There’s an element of risk involved when a car brand offers the chance to drive the old model to the launch of the new model. But that's exactly how the launch of the 2014 Honda Odyssey kicked off, and the Japanese brand may now be wishing it hadn't.
The previous Odyssey was a terrific people-mover - roomy, safe, practical, clever and, perhaps most crucially, comfortable. It rode beautifully, smoothing out lumps in the road and keeping things very smooth for all occupants.
The new version is bigger, safer, more practical and even cleverer than the last, but it falls short in the comfort area. Dramatically short.
The new Odyssey bounces over bumps immaturely, transferring most of the undulations and imperfections of the road straight into the cabin. Keeping in mind the purpose of this car, it could turn to a vomit vortex quite quickly.
Honda insists it has been set up to feel like a "sedan with utility", though the new-generation version sees the shift from a double wishbone rear suspension commonly used in sedans to a more compact torsion-beam setup. We were told by Japanese executives at the car's launch that the firm ride characteristics we found so unlikeable are part of the engineering team's plan to make it feel sure-footed and, well, sedan-like.
It doesn't. Well, at least not on Australia's sub-standard road surfaces. On Japan’s perfectly surfaced roads we’re sure it does a much better job.
The ride is overly firm to the point where your backside will have a gap between it and the seat over higher speed undulations. That goes for front and rear seat passengers, though to ride in it's decidedly more uncomfortable in the back two rows than the front.
It redeems itself to an extent around town by riding more convincingly at lower speeds, though the new model simply lacks the supple smoothness of the previous version.
It is, however, slightly more fun to drive if the road is smooth, with quicker steering response than the previous car, as well as being surprisingly nimble when you push it a little harder. And despite weighing up to 131 kilograms more than the old car, it doesn’t feel any less composed through the bends, though there is some notable body roll.
The new 2.4-litre petrol four-cylinder engine is slightly down on peak power compared with the previous model with 129kW (was 132kW), but makes up for it with 225Nm of torque (up 7Nm).
The engine and transmission are well suited to family motoring. There’s enough power for swift overtaking manoeuvres, and the gearbox exhibits none of the annoying attributes CVTs often come under criticism for. It reacts promptly under sudden throttle, and works nicely in traffic, though the trademark engine and transmission whine is evident under hard throttle.
Fuel use, though, is the hero of this new 'Earth Dreams' engine, with a claimed figure of just 7.6 litres per 100 kilometres for the VTi and 7.8L for the VTi-L, a drop of about 15 per cent compared with the old version, and it now gets engine stop-start technology which works seamlessly. We saw slightly higher than the claimed consumption on our test drive, with figures of between 8.4 and 8.7L across a mix of disciplines. (Read full specifications of the new Odyssey here).
Inside, the Odyssey has always been well packaged and extremely clever, and the new model certainly doesn't stray from that formula.
The VTi features a lush velour interior trim and eight seats. The six outboard chairs offer good comfort, and would comfortably accommodate six adult passengers, with ample legroom available. The middle seats in the second and third row, however, would be best left for smaller occupants – however, those in the second row may find toe space impinged upon by a hump in the floor, which, rather oddly, hides the space saver spare wheel. For large families, there are five child-seat anchor points, three in the middle row and two in the rear row.
The VTi-L goes one better in terms of finish – there’s leather trim on the seats and a sunroof up front – but it misses out on a middle seat in the second row, instead being offered with a pair of captain’s chairs, but it also misses out on one child seat anchor point (two in the middle, two in the rear). These second-row chairs are as comfortable as the two up front, with armrests, integrated seatbelts and reclining backrests, and the added benefit of offering limousine-beating legroom when they are slid to their rearmost position and the third row is folded flat.
Entry and exit to the rear seats has been dramatically improved courtesy of dual sliding doors on both models, and little kids or older passengers will appreciate that stepping into the back involves lifting your leg just 300mm, and with a 1250mm-tall door aperture, yoga classes aren’t needed to make your way inside. The base VTi has a kerbside electric sliding door, while the VTi-L has twin self-sliders, which can also be opened using the key fob.
Loose item storage inside the cabin includes eight cupholders in the top model and 10 in the VTi. Boot space has also improved from 259 litres with all seven seats up to 330L, while the cabin’s taller roof and lower floor means it can swallow 1332L of luggage with the third row stowed compared with the previous model’s 708L capacity. Disappointingly, there's no electric boot opening/closing function, which could be a problem for shorties as this is now a much taller car.
At the front, there's a new-generation touchscreen media system that includes Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, twin USB inputs and a HDMI input. The screen acts as a monitor for the standard reverse camera, and also allows you to choose from multiple camera angles in the VTi-L. Safety is also seen to with dual front, front side and full-length curtain airbags, while all models also have three-row air vents.
It also allows the owner to download a sat-nav application to their phone, rather than having the maps stored in the car - that's great, but is only compatible with iPhone 5 at this point in time. The company says other iPhone users and Android smartphones will be catered for in the near future.
In ownership terms, Honda offers capped price servicing over 5 years or 100,000 kilometres. Service intervals are every six months or 10,000 kilometres, with an average cost per service over the period of $258 excluding some consumables. Its warranty is three years or 100,000km.
Overall the new Odyssey improves in all crucial areas bar one – and unfortunately, comfort could be the most critical consideration for family buyers. We’d recommend potential customers take it for a thorough test drive across as many road surfaces as possible before signing on the dotted line.