A Family Affair
“We’re already all connected to the Wi-Fi,” Miguel Cortina Sr. tells me through the open window as I approach the scarlet red minivan. He’s speaking for himself; his wife, Cecilia; his daughter, Fernanda; and his eldest son and Motor Trend en Español editor, Miguel Jr. They’ve been in the van less than five minutes.
The Cortina family has joined me and photographer Robin Trajano on Hawaii’s Big Island for the launch of the all-new 2018 Honda Odyssey, and they’ll be consulting on our reviews. I may be a professional car reviewer, but I don’t have children, and I’ve had little experience loading kids and their stuff into a minivan. I can tell you how the Odyssey rides and handles and all that, but the Cortinas have owned seven minivans from four automakers (including two Odysseys) over nearly two decades. They know these things inside and out.
It’s immediately obvious when we stop for a break. The family is digging around the cargo area, and Cecilia is working the third-row seats like a pro. Before Miguel Jr. or I can say anything, she’s already got them folding and stowed. “Super easy,” she says.
“That’s a really cool thing what you’re doing there, Robin,” Miguel Sr. says from the second row. Robin is working the “Magic Slide” second-row seats, which not only slide forward and back but slide side-to-side, as well. Pop out the middle seat, and the outboard second-row seats can be manually slid toward the center of the car in several different positions. It makes a lot more room for accessing the third row, and it puts the kids closer to the center of the vehicle and within easier reach of the front row. The seats also tilt forward for more access to the third row. Most important, they can make all these movements with a car seat installed. Regardless of where the second row is set, there’s plenty of legroom, shoulder room, hiproom, and toe room in the second and third rows, even for tall adults.
As neat as the seats are, they’re not flawless. The seat backs do not fold flat like in other minivans, and they only tilt forward at a very sharp angle—you can’t stack anything on top of them like you might in other vans, and they don’t really open up any additional room for hauling longer objects. If you want to make a big Ikea run, you’ll want to take out the seats, and it’s an arduous task: Remove the middle seat, center the seats front to back, slide them all the way out to the doors, take the head rest off (makes it easier), tilt the seats forward, pull the release handle, and lift and slide the seats backward to release them. Once you have them free of their tracks, it’s a back workout to wrestle the the 69-pound (31-kg) beasts out of the van. A second pair of hands would be helpful, and I don’t recommend doing it regularly. There’s also no dedicated space onboard to store that middle seat. Honda, for their part, says their customers rarely haul long and bulky items.
Still, they pass the Cortina test. “My mom and I were just reminiscing about how hard it was to get in and out of the back seats before,” Miguel Jr. says. Plus, it means everyone can get in on the curb side of the vehicle whether car seats are installed in the second row.
“First critique,” Miguel Sr. announces, “there’s no hooks in the back for your shopping bags.” It seems like an odd oversight from Honda.
Back on the road, the family is playing with all the tech features.
“I like that I can help my mom out by looking up an address for her and sending it,” Fernanda says. She’s trying the Honda Cabin Control app on her phone. Any family member can download it and connect to the car’s entertainment, navigation, and climate control systems. Users can adjust the rear climate control, add songs to a social playlist and send them to the stereo, look up addresses and send them to the navigation system, and control the rear-seat entertainment system. Parents can set permissions for each individual phone and can always deny a song or destination sent to the infotainment system. One thing the kids can’t control from the back: the stereo volume.
The infotainment system itself is a big step forward for Honda. The software is all-new and Android-based, and it’s been designed to resemble the home screen on your smartphone. All the major functions have been broken out into apps, each appearing as a tile you can drag around to customize the screen. There are also three favorite slots at the top of the screen that are always present, allowing you to create shortcuts to specific functions such as satellite radio or navigation. Not only does it allow you to pinch, swipe, and drag, but it also actually responds as quickly as a phone screen, something many manufacturers can’t say. Honda even brought back an audio volume knob. Below the screen, hard buttons have been selected for functions Honda thinks you might want to use the minute you get in the car rather than waiting for the infotainment screen to load—climate control and seat heaters/coolers. The system can receive over-the-air software updates from your home Wi-Fi or at the dealer, and the onboard 4G LTE Wi-Fi hot spot can pull data from its own account or from a smartphone acting as a hot spot.
“The camera in the back is great to watch the little ones,” Miguel Sr. says. He’s playing with Cabin Watch, which mounts a camera on the ceiling by the rear-seat entertainment system. It lets you see both the second and third rows from the 8.0-inch infotainment screen, and it can look over the top of rear-facing child seats. It also has an infrared night vision mode, and you can zoom in by pinching and spreading your fingers on the screen.
Complementing the camera is the Cabin Talk feature pioneered in concept by Toyota, which picks up the front-seat passengers and broadcasts their voices over the rear speakers and also through the wired and wireless headphones. Later, as Robin is hanging out the back to get action shots of Miguel Jr. in a second van, I’ll use it to communicate with him rather than screaming over the wind.
“This is like the ultimate photo support vehicle,” Robin tells me. He’s something of a minivan expert himself. Minivans are our preferred photo vehicles because they ride smoothly, are low to the ground, and have big windows, doors, and hatches to shoot out of. They also have a ton of room for gear when the seats are stowed or removed. Robin has shot out of every minivan on the market and chaperoned our long-term Kia Sedona last year. He does have one complaint about our loaded Elite tester: There’s only one sunroof.
He’s also less than enamored with the single-screen, ceiling-mounted rear-seat entertainment system. “We were trying to watch a movie in the back, and it was kinda convoluted,” he says. “The menus were difficult. We wanted to get the movie on the headphones, and the front row wanted to listen to the radio, and it was hard to figure out. When we were done, we couldn’t get the radio in the back until we turned off the rear entertainment system.”
