For 2017, Chrysler set a new standard for minivans with the Pacifica, a gorgeous tour de force that made vans cool again: Best-in-class styling. Best-in-class seating dexterity. Best-in-class comedian sponsor in Jim Gaffigan.
Following Chrysler’s home run is little like following, well ... Gaffigan on stage after a comedy routine. Better to stick to your best stuff.
So applause goes to Honda, which has introduced an all-new Odyssey minivan for 2018 that plays to Honda’s strength of innovative, interior ergonomics. Based on the same platform as the excellent mid-size Honda Pilot, the Odyssey comes with the same attention to interior detail as its ute sister.
I’m convinced Honda engineers move in with families to observe their daily routines and design their cars accordingly. The Pilot and Odyssey aren’t so much cars as they are domiciles.
The front seats are mom heaven. Like the Pilot, a ribbed center-console shade rolls back revealing a bottomless compartment for big purse storage. Drop your bag in the bin and it’s at your elbow for rummaging whenever needed. No more tossing handbags out of reach on the passenger sat. Or on the passenger floor where you have to zip it up lest its contents jump out at the first hard-right turn.
Got a small bag? It’ll fit nicely on top of the shade and will be held in place by console “curbs.” Moms are fussy about crumbs, of course, so Honda’s ribs ingeniously stretch in order to prevent debris from lodging between them.
Listening to families, Honda hears what they don’t like, too. They don’t like Honda’s first-generation infotainment screen that was all touch and no knob. So the minivan gets a proper on-off knob with volume control.
Like Chrysler, Honda has learned the joys of shift-by-wire transmissions. The Pacifica uses a rotary e-shifter; the Honda has a so-called “trigger” button-shifter. Just stick your index finger in the reverse trigger hole and pull, or thumb the drive button for easy maneuverability. The rotary and trigger have their advocates (I’m bipartisan), but they both free center-console storage and make lateral crossings from driver to passenger seat much easier (or am I the only one who does that?).
That’s about the only thing Honda and Chrysler interiors share. Odyssey does not add a useful console drawer like Pacifica. Only Honda has Apple CarPlay app connectivity (a must for Mrs. Payne).
Behind the front seats, Chrysler and Honda diverge dramatically.
Chrysler’s legendary Stow ’n’ Go second-row seats offer Swiss army knife versatility. They can be flattened to act as Ottomans for third-row occupants. Or stored in the floor for third-row legroom. Or stored in the floor with the third-row seats for acres of cargo space (roll in bikes, go-karts, pets) — like a pickup bed without a roof.
Honda is no slouch in the seat invention department. In fact, we’ve come to refer to their seat solutions as “Magic Seats,” from their subcompact Fit to the Odyssey.
Interestingly, its Fit subcompact takes a similar second-row approach to the Pacifica. Its seats can be folded out of the way for bike storage — or flattened for cavernous cargo room. But in the Odyssey, Honda figures its family customers want a different kind of versatility. Say hello to the “Magic Slide” seats — seats that move horizontally across the cabin.
Want to get into the third row? Just slide the second-row captain’s chair toward the middle. Need to comfort a baby behind you? Just slide their chair towards you for easy access from the driver’s seat.
I have arms as long as an orangutan to reach child seat-anchored kids (mine are all grown up now), but the sliding-seat option is undoubtedly more convenient for normal-sized folks. And the third-row access is best-in-the business (even better than accessing the Pacifica’s third row by simply walking between the captain’s chairs).
I brought in my minivan expert — and neighbor — Chuck. Call him Chuck Gaffigan. A longtime SUV guy, he’s found happiness in his Pacifica and its cool vibe.
The Honda interior impressed him. Not just the Magic Slide seats and deep console, but details that only a practicing father of wee ones would know intuitively. He marveled at the Honda’s well-positioned child seat anchors. And the backseat microphone that Odyssey options so that front-seat parents can communicate with third-row kids.
Stepping back from the Odyssey and viewing the total package, he muttered: “But I love the Pacifica.”
With its graceful exterior design and equally expressive interior lines, the high-tech Chrysler has transformed the unremarkable family minivan.
The Odyssey still looks geeked-out. Honda has shored up some of the irregularities from the previous generation — the sliding door runner is now hidden, and the dashboard shifter doesn’t look like it came out of a panel truck. But where the Pacifica is a flowing sculpture, the Honda is a mess of contradictory lines.
Honda doesn’t fear dynamic architecture. I’m a particular fan of the current, heavily-decorated Civic for example. After the brand’s familiar “flying wing” grille, the Odyssey keeps its signature “lightning bolt” shoulder line from the last generation — a jagged shoulder line that droops rearward, giving the impression that the minivan was broken over someone’s knee. A fashionable floating-roof design hovers — detached — over this spectacle.
Driving performance for the smooth, quiet Odyssey and Pacifica are similar — nine-speed trannies powering competent, 280-something horsepower V-6 engines. Honda also offers a first-in-segment 10-speed tranny in upper trims like my Elite tester. The Pacifica’s comparable fuel economy and JD Power-leading reliability record negate a traditional advantage for Honda vehicles.
Long a minivan pioneer, Pacifica adds to its firsts list the first hybrid minivan. For families with less than a 30-mile commute every day, that’s 30 miles on electrons alone. Long an innovator in hybrid cars, Honda finds itself playing catch-up to Chrysler. Reports are that Honda may electrify its minivan with the same battery package found in Honda’s luxury-brand Acura MDX hybrid.
When folks ask me what cars I recommend, I say there are no bad vehicles made today — only vehicles that execute better. Among compacts, Honda leads the way with superior Civics, Accords and CR-V utes. In the minivan segment, its Odyssey is the best, most innovative Honda yet.
But Chrysler, as the kids in the backseats might say, is da bomb.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.
2018 Honda Odyssey
Front-engine, rear-wheel drive, four-passenger coupe
9-speed automatic; 10-speed automatic (as tested)
4,354 pounds base (4,564 Touring trim as tested)
$30,930 base ($47,610 Elite model as tested)
280 horsepower, 262 pound-feet torque;
towing, 3,500 pounds
0-60 mph, 6.5 sec. (Car and Driver est.)
EPA mpg est. 19 city/28 highway/22 combined (9 and 10-speed boxes)
Parent-friendly middle seats; best-in-class console storage
Geeky styling; trails rival Pacifica plugin, styling wow factor
Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★