Many consider the Honda Odyssey to be the gold standard of minivans. Years of revisions and improvements have helped Honda create one of the most popular minivans on the market, but the Japanese automaker didn’t always dominate the field. In fact, the Odyssey didn’t even make an appearance until 10 years after Chrysler invented the minivan, a segment it dominated for more than two decades. Like all Honda products, the Odyssey started out small, but it soon grew to surpass its rivals, both foreign and domestic, and is now considered one of the best minivans money can buy.
Honda Builds Its First Minivan
The first Odyssey made its U.S. debut in 1995. It was a true minivan, narrower and less powerful than the Dodge Grand Caravan, slightly larger than the Mazda MPV and about the same size as the Nissan Quest. Based on the Honda Accord platform, the Odyssey offered less interior room than its competitors, but it quickly gained a reputation for quality, reliability and low ownership costs, which were big issues for many of the Odyssey’s domestic rivals at the time. Honda bucked the trend toward a sliding side door, equipping the Odyssey instead with a more traditional swing-out style rear door with fixed windows. The Odyssey also featured a unique third-row seat that could fold and tumble into a compartment under the floor. This design was quite popular for those needing to quickly convert their van to haul more cargo, a procedure that usually required owners to remove and store a heavy third-row seat.
Two trims were offered, LX and EX, both powered by a 140-horsepower 2.2-liter 4-cylidner engine teamed to a 4-speed automatic transmission. Standard equipment included dual-front airbags, dual-zone climate control and a hill-holder feature. The LX trim provided seating for seven, while the EX, with its second-row captain’s chair-style seating, provided room for just six. The LX sold for $23,790 and the EX for $25, 390. The price difference seemed quite reasonable when one considered that the EX included a power sunroof, 6-speaker stereo with CD, a power driver’s seat, roof rack, alloy wheels and power door locks with remote keyless entry.
In reviews of the day, the Odyssey was praised for its excellent ride, quite cabin and good handling. Less favorable were comments about the van’s acceleration, cargo space and third-row seat comfort. In 1996, Honda allowed Isuzu to market the Odyssey as the Oasis, but it only lasted for a short two-year run. 1997 saw only a few minor changes to the Odyssey EX trim, including a revised alloy wheel design and body-colored side mirrors.
1998 saw the first major change to the Odyssey: an increase in engine displacement from 2.2 to 2.3 liters, bumping horsepower to 150. The Odyssey also gained a revised dash, including a tachometer and some minor exterior upgrades.
Bigger Is Better
With the economic recession of the early ’90s in its rearview mirror, Honda was flush with the cash needed to build the minivan it really wanted to build. The second generation Odyssey debuted in 1999 and was much larger than the original, with proper sliding rear doors and a V6 engine. In fact, the Odyssey went from being one of the smallest minivans on the market to the largest, longer even than the Dodge Grand Caravan, Toyota Sienna and Ford Windstar. Horsepower from the 3.5-liter V6 jumped to 210, and seating capacity on both the LX and EX trim was set at seven. The popular flush folding rear seat returned, as did the 4-speed automatic transmission. EX trims featured standard traction control and power sliding side doors.
In 2000, the Odyssey became the first minivan to offer a factory-installed navigation radio; also on the list of goodies was a rear-seat entertainment system for either DVD or VHS format. In 2001, the Odyssey gained LATCH-style anchors in the second and third-row seats, and traction control was added to the LX trim. For 2002, Honda increased horsepower to 240 and replaced the 4-speed automatic with a more efficient 5-speed unit. The Odyssey also gained front-seat side-impact airbags, rear-disc brakes and standard anti-lock brakes.
Very little changed for the 2003 and 2004 Odyssey vans, although around this time an issue began to surface pertaining to the 1999-2001 4-speed transmission. After a number of them failed, Honda settled a class-action lawsuit by replacing defective units and extending the warranty coverage on all 1999-2001 transmissions to 7 years or 100,000 miles.
