Honda really wants you to buy a minivan.
When it introduced its latest Pilot SUV, a rep from the company told me flat out that folks there think if someone needs a three-row vehicle, they should absolutely buy an Odyssey. The only reason they bother making the Pilot is that they know people have issues with minivans. It was an odd pitch, but not an altogether incorrect one.
The two share much of their DNA, but the Odyssey is less expensive, much roomier and a lot more functional. Sales generally run neck-and-neck, but the only big advantage that the Pilot brings to the table — other than slightly concealing your familial lot in life — is an optional all-wheel-drive system.
This year, however, there’s an all-new Odyssey, and it’s loaded with enough safety and entertainment features that if it starts snowing outside, you can just park and happily live in it until the thaw — or until your stash of juice boxes and Goldfish crackers runs out. It seems like Honda put more effort into this one vehicle than the rest of its lineup combined. And yes, it still has a lightning bolt on the side.
The zig-zagging window line is sleeker than last time around, as is the entire Odyssey, which has sculpted body sides and a “floating roof” like just about every new vehicle these days.
It’s also larger, yet lighter, than the old one, and it’s powered by the same lively 280 hp V6 as the Pilot, but comes with a new 10-speed automatic transmission in high end models. These include the Elite that I tested and had no problem getting my kids into with the promise of its Blu-ray-equipped widescreen entertainment system and Wi-Fi hotspot.
Lesser Odysseys, and the Pilot, use a 9-speed transmission that’s been criticized for being a little clunky, so you might think adding a gear would make things worse. It doesn’t. The 10-speed is flawless. You don’t even notice it’s hard at work keeping the engine in its sweet spot as much as is possible without 11 gears.
That’s partly because everything is so quiet in the Odyssey’s cabin, which is slathered in soft-touch materials and metallic trim. The latest Chrysler Pacifica upped the game in minivan refinement when it debuted last year, but the Odyssey outdoes it in many respects.
The Pacifica’s trump card is still its hideaway Stow ’n Go second-row seats that fold into the floor, but the Odyssey’s optional Magic Slide captain’s chairs are removable and can be pushed together to create a two-person bench. They also tilt and slide for easy third row access with a child seat installed, and they have a jump seat that can be installed between them to turn the Odyssey into an eight-passenger school-run ace.
With their seats in the upright position, the Odyssey is more spacious than the Pacifica, especially in the cargo area behind the third row. There, in Touring and Elite trims, you will find a built-in vacuum cleaner with a hose long enough to reach all corners of the cabin. The Pacifica also offers one, but Honda was first with this feature in the last-generation Odyssey. Keep in mind that both are dry-vacs. You still need to keep a roll of paper towels handy for spills.
All Odysseys above the entry-level LX, which starts at $30,930, now come standard with Honda Sensing, a package of semi-autonomous electronic driver aids that includes emergency braking, adaptive cruise control and an aggressive lane-keeping assist system that’s not quite hands-off, but does help keep the Odyssey in its lane while your eyes are off the road.
If you have children, you will be doing that from time to time to check out a unique piece of tech called Cabin Watch, a breakthrough in mobile parenting that delivers live video of what’s going on behind the driver’s seat and works while the vehicle is moving. Of course, once the kids figure out where the camera is, the feed basically turns into “America’s Got Talent.” To make it easier to convince them to quiet down back there, Cabin Watch is bundled with a Cabin Talk public address system that amplifies your voice so you don’t need to raise it. The fidelity of the audio is pretty terrible and makes you sound like an evil overlord, but that could work to your advantage.
Despite being stuffed with all of the above, the Odyssey rides and handles better than any other minivan and will often have you forgetting you’re even in one. There’s none of the flexing and creaking that having two huge sliding door openings usually causes, and it feels big only when you’re trying to park it.
It is long, however, and has a big diaper butt hanging behind the rear wheels that is the unmistakable mark of a minivan, regardless of how stylish and modern the rest of it may be. But if you can deal with the shame, you will be rewarded for your bravery.
2018 Honda Odyssey
Base price: $30,930
As tested: $47,610
Type: 8-passenger, front-wheel-drive minivan
Engine: 3.5-liter V6
Power: 280 hp, 262 lb-ft
Transmission: 10-speed automatic
MPG: 19 city/28 hwy