Call it what you like, MPV, minivan, people mover… The Honda Odyssey can’t muster the same level of enthusiasm as similarly sized SUVs with seven seats.
That’s a shame, particularly for anyone primarily concerned with moving people rather than just keeping up with the Joneses on the school run.
It goes against the tide of popular opinion, but minivans like the 2018 Honda Odyssey are often better than the multitude of SUVs that fill Australian streets.
Somehow the adventure aesthetic resonates with buyers more than the practicalities – and that’s fine. Activewear is darn comfy, so why not drive the automotive equivalent of a pair of tracky dacks?
Here at CarAdvice, one of the most common questions we get goes something like: ‘I want a car that’s spacious for my family, has extra seats for carpooling the neighbour’s kids, with a roomy boot… What medium SUV would you recommend?’.
The best answer, so many times, probably isn’t an SUV at all. It’s something like this Honda – a car that maximises internal space: low floor, high roof, upright tailgate, cab forward passenger compartment. None of it’s very glamorous, but it serves a clear purpose.
The 2018 Odyssey features a significant update with the addition of Honda Sensing safety technology on the top-grade VTi-L variant tested here (more on that in a moment), along with less obvious changes like a subtly restyled front bumper and dark chrome finish on some of the exterior trims.
On the inside, 2018 changes include tiny detail differences like more plush headrests for the second-row captain's chairs (seriously) along with a re-trimmed instrument panel and a new starter button – truly ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ level changes.
Standard features that haven’t changed include three-zone climate control with vents to all three rows, leather seat trim, remote-opening power-sliding rear doors, heated front seats with electric adjustment, front sunroof, 17-inch alloy wheels, and a rather outlandish-looking aero-style body kit – now with extra chrome.
On the safety front, the Odyssey carries a five-star ANCAP rating awarded under 2014 assessment criteria, with features like stability control, ABS brakes, front seatbelt pretensioners, six airbags including full-length curtain bags, tyre pressure monitoring and 360-degree multi-view camera system.
New additions as part of the Honda Sensing suite included for 2018 link adaptive cruise control, forward-collision warning, autonomous emergency braking (AEB), lane-departure warning, road-departure warning and lane-keeping assist, but only feature on the high-spec VTi-L model at this stage.
As the flagship of the Odyssey range, the VTi-L also prioritises cabin comfort over outright carrying capacity with a seven-seat cabin in place of the eight-seat layout of the cheaper VTi.
To go with the $47,590 (plus on-road costs) ticket price, the middle row takes on a hint of executive transport with seats that are more like armchairs, with the ability to be slid fore and aft (quite a distance) and moved outboard to create a centre access aisle.
There are armrests and a built-in legrest on each captain’s chair, plus manual rear sunblinds on the sliding doors too for ultimate touring comfort.
Row three is set up to take three passengers with individually reclining and folding 40:20:40 backrests. When not in use, the entire rear row can be flipped and folded beneath the boot floor. With the third row in use, the very deep boot measures 330 litres.
Ultimately, however, the Odyssey’s interior, which should be a masterwork of versatility, doesn’t live up to its potential thanks to small details. These include a walk-through between the front seats that’s too close to the dash to actually step through easily, rear-seat ottomans that are in the wrong spot to be used comfortably, and middle-row seats that can’t be removed, limiting all-round versatility.
The front doors open much lower than they really need to, meaning every bluestone kerb becomes a strike risk. And while the side doors feature power assistance, the tailgate doesn’t, making the very-high-opening rear door problematic to close, particularly if you’re of short stature.
Although practicality could do with some improvement, plushness is certainly on point. Settle into the soft leather-trimmed seats, flick on the front seat heaters and enjoy a commanding view of the world around you. The Odyssey VTi-L is impressively trimmed for a sub-$50K car, let alone one with room for seven.
Overall dimensions aren’t a match for the segment’s best-seller, the Kia Carnival, which is longer, wider, taller, and has more space inside. That could be beneficial if a smaller footprint is important, but means elbow room, particularly with three in the rear row, comes at a premium.
On the other hand, the leather-trimmed and luxed-up Odyssey VTi-L serves up a more premium feel than the similarly priced Carnival Si V6, though it’s hardly underserved for features and packs a more powerful engine into the mix.
The Toyota Tarago GLX also crosses paths with the Odyssey VTi-L on price, size and performance, but again can’t quite match Honda’s level of specification, yet does squeeze in an extra seat.
Dynamically, the Odyssey shows further signs of compromise. With a 129kW/225Nm naturally aspirated 2.4-litre petrol engine under the bonnet driven through a CVT automatic, the big Honda lopes along without a problem when unladen, but add a couple of passengers and the extra weight becomes much more noticeable.
There’s an engine stop-start function to aid fuel economy, with an odd mix of incredibly subtle stopping (you’ll barely notice the engine shut down) mixed with a gruff and abrupt restart that jolts the whole car back to life.
Honda suggests 7.8L/100km mixed-cycle fuel consumption, but in the real world, with and without passengers, in and out of town, as-tested consumption settled at 10.9L/100km.
Worse still, for a car that should ideally be as comfortable as possible, the Odyssey’s suspension tends to flop through every change in road surface, with wobbly body control and a tendency to lose composure at the slightest hint of repeated bumps or mid-corner undulations.
The Odyssey also misses out on Honda’s latest-generation infotainment system, meaning no CarPlay or Android Auto, though the system does include inbuilt navigation, AM/FM radio, and a CD player.
Good audio is handy to have, as between the strained engine and lack of sound insulation up front, the Odyssey can get vocal – all the more so when fully laden. Honda’s CVT auto avoids the high-RPM droning typical of this type of auto, yet can’t escape it in more sedate driving scenarios.
The Odyssey VTi-L isn’t the ultimate family companion – the cheaper VTi spec with its eight-seat layout seems like the better fit in that regard. That’s not to say the high-spec car fails to live up to the duties of family life, it’s just that VTi-L specification tends to fit the needs of executive-style shuttle operators better.
Picture this: fold the rear seats into the floor to free up all the available luggage space, slide the middle row all the way rearward and enjoy acres of leg room. Tilt the seat back and pop the ottoman out and the Odyssey becomes the ideal hotel transfer limo, with the versatility to add in additional passengers as easily as tumbling the rear row into place at a moment’s notice.
Honda still hasn’t bought the Odyssey up to speed on maintenance either, sticking with ‘old fashioned’ six-month or 10,000km service intervals. Five years' servicing is priced at $2832 all up, but Honda then puts its hand out for additional items like air and cabin filters, brake fluid and CVT fluid, bringing the final figure after five years up to $3234 with all inclusions.
Ultimately, the Odyssey, and cars of its ilk, are conceptually brilliant. Big space inside and flexible versatility that few SUVs can match tick so many boxes for growing, busy families. It’s a shame then that Honda hasn’t manage to inject its people mover with the same level of finesse as you might find in a new Civic or CR-V.
Working out the ride-quality quirks would be a step towards improving the Odyssey’s standing against our criteria, while a touch more thoughtfulness in the otherwise well-presented interior would be just the thing to give the Odyssey an edge against its main rival from Kia.
Right now, though, the Honda Odyssey VTi-L is a little lost. Part family chariot, part upmarket conveyance, but short of the mark on both measures, and yet with so much more space throughout the cabin that it still topples the average SUV – on the utility front, at least.