Four decades after they disrupted the American passenger vehicle market, minivans may be due for a comeback.
Millennials, the largest generation group in the U.S. with 72.1 million members, are in their child-raising years and are looking for roominess, practicality, and reliability, according to Honda spokesman Carl Pulley.
That's the perfect opening for the Honda Odyssey, the top-selling minivan in America for the past 10 years.
"When you want to carry passengers, especially your family, the minivan is the best vehicle to do that," Pulley said in a videoconference Thursday. "The millennial generation is a huge, huge generation and we think the market for minivans will increase."
If it does it will likely be for minivans capable of delivering excellent fuel economy, which does not happen to be the Odyssey. Research indicates that millennials are far more concerned about the environment than their parents and grandparents.
In 1983, Lee Iacocca saved Chrysler and transformed mobility for the suburban American family with the car-based Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan. Economical, easy to drive, and with room for seven, the vehicles were an instant hit. Chrysler has sold more than 15 million.
Honda, a conservative outfit, got into the market in 1995 with an Accord-based minivan. Sales started to take off in 1998 when the company shifted production to North America and installed a smooth and powerful V6 engine, an offspring of which is the 3.5-L, 24-valve, i-VTEC engine that powers the latest-generation Odyssey.
Laser-focused on families, Honda engineers and designers refreshed the 2021 model with a list of goodies sure to appeal to parents, such as:
Magic seats. Mid-row seats slide back and forth, side-to-side, and are removable. Got a couple of youngsters who can't get along? Wide mode separates 'em. Super mode pushes everything to one side to make for easier rear access. Need to pick up some plywood at Lowe's? Take 'em out.
Standard Honda Sensing. Unlike Chrysler, which forces buyers to buy more expensive models and option packages to attain a full suite of driver-assist technology, all Odysseys come with the ability to maintain a safe distance on the highway and keep themselves in their lane. It also has low-speed follow for stop-and-go traffic as well as automatic emergency braking.
Standard LED headlights. That's one reason the Odyssey earned a 2020 Top Safety Pick+ rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Rear Seat Reminder with Cabin Watch. Turn off the vehicle and it reminds you to check the back seat for things like babies strapped into their seats. En route, a wide-angle camera lets you keep an eye on all the crumb crunchers to see who hit whom and in what sequence.
Ten-speed automatic transmission and paddle shifters. Paddle shifters on a minivan? Honda engineers benchmark Odyssey's ride and handling to midsize passenger cars, not top-heavy and bouncy SUVs.
"With that low center of gravity and that planted feel. It is surprisingly spry and fun to drive," Pulley said.
Add Odyssey's in-vehicle vacuum system and what's not to like?
Perhaps fuel economy.
At 22 mpg in combined EPA-estimated fuel economy, the Odyssey sits right at the median for the segment. Is that good enough for young buyers?
"With fuel prices being very low right now, people aren't concerned about fuel efficiency," Pulley said.
That may be true for us old folks, but plenty of research says that it is not so with millennials, especially the upscale, college-educated consumers Honda is targeting.
According to Pew Research, even millennials who identify as Republican are twice as likely (49% to 23% percent) as their parents to say the government should do more to slow carbon consumption. A Yale study found Millennial Democrats (93%) to be more strongly convinced that global warming is caused by humans than Baby Boomer Democrats (79%).
Not because of the price of fuel but out of a belief in doing what is right, millennials looking at spending the next few years in a minivan may be more attracted to the Chrysler Pacifica plug-in hybrid, which gets 30 mpg out on the highway and an estimated 82 mpg when daily electric-only miles are factored in.
The Pacifica starts around $42,000, about the same price as an Odyssey Touring and $5,000 less than a top-of-line Elite. Is the American minivan equal in quality to the Canadian-built Japanese one? Not by a long shot.
On the other hand, a similarly priced Toyota Highlander Hybrid gets 35 mpg, city and highway. That's 59 percent better than the Odyssey.
For the generation just now coming to power, that's a big deal.