Once coveted vehicles, minivans are now typically derided as compromises to life events – primarily children. But rather than run from the stereotype, Honda has embraced the family market with the redesign of its Odyssey minivan introduced at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on Monday.
The 2018 Honda Odyssey gives the concept a giant bear hug to create the ultimate mommymobile.
Forget metrics such as the time it takes to get from zero to 60 mph, or how many horsepower the engine packs. The new Odyssey has CabinWatch, a feature that lets mom and the front seat passenger keep tabs on what’s happening in the back two rows of the van at all times via the dashboard’s 8-inch video screen.
And then there’s CabinTalk, a solution to distractions caused by back-seat tykes that force mom to take her eyes off the road. The system allows the driver to talk to passengers through second- and third-row speakers as well as headphones connected to the rear entertainment system.
To keep rear-seat warfare at bay, the 2018 Odyssey will offer an entertainment system that enables second- and third-row passengers to stream video on the ceiling-mounted, 10.2-inch screen. Programming like PBS Kids and iHeartRadio is available through the optional in-vehicle 4G LTE Wi-Fi or a cellphone data plan.
Honda even answers the most asked question on any extended car trip with a “How Much Farther?” app that tracks the family’s trip progress.
By downloading CabinControl, passengers can use a smart phone to control the rear entertainment system, rear cabin heat and air conditioning. The app includes a Social Playlist component that operates like a virtual jukebox, allowing as many as eight family members to upload their music choices to the audio system.
“In all aspects of its design, the new Odyssey is made to keep every member of the family happy, no matter the seating position, no matter the destination,” said John Mendel, executive vice president of American Honda Motor Co.
Back in 2000, minivans racked up sales of 1.36 million units, accounting for about 8 percent of the U.S. auto market, according to IHS Markit, an industry research firm. Families flocked to the vehicles because of the extra seating and cargo space. They also liked how the car platforms they were built upon offered a better ride than truck-based sport-utility vehicles.
But the development of more stylish and easier driving sport-utility vehicles and crossovers – many with seating for seven – began to grab sales from minivans.
“While a three-row SUV may be more popular, it is compromised for full family duty, compared with a minivan,” said Stephanie Brinley, an analyst with IHS Markit.
“In some ways, you just can’t beat a box for maximum interior volume, and minivans offer better or comparable fuel economy,” Brinley said. “Mid-size three-row crossovers can handle the people, but typically don’t have as much cargo space after the third row.”
Automakers sold roughly 500,000 minivans last year, not even 3 percent of the market. Including the Odyssey there will be seven models available this year, with Honda, Toyota, Chrysler and Dodge offering the top sellers.
Although minivans aren’t glamourous, they remain a profitable segment.
For example, minivans account for about 7 percent of Fiat Chrysler Automobile’s annual profits, according to Adam Jonas, an analyst with Morgan Stanley Research. He did not provide similar numbers for their financial impact on Honda.
With the mid-2016 introduction of the all-new Chrysler Pacifica and the upcoming Honda Odyssey, the segment is getting a boost in technology and style that will inject some life into the category this year, Brinley said.
“The Honda and Chrysler entries are also significant because these two brands have a long history of developing minivans that deliver terrific family-friendly features and value. Both will continue to excel in the segment,” Brinley said.
Although minivan sales may spike this year, Brinley doesn’t expect U.S. consumers to start trading in crossovers and crew cab pickup trucks. IHS forecasts annual sales volume in the low 500,000 range through 2020.
“It is a relatively stable segment,” Brinley said.
That means Honda will likely have to steal market share from its competitors to boost sales.
To do that the 2018 Odyssey will have to add features such as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, plug and play systems for smart phones. Honda’s innovative flexible second-row seating system that allows for a variety of easily-attained configurations depending on family and cargo needs may also provide an additional competitive edge.
Safety is also an important selling point. All 2018 Odysseys in EX and above trims, which Honda expects will comprise 95 percent of all Odyssey sales, will get the Honda Sensing suite of advanced safety and driver assist features that includes technologies like blind spot alerts, forward collision monitoring with automatic emergency braking, a lane keeping assist system and adaptive cruise control that keeps the van at a safe following distance in traffic.
All trim levels get additional new safety features including auto high-beam headlights that turn off in traffic, rain-sensing wipers and a rear cross traffic monitor.
The minivan will be powered by 3.5-liter, direct-injected, V-6 engine that can produce 280 horsepower, an increase of 32 horsepower from the current model. The basic models will be mated to a 9-speed automatic transmission. But the upper trim levels will get a Honda-developed 10-speed automatic, the first of its kind in a minivan.