Everyone was, however, a fan of the How Much Further function. If there’s a destination in the navigation system, a graphic can be opened on the rear-seat entertainment system to show how far you’ve gone and how far and how long there is left to go. The system also accepts inputs from a Blu-Ray player up front, an HDMI port in the back, USB ports, or streaming over the in-car Wi-Fi network. Power for any of those attached gizmos comes courtesy of 2.5-amp USB ports, 12-volt power ports, and a 110-volt outlet.
Back up front, Cecilia is driving now, and she likes it. “The steering in my Sienna was too soft,” she says of her last van. “You sneeze, and the whole car would move.”
I’m with her. The Odyssey’s steering has a very natural weight to it and responds linearly. You get exactly as much steering as you ask for, every time. Worried your life is going to be super lame if you get a minivan? You can chill. The Odyssey handles brilliantly, and you can look at that two equally good ways. On the one hand, the exasperated parent will be happy the van moves so fluidly, with so little head toss it will never disturb the kids. On the other, it’s impressive how fast you can hustle around a corner. The Odyssey corners shockingly flat for a van, has far more grip than you’d think, and is unflustered by mid-corner bumps. Other minivans don’t handle this well, and a fair number of sedans and SUVs don’t, either.
Ride quality is as impressive as the handling. The Odyssey has an all-new rear suspension and reworked front suspension, and they’re dialed. No fancy adjustable shocks here, just solid tuning. It rides over bumps big and small, hardly noticing them. Little shake or noise is transmitted to the interior. In fact, almost nothing from the outside world gets inside. There’s zero wind noise, and the engine is pretty quiet. It’s a very serene environment, even at freeway speeds.
“The power is good if you need it to pass somebody on the highway,” says Miguel Sr., now taking his turn at the wheel. Honda added 32 horsepower and 12 lb-ft of torque to the familiar 3.5-liter V-6, for totals of 280 horsepower and 262 lb-ft. Honda says it could be as much as a full second quicker to 60 mph than the competition. Although it feels very quick for a minivan, we doubt it’ll hit 60 mph in 5.7 seconds. It’s more likely to hit 6.5 seconds like its platform twin, the similarly sized and weighted Pilot. That would still make it the quickest minivan we’ve tested.
The freshened engine can be had with either a ZF-designed and built nine-speed automatic or, on the top two trims, an all-new Honda-designed and built 10-speed automatic. Only the 10-speed was available for our drive, and it shifts quickly and smoothly and reacts immediately to the standard paddle shifters (because sure, why not put paddles on a minivan).
Although it doesn’t hunt in the higher gears, just about every moderate press of the gas will trigger a downshift for more power, though most owners probably won’t even notice. The Odyssey team claims they’ve exorcised the demons from the nine-speed in the past year and a half since the Pilot launched, but based on our experience with our long-term Pilot, we’re going to wait until we’ve driven it ourselves. If you can’t afford a $45,450 USD Odyssey Touring model, though, you’ll be happy to know the nine- and 10-speed vans get the same 19/28/22 mpg (12.4/8.4/10.7 L/100km) city/highway/combined, among the best in the class. Either way, you get a cylinder deactivation system and active grille shutters to save fuel, and the 10-speed cars get automatic idle engine stop/start. The Cortina family thinks the push-button gear shifter is neat. I disagree.
Really, when you combine all the above with the Honda Sense suite of passive and active safety systems, which comes standard on everything but the base model, the Odyssey becomes a futuristic family space capsule. Everything’s so relaxed inside, there are so many gizmos to play with, and adaptive cruise control and lane keeping assist take so much work out of driving the car that you can’t help but enjoy the journey more than the drive.
“Do you really need all this tech?” Miguel Jr. asks his parents.
“Five years ago when I had the Sienna, no,” Cecilia replies. “But now, if I had grandkids, it would be great.”
Back then, the kids were all in their teens and twenties, and features such as the second-row camera weren’t necessary. With young children, though, Miguel Sr. and Cecilia could see needing every feature at one point or another, especially the vacuum cleaner. Cecilia drives a Toyota RAV4 these days, and Miguel Sr. drives a BMW 428i, but they’ve owned a Dodge Grand Caravan, three Ford Windstars, two Odysseys, and a Toyota Sienna. At one point, back in the ’90s, they tried a Chevrolet Suburban but soured on it when it suffered a major rear suspension failure driving home from a family vacation. (No one was hurt.)
“We were talking this morning at breakfast,” Miguel Sr. tells me the next day, “and if we were going to get another minivan, it would be this one.”
Is that the trip to Hawaii talking? I don’t think so. This family ditched Odysseys a decade ago because the Toyota Sienna drove better and looked better to them. They ditched the Windstars for Odysseys because the Hondas had more cargo space and were more versatile. They dumped the Suburban for, well, obvious reasons. The point is, their loyalties lie with the best van for getting a family of six around, but it has to look good, too. The logo on the hood was never much of a factor.
As for me, the professional tester, I can see no reason to doubt them. I’ve driven the whole crop of modern minivans, and even though there’s a decent spread between the best and worst of them, the top three are very competitive. The Chrysler Pacifica has Stow ’n’ Go seating and dual rear-seat entertainment screens, and the Kia Sedona has a panoramic sunroof and especially comfortable seats all around. But when it comes down to which of these vans rides, drives, and handles the best, the Odyssey stands out. When it comes to thoughtful, family-friendly features, the Odyssey stands out. When it comes to comfort and connectivity, the Odyssey stands out. We’ll need a proper Big Test to declare an outright winner, but the 2018 Honda Odyssey is the horse to bet on.