Minivans are the ultimate family vehicle, tailor-made to carry the most demanding and untidiest of creatures — kids — but to this point Honda has not had the ultimate minivan. The previous-generation Honda Odyssey sunk in the Cars.com Ultimate Minivan Challenge thanks to unwieldy handling, a confusing multimedia system and blah looks.
Honda addressed all of that with the 2018 redesign. The new Odyssey wears a more chiseled body — a welcome update to its old concrete-slab-like styling — and gets a slick new multimedia system and improved handling. It competes against the Chrysler Pacifica, Kia Sedona and Toyota Sienna; compare their specs here.
The Road-Trip Test
A parenting article I recently read concluded with this: "Life with little ones goes fast; take trips, make memories."
Yes! ... but also, cringe. Road trips with my family of five are memorable, but in that horrible stomach flu kind of way; they often turn foul after miles of crabby kids and uncomfortable parents.
Cue the new Honda Odyssey. The previous van was a chore to drive; it was loud, slow and handled like a barge. The 2018 model is quieter and has more pep, so you'll no longer feel like a sea captain behind the wheel.
While the Odyssey's ride and handling still feel clumsy compared with the more athletic Chrysler Pacifica, they're improved over the 2017. There's less body motion over bumps and less lean in corners, and the suspension has a more controlled feel than the previous generation. It also has a more grounded, natural steering response.
Pep is better, too. The 3.5-liter V-6 returns for 2018, but horsepower is up and the Odyssey feels more responsive thanks in part to two new transmissions: base models get a nine-speed automatic and uplevel trims get a 10-speed. I tested the 10-speed in the top Elite trim, and aside from the occasional awkward shift at low speeds, it's quick and smooth. Again, the Pacifica is perkier from a stop and has more midrange grunt, but the Odyssey is no longer poky.
The drivetrain's Eco mode should be avoided; it alters accelerator response and transmission tuning to save fuel. Response time is snail-like, and you feel every bit of the van's 4,300 pounds off the line. Another fuel-saving feature, auto stop-start, could likewise use some polish; while shutoffs are subtle, it shudders crudely upon restart. At least a handy button on the control panel disables it.
The 2018 Honda Odyssey is EPA-rated at 19/28/22 mpg city/highway/combined. That's up a smidge from last year and higher than the base Pacifica (18/28/22), Sedona (18/25/21) and Sienna (19/27/22). Of note: The Sienna is the only minivan with available all-wheel drive, and the Pacifica is the only minivan with a hybrid powertrain (it's a plug-in).
A Van Full of Gadgets Makes the Miles Melt Away
New in the Honda Odyssey this year are CabinWatch and CabinTalk, two optional systems designed for the monitoring of and communication between passengers. Once we got past the giggles, the camera-based CabinWatch proved useful, while the microphone-based CabinTalk was just silly.
At first, CabinWatch seemed like a gimmick. It uses a camera to let front-seat occupants see the rest of the passengers, day or night, on the Display Audio screen. Initially, the nanny cam seemed more creepy than useful, but I ended up using it a lot during my trip to see if my toddler twins were finally napping and to monitor the third-row shenanigans happening with my 7-year-old daughter and niece.
The large Display Audio system, too, is a win. The previous Odyssey multimedia system was a confusing array of dials, knobs and screens. The new one is more streamlined in appearance and usability, with one large touchscreen replacing the previous two-screen setup. It's responsive, has clear icons and an intuitive menu structure. Bonus: It comes with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone connectivity. The system is standard on all but the base Odyssey, which instead uses a smaller, 5-inch LCD.
Road trips with my family of five are memorable, but in that horrible stomach flu kind of way; they often turn foul after miles of crabby kids and uncomfortable parents. Cue the new Odyssey.
A couple of control-related issues annoy, however. I like the volume knob, but there's no tuning knob. Also, the conventional gear selector lever has been replaced by a column of push (and pull) buttons under the climate controls, like in the Honda Pilot, and it doesn't feel natural. I'm sure owners will get used to it, but I spent almost a week fumbling my way through Drive, Reverse and Park.
