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The Original Honda Odyssey: The Minivan Not Even Your Mother Wanted

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author photo by Aaron Gold February 2017

Today, the Honda Odyssey is one of the leading minivans in a narrow segment, but few people remember just how wrong the first Odyssey was -- or why it even mattered.

The year was 1995, and minivans were as hot as crossovers are today, though their star was just beginning to fade. Chrysler ruled the market, with their egg-shaped third-gen Caravan just going on sale, and other manufacturers were finally beginning to bring some halfway-decent vans to market. (Some other time, we'll talk about abominations like the Chevrolet Astro and the Ford Aerostar.)

At the time, pretty much everything Honda touched turned to gold. The Civic and the Accord schooled the American automakers on how to make good cars (and Toyota on making them fun to drive). And Honda was just 2 years or so away from introducing the CR-V, which would change the car market forever.

Which makes it all the more amazing that the Honda Odyssey could miss the mark so dramatically.

The Odyssey started life as a tall Accord, not unlike the first Dodge Caravan, which was really just a tall K-car. But someone at Honda decided buyers wanted something smaller, sleeker and more carlike.

Wrong. Wrongwrongwrongwrongwrongwrong.

The original Odyssey was too small, not much bigger than a wagon -- which Honda also happened to make, by the way, and if you were going to have as little space as an Accord wagon, why not, you know, buy an Accord wagon?. It also had conventional front-hinged rear doors, ignoring the fact that side-sliders were one of the features minivan buyers valued most. And it didn't offer a V6 engine, because didn't Americans want something sleeker and more efficient than a traditional van? (Nope. Gas was cheap. POW-AAAAAAHH!!!!)

Even the styling was wrong. Granted, the mid-1990s were not exactly a time of rampant automotive beauty, but the Honda Odyssey was almost staggering in its visual parsimony. The body sides were almost completely unadorned of anything (save the doors that opened incorrectly), and the front end was almost nonexistent. Honda wowed the crowds in the late '80s with their low hoodlines (it was that whole "man-maximum, machine-minimum" thing), but the Odyssey looked like it had been styled with a cheese slicer.

Now, one could argue that Honda was not wrong but simply ahead of its time, and the Odyssey was trying to change the minivan before it became totally uncool. They even avoided the word: "Honda has introduced not a minivan and not a tall wagon but a vehicle it would like us to call a 'Premium Family Mover,'" Car and Driver reported in 1995. They charitably referred to it as "the Lilliput of the minivan kingdom."

As it turns out, the Odyssey was a runaway success... everywhere but in the U.S. Here, it was the minivan that few people really wanted. This was one of the first times that a new Honda product didn't succeed in America.

That said, the Odyssey wasn't completely without merit: It was the first vehicle to feature Honda's "magic" seat, which folded down and disappeared into the floor -- a feature that Honda minivans still use and one that's been copied by every one of their competitors.

Honda, to their credit, saw what was happening right away and got to work on a new minivan. The '99 Odyssey was less of an oddity, and aside from the name and that terrific third-row seat, it bore almost no resemblance to the first-gen model -- and of course, it sold like hotcakes. Honda hasn't deviated from this format since.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
The Original Honda Odyssey: The Minivan Not Even Your Mother Wanted - Autotrader