LET'S face it: no one with a car-loving bone in their body ever woke up one day and said, "I can't wait to get a minivan!"
Rather the opposite, I'm afraid. To the gearhead, the speed-merchant, the weekend racer, and even the Mom and Dad clinging to that last vestige of cool factor they once had four hundred million years ago, a minivan is giving up. It's purgatory. It's the automotive equivalent of sweatpants with baby-food stains.
But it shouldn't be. The young couple down the street from me recently decided to replace their faithful four-door VW hatchback with something a bit more commodious.
They have a two-year-old son, a desire to go on family trips, and overseas-based grandparents who visit regularly.
A crossover? Well perhaps, but after measuring their needs against the space available in even the biggest such cars, a little more practicality was needed. The shopping began. I was not at all surprised to see a new Honda Odyssey end up in their driveway.
After all, when they asked me, it was the machine I recommended to them. Here's why.
Honda released the current-design Odyssey on the market in 2010, and it's still a remarkably fresh-looking design. A large front corporate grille provides a handsome face and a trapezoidal dipsy-doodle in the rear gives some sort of character to the side-profile.
It is also bloody enormous. "Mini"-van my foot.
At five meters long and two meters wide, the Odyssey is bigger than the boat which once propelled Homer's classical hero on his epic journey around the Mediterranean. It's hard to believe families once made do with regular sedans.
Still, in a sea of SUVs and crossovers, even a vessel of such hefty proportions doesn't look that big. Optioned in Dark Cherry Pearl paint, the Odyssey is large and imposing, but still a pretty good-looking rig.
Seventeen-inch wheels are standard on the LX model, moving up to similar diameter alloys right up to the EX-L trim. Eighteen-inch wheels are standard on the top-spank Touring model - as tire-width doesn't change throughout the range, a set of LX-level steelies will fit a higher-grade Odyssey for winter duties.
Dr. Who's Tardis is famous for being bigger on the inside than on the outside. As you'd expect from a barn-on-wheels (an attractive barn, mind you) like the Odyssey, interior space is exemplary.
The Odyssey strikes a solid balance between adult-sized seating and usable space for kids. Both the mid and rear rows are less canted back than some competitor offerings, which allows for easy installation of both booster seats and rear-facing child seats. The mid-row seats are probably too heavy for smaller kids to tilt forward and squeeze past - luckily they can just scamper between the twin captain's chairs.
Load-height levels are a bit higher, so smaller kids will again need to be lifted in. However, strapping in an infant is super easy for an average-height person to accomplish, and the ability to control all the power doors from either the key fob or driver's seat (as well as switches mounted in the rear door jambs) is handy.
Loading five adults into the Odyssey showed that the front four seats are plenty comfy and the rear seat is entirely workable if you're not six-foot-plus. Even then, it'll suit for a short trip across town: parents with lanky teens involved in plenty of team sports take note.
When it comes to cargo, this thing has more cubby holes and secret compartments than the Millennium Falcon. If it's not a pocket, pouch, shelf or storage bin, it's a cupholder. Oh yeah, the cupholders: if you put a water bottle in each one of these, you'd have enough H20 to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
For hauling larger stuff, the easy-folding rear seat has a 60/40 split and folds completely flat into the rear floor - the extra space when the rear seat is deployed makes plenty of room for coolers and so forth. However, with the rear tailgate up, the step-up will be a bit high if you're loading an elderly pooch.
Moreover, while the middle-row seats move back and forth, depending on passenger's varying legroom requirements, they do not fold completely flat. When Saturday's family activity includes a run to Ikea, there may not be quite as much space as anticipated. You can remove the middle row entirely if this is the move off to college, and the next stop is trading in the minivan on a two-seater S2000 roadster.
Regardless of what sort of shenanigans are going on behind you, front-seat passengers will have comfortable seats, an available drop-down wide-view mirror to keep an eye on things, a sensible dash layout and even reasonable lines of sight.
Well, it's a minivan: we hardly even need this section, right?
