The right tool for the job

by Peter Bleakney . Sep 16 2016

Remember the cheap-as-dirt minivan? I had one when my kids were little. It was a ’98 Plymouth Voyager — apparently dubbed that because it was always on a voyage to the repair shop.

Like a black hole in our domestic universe, our Voyager eventually imploded, taking what little money and self respect I had with it.

Nonetheless, whenever I’m asked what is the best vehicle for a growing family, I invariably suggest a minivan; when it comes to cargo-hauling capacity per footprint, they can’t be beat. It’s just that in these times, if you’re buying new, it takes more of a financial commitment to get in the minivan game.

Other than the aging Dodge Caravan, where incentives can bring the sticker into the mid-twenties, there aren’t any bargain-priced minivans. The 2016 Honda Odyssey opens at $30,790, and this top-trim Touring tester will lighten your wallet to the tune of $48,890.

Naturally, for this money, we see most of the expected luxury, safety and kid-friendly gizmos. A large flip-down screen with available split personality can run two entertainment streams simultaneously (one from a built-in DVD drive and the other from external inputs). Individual wireless headphones sort out the audio end of things. We get leather, tri-zone climate control, navigation, sunroof, power for the sliding doors and liftgate, 650-watt audio, 18-inch alloys and — ta-da! — a built-in vacuum to suck up those wayward Cheerios.

The standard safety kit on the Odyssey Touring includes blind-spot warning, lane-departure warning and front-collision warning.

I would never call the Odyssey fun to drive, but as far as minivans go, it is one of the better ones. Classic Honda traits include alert steering, decent body control and a strong and efficient engine. Here, a 3.5-litre i-VTEC V-6 makes a smooth 248 horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque, and it runs on regular grade fuel. Power gets to the front wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission. My week of mixed driving netted 12.4 L/100 km.

Generally, most of the whining you hear within the boxy confines of a minivan will come from the progeny in the cheap seats, yet if I had paid $50,000 for this Honda, I might join the chorus on a few points. First off, the dash looks cheap. It’s passable for the base model, but at this price point the hard plastics in too many hues and textures just don’t cut it. The touch screen is fussy and obtuse in its menu structure. And for this money, I would have appreciated ventilated seats. After all, keeping one’s posterior cool is key to maintaining sanity while ferrying the little … er, darlings.

That said, the reason we buy these eight-seat domestic dromedaries is to tackle every mobile challenge that family life can throw at us. In this regard, the Odyssey is a champ. Step-in height is low (minivan 1; SUV 0), the power sliding doors are convenience defined (minivan 2; SUV 0), third-row access is a breeze (minivan 3; SUV 0), plus two six-foot adults — or three, in a pinch — can occupy the third row in complete comfort (minivan 4; SUV 0).

Even with the 60/40-split third row in place, there’s a massive 846 litres of cargo space behind (minivan 5; SUV 0). A simple tug of a strap has each section of this Magic Seat effortlessly tumbling away, creating a flat load floor.

Unlike the Chrysler products with their patented Stow ‘n Go second and third rows, the Odyssey’s second row requires some wrestling to remove if carrying full 4x8 sheets of building materials is on the to-do list.

A clever feature engineered into the second row is the middle jump seat, which can slide forward independent of the outboard positions; this enables better parental access to wee ones who are buckled in there or, conversely, it effectively creates a barrier between sparring siblings.

I enjoyed my week in the 2016 Honda Odyssey Touring. It’s easy driving, very comfortable and on the highway the cabin is a model of serenity, thanks to active noise cancellation.

Yes, proponents of large SUVs will argue the terminally uncool Odyssey is front drive only, and that the word minivan possibly stands for Manhood Is Not Intact, Vasectomized And Neutered. To the former, I say buy winter tires. And to the latter, I cry phooey. There’s nothing more manly than siring children and sticking around to raise them, no matter how much you want to run away to Fiji.

My dad told me to always use the right tool for the job. The Odyssey fits the bill.

— Postmedia Network Inc. 2016

Photos by Peter Bleakney / Postmedia Network Inc.

Photos by Peter Bleakney / Postmedia Network Inc.