2018 Honda Odyssey Is All About a Happy Family 

Redesigned best-seller cruises Hawaii in relaxing and tech-laden style

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Parents, especially the fertile variety, are always asking me which SUV they should buy without even considering what a minivan could do for their sprawling, bawling family. That’s a shame, especially when there’s a minivan as all-around capable as the 2018 Honda Odyssey.

Both the Toyota Sienna and the surprisingly excellent 2017 Chrysler Pacifica have crept up on the Odyssey, whose last full redesign in 2011 struck me as largely a holding pattern.

2018 Honda Odyssey reasserts class leadership

That Honda did extend its longtime run as the best handler in the class, along with a seven-year streak as America’s most popular minivan (if you count only showroom sales and exclude units in rental fleets). Yet that Honda still struggled to keep wind and noise at bay, and its impenetrable dual-screen display was a bigger pain in the ass than a colicky baby.

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Odyssey shows off its smooth moves on the Big Island of Hawaii

Here in Hawaii, where the Brady Bunch once vacationed, the 2018 Odyssey proves it has the stuff to keep even moody Jan happy in her middle seat. This Odyssey is designed and engineered entirely in Ohio, by American Honda employees who can count about 200 Odyssey owners in company parking lots. We’re talking folks who live the Midwest minivan lifestyle, day in and day out. The Odyssey has another sweet home in Lincoln, Alabama, where the 2018 model has begun rolling off a production line.

2018 Odyssey still out-handles the competition

With our course set for a cinematically beautiful cattle and sheep ranch on the Big Island, the Odyssey ascends toward the clouds on a switchback, no-shoulder road, a recipe for white knuckles in a lesser family hauler. Instead, the Honda immediately shows why it’s back atop the minivan summit, as I push the Odyssey Elite’s 19-inch tires hard enough to elicit squeals. If you actually enjoy driving, the Odyssey’s direct, willing and properly weighted steering alone may send you into its arms. I’d already driven a Chrysler Pacifica that Honda supplied for back-to-back comparison. And while the Pacifica’s charms are ample—notably including unique second-row Stow ‘n Go seats—its steering is its Achilles Heel. There’s an annoying slack spot in the Pacifica’s straight-ahead position, and a kind of pulley quality that makes me think it’s all connected via a bungee cord.

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Ingenious Magic Slide second-row seats pivot at will

Sure, some minivan buyers, distracted (or crushed) by the weight of responsibility, may not care that the Honda handles better than the Pacifica or Toyota Sienna. But they will notice how this Odyssey, whose “magic” disappearing third-row seats and crumb-sucking Honda Vac have been imitated by rivals, is back in the innovation business.

Odyssey cabin is all about ingenuity

The new ideas are led by “Magic Slide” second-row seats, the Odyssey's newest feat of prestidigitation. Reach in through the enormous, power-sliding rear doors and grab a handle; outboard seat pivots sideways along lateral floor tracks, in a silky one-handed operation, to open a wide pathway to the third row. (With the center seat removed, of course.) Those outboard chairs slide to one of five selectable positions, which include the so-called “Buddy mode” with a pair of seats squeezed together for an easy reach from the front row, or spread fully outboard to create a wider center walkway or to keep bickering siblings nicely separated. Seats also tilt forward, or slide fore-and-aft. The effect begs the “Why didn’t someone do this before?” question, but the system demanded serious engineering to meet crash requirements.

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Magic sliders in "Buddy Mode," perfect for an easy parental reach

“Those seats had us pulling our hair out four years ago,” Dave Sunderhaus, the Odyssey’s parts engineering leader, says as we pore over a full-size cutaway of the Odyssey’s newly stiffened chassis displayed on the lawn of a hotel. Seatbelt and retractor had to be relocated from the interior door panel to the seat itself. Floor mounts are ultra-strong, and seat frames are reinforced with extra steel. The cutaway also exposes one of the Honda's critical improvements: a blessedly quieter interior. I poke fingers into chassis holes where an assembly-line robot sprays sound-deadening foam—a first for any Honda—that fills front roof pillars and a dozen other body locations. The Odyssey’s new Advanced Compatibility Engineering (ACE) structure is 44 percent more resistant to bending and up to 75 pounds lighter. It adds a one-piece magnesium instrument panel beam, and those models beginning with the EX-L trim level get a laminated acoustic windshield. The top Elite model adds luxurious acoustic side glass in the first two rows. Throw in active noise cancellation, and the Odyssey reduces interior sound levels by two to three decibels. Honda claims its once-boomy Odyssey is now the quietest in its class; highway hush is immediately noticeable when I ease the Honda to 80 mph and beyond.

