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, but made much better use of the touchscreen as a control interface.
Adding to the inconsistency within the cabin, the climate controls include an older-style monochrome LCD mounted between the upper LCD and lower touchscreen.
Voice command in the Odyssey let me request music by name from an iOS device plugged into the car's USB port. However, other voice command operations, such as destination entry, were so tedious and required so many repeat presses of the voice command button that I feared I would get a repetitive stress injury on my thumb.
The hard drive-stored maps of the navigation system looked good and showed in perspective and plan views. Under route guidance, the system took into account live traffic data and showed useful graphics for upcoming turns. Through the HondaLink app, powered by Aha, the navigation system offered limited online destination search, but I found it took so long to get search results that I didn't want to use this feature.
Standard at any trim level is a Bluetooth hands-free phone system, which let me use voice command to place calls by contact name. The phone interface included call history and my contact list.
A big part of the minivan experience is keeping the kids entertained on long trips. In Touring Elite trim, the Odyssey gets a huge bump in this regard, featuring not only a standard 16.2-inch extra-widescreen drop-down LCD, with an HDMI input, for rear seat entertainment, but also a 650-watt 12-speaker 5.1 surround sound audio system. The screen is able to show dual, side-by-side video from different sources to help keep peace in the family.
I was impressed by the video on the screen and the immersive audio when watching a movie. However, the screen resolution is WVGA, not HD. Likewise, the Odyssey does not have a Blu-ray DVD player built in -- you will have to bring one into the vehicle and connect it to the entertainment system through either the HDMI or composite cable inputs.
Since I wasn't carting around kids while testing the Odyssey, I listened to music using either Bluetooth streaming or the USB port. My other options were HD radio, satellite radio, CD, or music stored on the car's own hard drive.
Surround sound systems are not optimal for audio, but I was able to enjoy good audio quality due to the powerful amp and subwoofer included in this system. Bass and mids came through nicely, but higher frequencies tended to distort at volume.
At EX-L and Touring trim levels, the rear seat entertainment system uses a smaller screen, while the audio system gets demoted to seven speakers with a less powerful amp. The 5.1 channel audio also goes away.
Honda throws in a few driver-assistance systems with the Odyssey, all standard at the Touring Elite level. The blind spot monitor lit up warnings on the A pillars when cars were in the next lane over. A forward-facing camera enabled a collision warning system, which sounded off whenever I was slow to hit the brakes when rolling toward traffic ahead. However, there is no adaptive cruise control available for the Odyssey.
A back-up camera comes standard at all trim levels, which proves an extremely useful feature due to the cliff-like rear of the car, and the inability to see anything below the rear window.
Short on innovation
For many, a crossover vehicle has taken the title of family car from the minivan. As such, automakers are putting more development and technology into crossover models. However, a few people remain loyal to the minivan, and it certainly meets some needs well. The sliding doors, ample seating room, and fold-flat rear seats of the 2014 Honda Odyssey are all features not available in most crossovers.
Reflective of the somewhat neglected minivan segment, the Odyssey doesn't innovate, unless you want to count the rear vacuum cleaner. Honda's cylinder deactivation technology keeps fuel economy high on the highway, but there isn't anything particularly exotic about the drivetrain. The Odyssey's steering and drivetrain do an excellent job delivering ease-of-driving.
Driver assistance systems go a little ways towards creating a safer experience, but not to the level I've seen in other types of vehicles. In particular, there are no active systems, such as automatic braking, adaptive cruise control, or lane departure prevention.
The wide screen and HDMI input are nice additions for the rear seat entertainment system, but hardly keep the Odyssey up with the latest in home entertainment. And teenagers will likely use an iPad or other tablet. As for driver infotainment systems, the features in the Odyssey are solid, but I am not a fan of Honda's weird combination of touchscreen and upper LCD.
What I would like to see is a redesign of the minivan from the ground-up, based on one of the newer commercial van platforms, such as the Ford Transit or Nissan NV. These vehicles are designed for excellent fuel economy and maneuverability, with versatile interior space. One of those platforms could potentially be a minivan for the 21st century.
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2014 Honda Odyssey
|Model||2014 Honda Odyssey|
|Powertrain||3.5-liter V-6 engine, six-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||19 mpg city/28 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||21.8 mpg mpg|
|Navigation||Optional, with live traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Digital audio sources||Internet-based radio, internal hard drive, Bluetooth streaming, iOS integration, USB drive, auxiliary input, satellite radio, HD radio|
|Audio system||12-speaker 650-watt system|
|Driver aids||Blind-spot monitor, lane-departure warning, collision warning, rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$44,450|