You don’t have to be a dad to legally own a Honda Odyssey, but fatherhood did unlock a previously unacknowledged level of appreciation I had for it. I’d been recommending the van for years, but I now appreciate it in a way I don’t think I was capable of before my brain became fully preoccupied with keeping two toddlers happy.
(Full Disclosure: Honda dropped off a tanked-up 2021 Honda Odyssey at my house and I drove it over to the Eastern Market section of Detroit and watched the Lion King under one of the giant sheds. There was Supino pizza, and I got to sit on a bean bag chair. It’s the the only thing I remember from last summer.)
I’ve been driving off-road since I was 11 years old. Two tracks, deep sand, muddy, rutted trails, the usual stuff. It wasn’t until I did the Rubicon Trail in a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon that I fully grasped what a car like the Rubicon was capable of. I remember looking at several obstacles and thinking, “Absolutely not. No fucking way.” Then watching the Jeep ahead of me in line wiggle up and over. I’d never been in a situation where the level of off-road capability I needed was matched by what I was driving.
I’ve also been driving minivans for most of my life, hauling drums and amps, moving, sleeping, road tripping, etc. I’ve known how great they were for a long time. But I hadn’t had that Wrangler Rubicon moment of clarity yet, where the car reveals to me the many ways in which it is designed for, and perfectly suited to, a task — until I used the 2021 Honda Odyssey to shuttle my own kids around.
It was like driving Fernando Alonso’s LaFerrari around Fiorano, but without the stomach churning anxiety. It was also less exciting than that.
If the Odyssey and minivans generally are so great, how come there isn’t one in every driveway on your block? Because, for reasons I cannot begin to understand, people are buying crossovers instead. Even the best crossover is a kind of “worst of all worlds” compromise that’s too dumb to really live, too profitable to die — a warning to future generations about perverse incentives. The Honda Odyssey, on the other hand, is to providing transportation for groups of two to six people what the Mercedes AMG-GT Black Series is to setting Nürburgring records, or what the Wrangler Rubicon is to off-roading — arguably the best tool for the job.
Just by virtue of possessing the key traits of a minivan, the 2021 Honda Odyssey is in a pretty strong starting position. It’s comfortable, versatile and has huge storage capacity. It’s easy to get in and out of, easy to drive and park, and it gets decent gas mileage. What other boxes are you looking to check?
This 2021 Honda Odyssey is a refreshed version of the one that was new for the 2018 model year. The refresh was largely cosmetic, but Honda Sensing technology is now standard across the lineup and Magic Slide Seats are standard for the top three trim lines.
I drove the top-line line Odyssey Elite trim, which has a monumental amount of stuff on it and starts at $48,940. For the 2022 model year update, Elite owners will get contrast stitching and piping on the seats with perforated leather in the first two rows. The other changes include minor cosmetic tweaks and updated driver assist/safety systems.
Honda’s child surveillance and communication features on the Odyssey are incredible. Vans in the upper reaches of the lineup get Cabin Watch, which is basically a camera that looks down at the back seats. If there are kids back there in a car seat, you can make sure they’re still alive and sleeping, not asphyxiated and stone dead as you imagine them to be every time they’re quiet in the car during the rear-facing-seat stage of their lives.
The cameras zoom and work in the dark, but crucially they don’t monitor breathing or heart rate, so you may still have to turn the stereo and HVAC off, shush everyone and wait in total silence until you hear a few breaths. For old time’s sake. Honda says it packed in a ton of sound-deadening and active noise cancelling to make the cabin quiet, which is good for when you’re trying to hear exhalations from two lungs the size of chicken strips.
Just this little thing — the ability to attain proof of life without turning around and poking a sleeping child — is an astonishing vehicle capability. It’s the equivalent of being able to jump your stock Raptor or take your 720S to a local track day and terrorize dentists.
You can also talk to the rear seat occupants over the car’s speakers using a feature called Cabin Talk. If they’re using headphones to watch a movie or listen to music, Cabin Talk automatically pauses it, because otherwise Cabin Watch would be entirely useless. (We featured a previous version of this system in an earlier Jalopnik video, linked below.)
There’s a system that warns you not to leave your kid in the back seat. I can’t imagine unknowingly leaving a kid in the car, but it happens. You can pack up to eight people, so I could see how one may get lost. More important, the middle row can hold three car seats.
That may not sound like a huge deal, but the number of cars and crossovers that can’t accommodate two car seats without pushing the front seats forward is shockingly small. Three across is wild.
Honda calls its middle-row the Magic Slide seats. If you pull the middle seat out of the second row, you can slide the other two around on a couple of rails that run between the barn doors. You can push the seats together; Honda calls this Buddy Mode which is more adorable than “Close Enough To Pull Your Sister’s Hair For No Reason Mode.” Moving the seats also provides better access to the third row and creates some flexibility in cargo loading. If you pull all the seats out, you can throw 4x8 sheets of plywood back there.