Gizmos and gadgets? Odyssey's got you covered

Should you need to yell at wayward children, you can do so without threatening of turning around. New “CabinTalk” amplifies a parent’s voice through speakers in the back. That optional feature seems dubious, not least for its dodgy sound quality and occasional microphone feedback. (As a parent, I know exactly what a child will say the first time you address her in the garbled tones of a New York subway conductor: “Daddy, STOP IT”!) New “CabinWatch” fares better, a Big Brother camera in the headliner that beams a full view of the rear quarters to the center touchscreen and with a zoom function on individual seats. That one might actually be useful for checking on a sleeping baby, or ongoing mischief. As expected from a family-hauler, the Odyssey is chockablock with safety, from a new pair of front airbags for the knees to the Honda Sensing suite of driver-assistance features. 

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With comfy room for seven or eight passengers, who needs birth control? 

But the biggest gizmo upgrade is the new Android-based Display Audio system that banishes the clunky old dual-screen unit. Set into a mildly overdone center stack that recalls Optimus Prime’s hinged jaws, the handsome, eight-inch center touchscreen works a lot like a smartphone—including the ability to add, arrange, or hide icons and shortcuts on a main dock. Its Garmin-based navigation controls aren’t especially intuitive, and its onscreen labeling of streets and cities is scanty. (Why not Google Maps for this Android-based system?) 

Odyssey infotainment foretells the future

Yet the new Display Audio is a leap forward, a powerful, upgradeable system that's designed to future-proof this minivan. More than ever, the rapid advance of devices threatens to make every five-year-old car a laughably behind-the-tech-curve dinosaur. Instead, the Odyssey is first of many Hondas (and surely Acuras) that will offer over-the-air, WiFi software upgrades for audio, navigation, apps, and streaming video—perhaps even Netflix if Honda can nail down a potential deal. There's one welcome old-school choice: An volume knob replaces the infuriatingly imprecise flush-mounted slider that marred several Honda products. Chad Harrison, chief engineer at Honda R&D, vowed that every new Honda will now have a volume knob. Hurrah!

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Display Audio works, downloads and upgrades just like a smartphone

Display Audio also manages the optional rear entertainment center—the lifeblood of any road-tripping minivan family—and can play content via WiFi, smartphones, HDMI, or a built-in DVD and Blu-Ray player. Up to seven passengers can control onboard functions that include entertainment and rear climate via smartphones and an onboard 4G LTE WiFi connection, or through their own WiFi and cellular data plan. The clever "Social playlist" lets passengers fill a virtual jukebox with music stored on personal devices. The Honda does make do with a single, 10.2-inch high-res video screen that pivots from the ceiling; Chrysler's Pacifica offers dual, headrest-mounted screens.

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Power tailgate hides struts in the roof for a wider, smoother opening

When it’s time to drive, a new 3.5-liter, i-VTEC V-6 adds direct injection to generate a healthy 280 horsepower, up from 252 in the 2016 model. The V-6 can sideline half its cylinders to save fuel, with a 28-volt active engine mount system to quell vibration during three-cylinder operation. The EPA rates every 2018 Odyssey at 19/28 mpg in city and highway, a single mpg highway gain versus the previous model.

Honda adds more power, 9 or 10 automatic speeds

The first four tiers of the lineup—Odyssey LX, EX, EX-L and EX-L Navi/Res—get a new nine-speed automatic transmission to replace the former six-speed. (That basic LX models starts from $30,930.) Top-shelf Touring and Elite models, at a respective $45,450 and $47,610, are gifted with a new 10-speed automatic transmission developed in-house by Honda. It uses four planetary gears to deliver an exceptionally wide gear-ratio spread of 10.10, compared with 9.81 for the Odyssey 9-speed and just 6.03 on the previous 6-speed. Chief engineer Harrison says the 10-speed is more about driver control and unobtrusive operation than fuel savings. And the low-inertia transmission is indeed a smoothie, keeping the Honda’s V-6 in its sweet spot and avoiding unnecessary gear hunting. (Both transmissions rely on pushbutton controls in the center stack that take some practice, but free up storage space by eliminating a shift lever.)

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Honda's Big Kahuna hits the beach

In its incredibly tall 10th speed (I needed to nip 70 mph before the Honda would even get into its top gear) the Honda’s V-6 is loafing at just 1,560 rpm at 70 mph, versus 1,960 rpm for the old six-speed, and 1,734 rpm for the nine-speed. Floor the gas, and the shift-by-wire transmission can drop up to four gears in one swoop—say, from 7th to 3rd.

Perhaps the biggest surprise came when I wrapped my fingers around the Honda’s comfy steering wheel: I found a set of new paddle shifters, standard on every Odyssey. As the engineers no doubt intended, they proved especially handy on long downhill grades in volcano-topped Hawaii, where I could downshift and use engine braking to control the Honda’s speed. Harrison says the paddles are useful for towing as well, with nine-speed Odysseys rated for 3,000 pounds, and 3,500 pounds for 10-speed models.

Paddle shifters on a minivan? As much as the lavish new features and quieter cabin, those little plastic paddles say a lot about Honda’s winning approach to the minivan. Company executives and engineers say that “family happiness” was the Odyssey’s watchword during development; Honda doesn't forget that a happy driver is part of the family, too.