Actually, with a 248 horsepower V-6 mated to either a five-speed automatic or a six-speed in Touring models, the Odyssey is quicker than you'd expect. It doesn't burn off the line, instead building up inertia and speed with strong mid-range power.
This is an exceptional long-distance tourer. Wind-noise from the extra-large side mirrors is perhaps a bit noticeable, but with everybody comfortable and entertained, the driver won't be bored either - this six-cylinder can be wound up easily to pass any lugging 18wheeler and the steering isn't as numb as others.
When it comes to handling, the Odyssey is a veritable autocrosser's dream. Hah. Just kidding.
However, this big hauler is considerably composed through long highway sweepers. If you're hustling to catch a ferry, the danger isn't that you'll over-drive the tires, but that you won't know how fast you're going and the local constables will snap you up - so watch your speed.
For most vehicles, the dynamic assessment stops there, but let's talk about parking. As land prices go up, parking spot width goes down, so manoeuvring a van into place can get tricky.
Luckily, a backup camera is now standard on the Odyssey, and with an extra-large display screen, getting out of tight spaces is not the trial it could be. Additionally, the bluff nose makes tight turns fairly easy; however, if your family activities are mostly in-town, parallel parking is going to take a bit of practice.
Probably no other vehicle segment can boast the kind of features you get aboard a modern minivan. The top-spec Touring Odyssey is like a luxury sedan hooked up to an air-compressor.
At the peak of the range, you get a multi-view rear camera, an ultra-wide rear-entertainment system, 15Gigabyte on-board hard-drive to load up with Sponge Bob sing-alongs and a 650-watt system to blast them through. Of course the cost for all this is not inconsiderable: $47,190 + freight.
Better news for families who've got tuition to save up for is the enhancements made to the base-model Odyssey ($29,990) this year. A rear-view camera, USB connectivity, Bluetooth streaming audio, a seven-speaker audio system and 2 GB of on-board storage.
Mid-range models add alloys, power-sliding doors and other amenities. It should be noted that Touring models have a slight mechanical advantage over the LX, EX ($34,090) and EX-L ($41,190) trim, with a six-speed automatic transmission, rather than a five-speed auto.
The six-speed option gives slightly better in-city fuel economy at 10.9 litres/100 kilometres in-city versus the five-speed's 11.7 l/100 km. Highway mileage is too close to call: 7.2 l/100 km for the five-speed, 7.1 l/100 km for the six-speed.
More important is the Odyssey's solid resale values: Touring models always do extremely well on trade-in or in the used car market. In fact, looking for savings on a year-old Odyssey is sometimes an exercise in futility, especially when you weigh it against lower dealer finance rates and the cost of a year's extra warranty.
Smooth ride; comfortable and spacious interior; plenty of cargo capacity; powerful V6; improved standard features. Stop sign
Limited folding options for middle-row seats; top-range models get expensive quickly; six-speed transmission not available across the range.
The checkered flag
Somewhere between a cargo hauler and a business jet - might just be a whole lot cooler than you think.
Competitors Dodge Grand Caravan ($19,995)
Dodge invented the minivan and their Grand Caravan remains the bargain leader for the segment. While you can get a loaded-up van with similar equipment levels as the Odyssey, these high-spec domestic vans aren't quite as well-finished, nor will you get a significant portion of your investment back.
A better idea is to go for the reasonably equipped basic version which is - there's no other word for this - ridiculously cheap. It's possible to spend less on a brand new Dodge van than on a mid-level Honda Civic! It's the value choice, but nowhere near the fit and finish of the Honda.
Toyota Sienna ($28,140)
Honda's main rival in this segment is the Sienna, a perennial favourite. At higher trim levels, there's little to pick them apart, although the Sienna's V-6 feels even more powerful and its seats are more adult-friendly.
At a base level, the Toyota feels quite a bit cheaper, with odd, mouse-fur-like upholstery. I also don't think it's quite as good looking as the Honda, but in the midrange, it's almost a coin toss.