Rearranging the seating in the Honda is easy, though it’s not as easy as it is with FCA’s Stow-’N-Go in the Chrysler Pacifica. Honda claims middle-row seats that fold down into the floor were considered, but making seats thin enough to fold made them less comfortable. This is correct. The third row does split 60/40 and fold into the floor on the Odyssey, however.
A little screen between the two front seats and the middle row can be flipped down so you can put the kids into stupefied suspended animation with another screening of “Frozen,” “Frozen 2,” “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure,” “Frozen Fever” or “Cars 2.” There’s always “At Home With Olaf” which has a couple of nice moments.
You probably know there’s a little Shop-Vac in a pocket in the rear cargo area. At some point, I think most parents come to understand that because of what happens to the back of a car when you carry kids of a certain age day after day, the car will end up being what the insurance industry refers to as a “total loss.”
Parents are better off just never looking at the floor back there, let alone trying to clean it. Just drive the car straight to the scrap yard when the kids are all old enough to respond to verbal commands, apologize to it and buy a new one. For other people in other circumstances, the little vacuum could be very handy. Which brings us to a genuine tragedy: The 2021 Odyssey offered said vacuums, but the 2022 does not because of supplier problems.
My biggest complaint with the Odyssey is the exterior styling. Too much effort went toward attempting to hide the size and shape of the car, versus trying to make it look like shuttlecraft. There are some interesting lines on the flank and a trendy floating roof treatment at the D-pillar, but this is a minivan and it’s OK for it to look like one.
In my book, the high-water mark for Honda minivan styling in the U.S. market is still the RL1 Odyssey from 1999 to 2004. It’s the first minivan I ever thought of as cool-looking, kind of a bigger seventh generation Civic Si. Clean and uncluttered, the basic shape is honest and purposeful.
Cars and most other man-made things look good when they look like they’re made for a purpose. A Jeep looks good because it looks like it can take you up a big mountain. A Miata looks good because it looks fun to drive. An airport tug looks good when it looks like it can pull an airliner around, and then you see the pair of chopped-off Dodge Neons towing a plane in Canada.
None of those things look better when their purpose is obscured. Among minivans, the Chrysler Pacifica looks more elegant, and the new Kia Carnival (formerly the Sedona) looks more upright and SUV-like. It’s no Alphard, but new Sienna does have some JDM flare.
I’m not going to tell Honda how to style its minivans, the company says that the Odyssey has been the best-selling minivan (at retail) in the U.S. for a decade. There are a few new colors available, but the Odyssey looks best in black or white anyway. However, Honda’s Japan-market van designers seem to have more fun with the Elysion and the JDM Odyssey. They look like they’re from the future, instead of looking like they have muscles.
All Odysseys get Honda’s 3.5-liter V6 making 280 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque with a 10-speed automatic transmission. The package isn’t tuned to make the car quick off the line, but there’s plenty for passing at freeway speed.
Handling is “comfy,” which is all that I have in my notes under “handling.” It’s fine, it doesn’t feel like the front wheels are pulling the rest of the car around, trailer-like, which is sort of what it feels like in other minivans. In fact, it’s probably much better than the average minivan owner needs it to be.
Here, I’d like to do the classic auto journalist thing where you make a pitch for a car so stupid and so misaligned with the desires of consumers that any product planner who gave it a moment’s consideration could rightly be banned from the car industry permanently: The Odyssey Si. I’m not asking for a manual transmission, (unless you’re offering, in which case yes, that’s exactly what I’m asking for) but maybe wheels, tires and suspension? Aero? Is that crazy? I know it’s crazy. But is it stupid? Yes, absolutely. There can’t possibly be a business case for it.
Getting back to reality, I should mention that it was the first minivan named a Top Safety Pick+ by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. According to the EPA, it returns 19 MPG in the city and 28 MPG on the freeway.
This van gave me some things to think about. I own an SUV, because I plan to take my family to see the wonders of the North American wilderness while it’s still recognizable to me. I’m not doing that today. Today, I’m taking them to their (vaccinated) grandparent’s house so I can go cross-country skiing after work.
Do I need four-wheel drive and a 42-inch light bar to do that? Wouldn’t the family be better off in something newer and safer? I’d be burning less gas, but I’d also be consuming an entire new car worth of resources, versus maintaining one manufactured a long time ago. I’d also be making an additional car payment. And I actually do drive the GX off-road regularly.
Out of the hundreds of cars I’ve brought home, there are two that at least one of the kids remembers. One is a blue McLaren 720S Spider that is referred to as “Daddy’s blue car” as in, “where’s Daddy’s blue car?” “Maybe I can go for a ride in Daddy’s blue car when it comes back.” The other is now the Honda Odyssey. The styling isn’t anything a set of TE37 wheels couldn’t fix, though I will have to check out that new Sienna up-close before I made the final call.