Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Selfless Drive of Parenting | 2014 Honda Odyssey Touring Review

There is no car type that receives quite so much disdain and hate as the minivan. It comes from this perception that if you own one you've given up. You are no longer a person just a parent whose personality is drowning in the sea of noisy children. It is a symbol of lost life, and lost potential. In fact, Whenever I encounter someone who owns one, their face immediately fills with shame when we get to the topic of cars. It’s as if admitting driving a minivan is like admitting you have an STI - and I don’t mean the car.

I have never understood this, because I find minivans to be incredibly clever. No other vehicle can offer you the same spatial efficiency. Not even the beloved pick up truck is quite so practical. Versatility may be a boring word, but it's not all that easy to accomplish in a car. And I am always impressed with the amount of thought that goes into a minivan.

I think people are too quick to dismiss the minivan, even those without families. What if you’re social? What if you load lots of things? Perhaps you’re missing out. 

So, being the single millennial that I am, I thought I’d try living with one for a week to see if its scope could extend beyond the family, and see if they really are all that terrible. I borrowed a new Honda Odyssey Touring, widely touted as one the best minivans money can buy.

It certainly looks good. The styling is edgy, breaking the conventional jellybean model that we’re all familiar with. There is a unusual lightning bolt in the window line, and an overall aura of solidity. I would go as far to say that the Odyssey is the best looking minivan out right now. Though, it is not exactly a good looking group in the first place.

Inside is where the family friendly cleverness really shines. There is comfortable seating for eight. And the seats in the middle row can spread apart to fit three child seats. Fantastic! If you have triplets.

She only got this far...
The headline new feature is the built in HondaVAC vacuum. It’s a small dry vac mounted in the trunk with a hose that can stretch all the way to the front. What a great idea. You could get the kids to clean up their messes from their seats while on the move. Unfortunately the vacuum only works when the car is in park and even then, there’s no guarantee the kids will play along. I tried to get my 4 and 2 year old nieces to try it out, but one hid in the third row and the other wanted to play in the backyard. So I was left vacuuming on my own anyway.

My biggest criticism with the vacuum is that it’s only available on the top of the line $50,000 Touring model. Certainly a nice van, but that’s a luxury amount of money. It actually brings up the main issue with the Odyssey itself, price. Because even the base Odyssey LX costs $31,000. That's not cheap, especially when Dodge seems to be giving away Grand Caravans. And there’s also that unavoidable reality that minivans suffer from draining depreciation.

And then there is the drive. I don’t expect it to handle like a sport car, but the Odyssey was even more van-like than I imagined. You’re perched up high on seats above the dash and steering wheel is angled up. And that wheel is connected to a steering rack which is slow, heavy and surprisingly vague for a Honda. The chassis is taught and compliant, but very heavy. Clearly designed to slow you down and prevent children from spewing up their lunch.

The 3.5-litre V6 engine produces 248hp and is hooked up to a new 6-speed automatic. It gets the van moving, and has a nice deep bellow of a sound, but it’s not exactly speedy. It is relatively efficient though, thanks to cylinders that cut out on the highway. The government predicts you’ll get 9.1 L/100km. Expect closer to 11 L/100km

So I get it now, minivans are not exciting. They’re big, cumbersome and, if you’re a loner like me, not all that fun. If you don’t actually need space and seats, don’t bother. But if you do, if you have a family, you cannot do better.

Power sliding doors mean that careless children will keep other cars free of parking lot dings. An optional DVD entertainment center means they’ll be entertained during long trips. That expensive vacuum means that you’ll be able to keep things clean. And a deep trunk means you can keep all their sports gear in one place. Not even the biggest newfangled crossover SUVs accommodate so well.

But there’s one last thing to consider about the Odyssey especially, and that is safety. It gets the highest marks in all the crash tests. It has 6 airbags, stability control, a specially designed body structure for accidents and, on upper models, sensors that beep at you if you’re not paying attention to the road. All this is found on many cars these days. But it's the way the Honda handles accidents that impresses most.

In a recent study released by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), they found the driver death rate in the 2011 Honda Odyssey as zero. It’s the only minivan, and one of nine vehicles, to have accomplished such a feat.

So if you care about your family, if you are willing to sacrifice driving dynamics and money, this is an excellent van.

And that, I think, is where the stigma comes from. Parenting is a sacrifice, and sacrifices aren't glamourous. I very much look forward to becoming a parent (one day). I just hope minivans drive a little better then.

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