bench or, with the drop-down center console, a more comfortable emulation of captain's chairs for two adults. Third row seating, often a torture chamber in other vehicles, was surprisingly comfortable and accessible. However, narrow hiproom means the rearmost seat would be cramped for three adults.
I was impressed with the cavernous amount of cargo space created by folding the third row seating flat into the floor, and the big well at the rear of the cargo area when the seats were up. However, Honda does not offer power folding third row seats at any trim in the Odyssey.
As a feature showpiece, Honda integrates a vacuum cleaner into the rear of the Odyssey. Running off the Odyssey's battery, I could easily pull the hose out, add one of two attachments, and begin sucking up all the detritus kids shed. This vacuum cleaner is only available in the top Touring Elite trim Odyssey.
Regardless of trim level, the Odyssey comes with a 3.5-liter V-6 engine, six-speed automatic transmission, and electric power steering. Although I only drove the Touring Elite model, Honda's specifications suggest that the Odyssey would drive the same at any trim level.
And the best word for the Odyssey's driving character is easy. The simple get-in-and-go Odyssey serves the needs of parents who want to focus more on whether all the kids are in the car than how fast they can get from 0 to 60 mph. Driving around San Francisco and along local freeways, I found acceleration more than adequate, the ride very comfortable, and steering radius tight enough for easy parking lot maneuvering.
When I stomped the gas pedal at a freeway onramp or passing another car on a two-lane highway, I was grateful to hear the whine of Honda's i-VTEC variable valve timing working to pull the peak 248 horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque from the V-6. The Odyssey didn't feel like a laggard under my control, but these engine specs are not terribly impressive compared to what some automakers are wringing out of smaller engines.
However, the Odyssey delivers its power linearly, allowing for smooth and solid shifting from the six-speed automatic. The transmission contributes to the simple driving character, and most owners will probably never use any but the P, R, and D positions. For hills, Honda offers a little flexibility, with an L position holding the transmission below fourth gear and an overdrive lock-out button on the side of the shifter, keeping it below fifth gear.
Honda implemented its cylinder-deactivation technology on the Odyssey's engine, so the V-6 can run on four or even three cylinders in low-load situations. The feature worked below my awareness level, the only indication that cylinder were dropping out a little green Eco light on the dashboard.
Cylinder deactivation helps the Odyssey achieve an impressive 28 mpg on the highway. City driving, at a 19 mpg EPA estimate, drops the average right down, though, to the point where I saw 21.8 mpg during my time with the car. Expect a low 20s average for the Odyssey in daily driving, not a particularly impressive number.
A screen too many
In the driver seat, I was a little disheartened to see Honda's new cabin tech interface, which I had previously reviewed in the Accord. With the navigation system, available at the EX-L trim and standard in Touring and Touring Elite, an LCD in the dashboard shows route guidance, audio, phone, and other information, all controllable with voice command and switchgear. Below that LCD sits another touchscreen in easy reach of the driver showing audio information.
The touchscreen showed its audio information in a different format than the upper screen, for example only allowing me to go through albums sequentially from a connected USB device, while the upper screen and its associated hardware controls let me browse and select music using a more complete music library interface. Honda should really look to Infiniti, which used a similar hardware set-up for its cabin tech interface in the new Q50 Hybrid, but made much better use of the touchscreen as a control interface.