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Updated Honda Odyssey minivan enters test fleet, heads out on road trip

Not all of the changes strike us as being for the better

Published: August 23, 2013 05:30 PM
Honda's family hauler
Exterior changes are minor. The more significant updates are underneath.

The 2014 model year brings updates to the Honda Odyssey, our current Top Pick minivan. We grabbed the first one we could at a local Honda dealership for our testing program.

Changes follow recent Honda/Acura trends. Styling changes are minor; the important stuff is all under the skin. All Odysseys now have a six-speed automatic transmission; the extra forward gear was previously only available in top-trim models. This should improve fuel economy a bit. Honda's claiming "best-in-class" efficiency and they might achieve that. Hopefully we won't get to test out the upgraded body structure, designed to score Good in the difficult IIHS small-offset front crash test.

Not all of the changes strike us as being for the better. Honda's declared war on the traditional dashboard button. Instead, EX-and-higher trim level Odysseys now have two dashboard screens: the previous huge display screen and a new, lower touchscreen that replaces most of the conventional radio controls. Some manufacturers do this well, while others struggle with providing intuitive screen logic. Honda falls in the later camp.

Despite all of these screens, displaying song information—artist, title—consumes the big center screen. Most modern cars provide that info automatically more space efficiently. Overall, the new audio controls aren’t an improvement. Rather telling was that one of the questions I got during the post-sale phone survey was, “Did the dealer set the presets for you?” Honda managed to make that normally simple process super complicated.

Our 2014 Odyssey EX-L is pretty well equipped, including a rear entertainment system. (We wonder how long expensive rear DVD players will remain popular, given the ubiquity of far-more-versatile Apple iPads.) Like many recent Hondas, uplevel models have standard forward-collision and lane-departure warning systems. That's good, but we'd much rather have a traditional blind-spot monitoring system over our van's LaneWatch right-blind-spot camera display. Regardless, kudos for Honda for making a rear camera standard in all Odysseys—not all minivans can make that claim. This is unfortunate given that minivans define family transportation.

Sticker price on our van was $38,055, but dealing with the Internet office of a big local dealer got nearly $3,000 knocked off of that—surprising for getting the first suitably-equipped 2014 I could find.

Having owned two Odysseys (a 2005 and a 2010), I was particularly eager to get behind the wheel of the updated van. So when a kayaking road trip to upstate NY came up, I grabbed the Odyssey's keys.

Plenty of room
Whitewater kayaks fit inside easily (securely strapped in, of course).

The sheer versatility of the package—six-foot-long whitewater kayaks slide right in, leaving plenty of room for changing clothes and hauling wet stinky paddling gear—proved very satisfying, as was the 27-28 mpg we averaged on the highway. Despite all of the changes, the Odyssey felt familiar, reminding me why we owned Odysseys for 100,000 miles of driving.

Still, it strikes me that no one has perfected the minivan recipe right now. I wish the Odyssey was a little quieter, a little more plush, with a slightly roomier driving position. The Nissan Quest is impressively plush, but it drives like a parade float. Previous Toyota Siennas felt like a Lexus with a really big trunk, but that was lost after the 2010 redesign. Chrysler's vans offer lots of clever features, but they have been unreliable and are feeling old-in-tooth. (A redesign is coming.) I guess most people who wanted those upmarket qualities moved on to a less-practical SUV—just like we did with a Dodge Durango, prompted by the need for more towing capacity.

We'll see if the Odyssey holds onto its Top Pick crown after we're done testing it.

—Tom Mutchler

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