Evolution Over Revolution
The third-generation Odyssey arrived in 2005. Although this version was slightly wider and heavier, the 2005 Odyssey retained a very familiar look. To entice buyers away from rivals such as the Toyota Sienna and the Chrysler Town & Country, Honda moved the Odyssey in a more premium direction. Trim levels now included LX, EX, EX-L and Touring, and standard features included side-curtain airbags and electronic stability control, sliding side-door power windows (previously only the front driver and passenger side windows rolled down) and a 255-hp 3.5-liter V6 engine.
Seating was expanded to eight passengers, with a clever sliding second-row seat making access to the 60/40 split-folding third-row seat much easier. Options this year included a power rear tailgate, 9-inch entertainment screen for the DVD player, leather seating, voice-activated navigation and a rear backup camera. This was the first year Honda made run-flat tires standard equipment, but only on the top-of-the-line Touring trim.
In 2006, a revision in the way the SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) determined horsepower saw the Odyssey’s V6’s net output revised down from 255 to 244 hp. In 2007, the Odyssey gained a tilt/telescopic steering column, a tire pressure monitor and, on EX-L and Touring trims, satellite radio.
The 2008 Odyssey saw a major revision to its styling with a new front-end design, new wheels and an upgraded interior. The big news for 2008, however, could be found in the EX-L and Touring trims, which gained Honda’s Variable Cylinder Management (VCM) cylinder deactivation system. VCM engines saw about a 2-mpg improvement in fuel economy over non VCM-equipped models. In 2009, the EX-L gained a power rear liftgate, and Bluetooth hands-free cell phone connectivity was added to the optional navigation package. 2010 marked the final year for the third generation van and saw no major changes of note.
No More Playing It Safe
The fourth-generation Honda Odyssey arrived in 2011, and it was a wild departure from the previous Odyssey. The styling was bold, with a more raked appearance and a lightning-bolt shaped zigzag in the beltline just behind the sliding doors. New features included a 16.2-in wide-screen rear entertainment system and 650-watt 12-speaker surround sound audio option. The 3.5-liter V6 returned with 248 hp and trims now included the LX, EX, EX-L, Touring and Touring Elite. All models were equipped with a 5-speed automatic, except for the Touring and Touring Elite that used a 6-speed unit. New safety features included a blind-spot monitor for the driver’s side and wide-angle rear backup camera.
In 2012, the EX gained Bluetooth, an 8-in multi-information display and a USB port, and in 2013 Bluetooth and the rear backup camera were made standard. 2014 saw the Odyssey receive a mild facelift, as well as made the 6-speed automatic standard across the lineup. New interior features included a power passenger seat, Pandora radio capability and a color display screen. Unique to the Odyssey, Honda offered the option of a built-in vacuum cleaner (dubbed “HondaVAC”) along with lane-departure warning, forward-collision warning and proximity key entry with push-button start. Also making its debut was Honda’s LaneWatch that featured a camera built into the passenger side mirror.
2015 saw no changes of note, as did 2016 with the exception of the new SE trim that slotted between the EX and EX-L. 2017 marked the final year for this generation with only a minor shuffling of some features to the SE and EX-L such as the acoustic laminated windshield.
The Future Is Now
For 2018, Honda has created an all-new fifth-generation Odyssey. We’ve driven it and it’s impressive. The new Odyssey is still the best handling minivan of the bunch, and that includes the new Chrysler Pacifica and Kia Sedona. Inside, Honda has packed the Odyssey with all sorts of new technology, such as Cabin Watch that uses an interior roof-mounted camera to let you keep an eye on the kids, even at night. A companion to the camera system is CabinTalk, which allows the driver to “communicate” with rowdy kids via the Odyssey’s speaker system. There are also new 9- and 10-speed transmission choices, although the engine remains the tried and true 3.5-liter V6. Read our First Drive review for more.