OPINION: BATTLE OF THE MINIVANS | Perfect vehicle for retiree's odysseys? Not the Odyssey

The Honda Odyssey sits at the pinnacle of minivan creation.
The Honda Odyssey sits at the pinnacle of minivan creation.

Spring in the Smokeys, summer in the Rockies, fall in New England, oh yes, Blonde Bride and I have grand plans for our semiretired years.

To be honest, these magnificent visions are wholly mine and only partly embraced by Great Love of My Life, whose idea of proper travel leans more toward ordering another round of drinks while poolside on an ocean liner.

For us, long overland journeys will require avoiding the expense of hotels and restaurants; however, setting up camp sites, gathering wood, hauling water, cooking on a picnic table, and sleeping on the ground are not in any way favored activities of Beautiful Blonde Bride.

I have slowly brought her around to even consider such expeditions with the idea of towing a pop-up tent behind a fuel-efficient vehicle converted to hold an instant kitchen and even a tankless water heater for dishes and showers.

And so, our ears and eyes perked up recently when we spent a week testing the Honda Odyssey, which sits at the pinnacle of minivan creation. The demanding attention to detail of Honda engineering is found in every little nook of this vehicle.

We are near the 40th anniversary of the quintessential people hauler. Lee Iaccoca's piece of wizardry that saved a bankrupt Chrysler rolled into showrooms and America's consciousness in 1983.

The attraction then - a family-friendly, garagable van - continues today. Because of their long wheelbases, minivans have tons of room and ride smoothly, gobbling up highway miles.

Honda does it as well as anyone with a superb combination of comfort, space, power and safety. U.S. News and World Report tagged the Odyssey the Best Minivan for the Money and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rated it a Top Safety Pick+, the highest possible rating.

That puts the Odyssey into contention for our retirement car, one that will see few miles except for an occasional long-distance adventure.

The Odyssey reminded us why we liked minivans. (Full disclosure: I once put nearly 200,00 miles on an '86 Plymouth Grand Voyager hauling kids, dogs, baseball teams, lumber, lawnmowers, and newspapers to darn near everywhere.)

We liked the Odyssey's well-appointed and quiet cabin, cavernous cargo space, car-like ride and handling, intuitive infotainment system, and the smooth delivery of power from Honda's tried-and-true 3.5-L V-6. With 280 hp and married to a new 10-speed automatic, the Odyssey is the most powerful in class and easily zips up to highway speed, even when fully loaded.

It could do all the jobs we have in mind and still have room for gear and dogs.

Fuel economy: expect more

We have owned Hondas and trust them. Our only concern about the Odyssey is a big one: fuel economy.

Returning an EPA-estimated 19 mpg city and 28 city for a combined average of 22 mpg, the Odyssey sits in the middle of the pack. The comely Kia Sedona, by comparison, gets 21.

That is not good enough, particularly if one is trying to put some dollars back for ocean cruises.

Technology is changing rapidly, and new-car buyers would be wise to shift expectations accordingly. Electrified vehicles are about to flood the market and one suspects that in just a few years vehicles attaining less than 35-50 mpg will depreciate rapidly.

The 2021 Toyota Sienna, for example, comes only with a hybrid powertrain. Independent testers, such as Consumer Reports, achieved a combined 36 mpg. That is a 63% improvement over the Odyssey. At 12,000 miles a year and $3 a gallon, the Sienna will save you nearly $700.

On a journey through the Rockies to Vancouver and back through Big Sky, it will save $350. Enough for just enough hotel nights to keep Blue-eyed Beauty from abandoning me in a rest area.

We recently drove the new Sienna and, like the Odyssey, the attention to detail is remarkable. At city speeds and in highway cruising, the Sienna is a little quieter because the hybrid system absorbs some of the gas engine's load. Under hard acceleration, however, the Toyota's 2.5-L four-cylinder is harsher and louder.

Still, if we settle on a minivan, we lean toward the Chrysler Pacifica plug-in hybrid. It combines a 3.6-L V-6 with a hybrid system to get 30 mpg, but that comes after it depletes a 32-mile, electric-only component. It also rides and drives beautifully and the top-end Pinnacle has the best interior in class.

Yeah, Chryslers do not hold up as well as Hondas and Toyotas, but we are not going to pile the miles on this vehicle. We like the idea of plugging it in at night at a campsite and getting the first 32 miles the next day for free.

The EPA estimates Pacifica owners will attain an overall overage of 82 mpg. Oh, and Pacifica plug-in buyers get a federal tax credit of up to $7,500. By "up-to," the feds mean up to your income tax liability that year. That may increase if pending infrastructure proposals make it through Congress.

Big if.

Safety first

Both Odyssey and Sienna earn top marks for safety, making a full suite of driver-assist technology standard. Like all Hondas, the Odyssey comes standard with Honda Sensing, which includes collision mitigation braking, pedestrian detection, forward collision warning, road departure mitigation, lane-keep assist, and adaptive cruise control.

Chrysler does not make a full suite available on base model Pacificas, but the plug-in hybrid sits at the top of that food chain and gets all the goodies, including all-wheel drive powered by electric motors front and rear.

The lane-keep assist on our test Odyssey was not as well dialed in as competitors like the Sienna and Kia Sedona, both of which keep the vehicle nicely balanced between highway side markings. The Odyssey tended to bounce from side to side.

In the third decade of the 21st century, a proper car should be able to keep itself in its lane, follow from a safe distance, monitor the blind spots, and hit the brakes when the driver is not paying attention. That would be me. My air-headedness is something Beautiful Blonde has come to accept.

Child Bride and I have become accustomed to these features and feel exposed when a car lacks them. It is the same feeling I get if I forget to click my seatbelt. I feel unsafe. To be frank, this is the chief reason we decided our perfectly sound Toyota Highlander, which we had intended to convert into a travel special, is no longer up to the task. It was built before these lifesaving, accident-avoidance technologies were developed.

What we are not saying is that a car should drive itself. The rare but dramatic failures of Tesla's self-driving cars indicate that technology is not cognizant of all the variables on American highways. Semi-autonomous systems are. They are like having a co-driver who always pays attention. Her frequent stomping of the passenger-side brake and occasional screams inform me that Blonde Bride is of the opinion that I need this.

Our pick

In overall ride and drive quality, the Odyssey is a fine minivan, but its thirsty gas habit makes it a non-starter for our proposed tours. We trust Toyota's hybrid system, but we know that, when not traveling, rarely will we drive more than 32 miles in a day, which makes the Chrysler plug-in our top choice among minivans.

Not that we have our minds made up, not by any means. Electric vehicles are about to flood the market and competitive forces are rapidly building out a nationwide charging system for everything except Teslas. (All the other manufacturers agreed to standardize hardware. Tesla doesn't play well with others.)

This is a lousy time to buy a car. Concurrent shortages of both used and new vehicles will eventually work themselves out, so we will wait before pulling this trigger.

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