The CabinTalk system also fell flat. Like Driver Easy Speak in the Toyota Sienna, it projects the driver's voice to the second and third rows. It sounded like I was in a soup can when I tried it, and the echoes of my voice were distracting. My 7-year-old thought this was hilarious ... and not in a respectful, "I'm listening to you, Mom" way.
What did impress was Honda's available large ceiling-mounted rear entertainment system. It returns this year with a modern twist: In vehicles equipped with the optional Wi-Fi system, it can connect to the internet and stream media from a variety of apps, like PBS Kids. (Just when you thought you escaped Elmo. ... ) I still prefer the Pacifica's Uconnect twin touch-screen entertainment system, though; its neat apps and dual-screen versatility were a big hit with my kids, though the Uconnect system's streaming functionality has annoyingly been delayed.
Lastly, while we brought home a lot of memories from the beach, we packed even more sand. But after powering up the HondaVac, the cargo-area vacuum made short work of the messy cabin, taking it from slipshod to shipshape, spit-spot. It's only on mid-level Touring models and above.
Magical Seats, Flexible Space
The Honda Odyssey can comfortably hold five child-safety seats (getting five kids in the van is another thing altogether), and installing them was easy. On all but the base trim, the second row's center seat is removable. When it's in place, the Odyssey has five sets of Latch anchors: three in the second row and two in the third. The anchors are exposed and easy to use, and there's ample space for five car seats. Click here for our complete Car Seat Check.
Honda calls its second-row seat system Magic Slide. It's standard on all but the base Odyssey, and it's pretty close to magical. When you remove the center seat, the outboard seats can slide forward and back and side to side into various positions. The system proved helpful in two ways: I quickly and easily moved both seats to one side to create a large pathway to the third row, so my first-grader could get back there without an awkward shimmy past the twins' car seats. Also, when the twins got on each other's (and everyone else's) nerves, I slid them to each side of the van, leaving a lot of space — and peace — in between.
The system is helpful in everyday life, but if I want to do a large Ikea run, things get complicated. The Honda Odyssey's second row can't match the storage advantages of the Pacifica's Stow 'n Go seating system. Where those seats tumble into underfloor bins (which otherwise serve as voluminous storage spaces), the Odyssey's seats don't fold at all and must be removed; they're heavy and need to be stashed somewhere.
In the third row, however, the magic continues. The 60/40-split folding third row is among the easiest I've used. One tug of a strap folds the seats down into the floor, creating a flat cargo area. The system is spring-loaded and the headrests can remain in the seats.
Behind the third row, there was plenty of room for my family of five's gear for a long-weekend beach trip, but on paper there's a bit less cargo space than in the Pacifica, Sedona and Sienna. With the second row folded, there's a bit more room than in the Sedona, but the Odyssey again trails the Pacifica and Sienna.
In front, however, the Odyssey's small-items storage spaces get an A. Snacking is a Geiger family road trip-tradition (and sanity saver), and the Odyssey's huge center console is multi-kid, multi-snack friendly. The open space ahead of it is also useful for holding a large purse or bag (of snacks).
As of this writing, the 2018 Honda Odyssey had not yet been crash-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. If it is tested, IIHS results will appear here.
A multi-angle backup camera is standard across all trims. The Honda Sensing advanced safety package is standard on all except the base Odyssey. It includes forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning and prevention, and adaptive cruise control. Rear cross-traffic alert with blind spot monitoring is available. What's not offered is the LaneWatch system, which in some Hondas displays a camera view of the right side of the vehicle when the right turn signal is engaged — handy for avoiding bikes and pedestrians.
But It Has an Ultimate Price Tag
The 2018 Honda Odyssey starts at around $31,000 — similar to the outgoing model but more expensive than base versions of the Pacifica, Sedona and Sienna.
The Pacifica won Cars.com's last minivan Challenge and earned our Best of 2017 Award, but the redesigned Odyssey is a pretty close second thanks to an improved driving experience, additional innovative features and a little bit of Magic (Slide).