On Autos: Latest Honda minivan furthers familiar advantages

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The 2018 Honda Odyssey hasn't changed much visually from its predecessor, sold from 2011 to 2017, but it's greatly improved in other ways. (Brady Holt/The Current)

When Honda last redesigned its Odyssey minivan, for the 2011 model year, the automaker threw out the old van’s familiar boxy shape. That new Odyssey was lower and wider, boasting an aggressive, hunkered-down stance and an unusual window-line that dipped down behind the rear doors. Even seven years later, the outgoing Odyssey remained perhaps the most visually arresting minivan on the market.

Therefore, it’s not too surprising that the redesigned 2018 Odyssey doesn’t re-break the mold. Honda has adjusted the details, but the theme is familiar. The same is true of the substance of this popular minivan, which continues to offer brilliantly functional interior space, a smooth ride and lots of family-friendly features. Rather than abandon those strengths, the new Odyssey expands upon them — taking few risks, to be sure, but offering ample rewards to minivan buyers.

Though they’re hardly the “mini” vehicles their name might suggest — and thus too cumbersome for some urban families — minivans offer far more interior space than similarly sized crossovers. Nothing beats a minivan for holding seven passengers and their cargo, and the redesigned Odyssey makes a run for the designation as best-in-class minivan.

The 2018 Honda Odyssey interior is upgraded with richer materials, plusher upholstery and more modern tech features than its predecessor. (Brady Holt/The Current)

Perhaps the Odyssey’s most notable advantage is its relatively zesty performance for such a big vehicle. At both low and high speeds, the van’s responsive, well-weighted steering inspires drivers with confidence. Even some smaller automobiles feel bulkier than the new Odyssey. Older Honda vans, from before 2011, were also highly regarded for sporty handling; the 2018 model regains that athleticism, yet its ride remains impressively cushy and quiet.

Honda has also upgraded the Odyssey’s cabin, banishing some basic-feeling components from the old model’s interior and offering plusher leather upholstery. The new interior still doesn’t give an air of decadent luxury, continuing to prioritize function over form. But without feeling unduly delicate for a family-oriented vehicle, the new Odyssey feels richer than before inside. That’s important on a van whose price can approach $50,000 fully loaded, though even the base model ($30,965) is well-appointed.

The overhaul also adds handy new tech features. In addition to a modernized infotainment touch screen — which now supports Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone integration — Honda also debuts the “CabinWatch” in-car camera. The infotainment screen can display a view of the two rear rows, with enough clarity to check on their occupants even at night. A microphone can also play the front-seat occupants’ voices either through the van’s rear speakers or the available entertainment system’s headphones.

The Odyssey’s handy HondaVac in-car vacuum cleaner also carries over onto the redesigned model, offering easy cabin cleanup when you’re on the go or don’t park within reach of an extension cord.

The 2018 redesign fits the Odyssey with Honda’s full suite of high-tech safety features, which are standard on all but the base model, including emergency automatic braking and automatic lane-keeping steering.

As to the minivan basics, the Odyssey offers spacious seating for up to eight passengers, with an ample 38.6 cubic feet of cargo space behind the third-row seat. That’s twice the volume of the typical full-size crossover, and as much as you’d find behind the second-row seat of a compact crossover like Honda’s own CR-V.

Honda also offers some extra seating flexibility for 2018: With the middle seat removed from the second row, the captain’s chairs adjust easily either fore-aft or side-by-side. This ensures a child is within easier reach of a front seat, opens up a wide passageway to the third row from either side of the van, or allows the conventional positioning of the two seats separated by a center aisle.

The 2018 Honda Odyssey remains perhaps the most visually arresting minivan on the market. (Brady Holt/The Current)

The Odyssey doesn’t match the rival Chrysler Pacifica for maximum cargo flexibility, though. The Chrysler’s middle- and third-row seats can all fold fairly easily into the floor to maximize cargo space. The Honda’s third row does the same, but the middle-row seats must be wrestled out of the van and stowed — a cumbersome endeavor.

Chrysler also holds an advantage in fuel efficiency by offering a class-exclusive plug-in hybrid model. The new Odyssey matches the normal Pacifica’s respectable EPA rating of 22 miles per gallon in mixed driving, but the Chrysler’s hybrid version can operate gas-free for 33 miles per electric charge. That’s tough to beat.

Also, although the vans’ sticker prices are similar, both the gas and hybrid version of the Pacifica are often available at far steeper discounts than is the Odyssey — giving the Chrysler the advantage in features for the money.

The redesigned Odyssey, however, does trump the Pacifica’s driving dynamics, interior build quality and clever in-cabin features. Though it’s neither a revolutionary class leader like the 2011 model nor the cheapest minivan you can buy, the new 2018 Odyssey still makes a strong case for itself.