Odyssey 10-speed stirs minivan market

The 2018 Honda Odyssey has been upgraded in shifting, seating. (Bud Wells photo)

So, you thought minivans had pretty well run the course? I thought so, too, from the continued sales surge of SUVs and crossovers.

Yet, surprises continue to roll off the assembly lines of the few manufacturers still producing the kid haulers.

Awaiting us at DIA on a flight back from Phoenix was a 2018 Honda Odyssey – equipped with the first 10-speed automatic transmission in a front-wheel-drive vehicle.

Eighteen months ago, Chrysler invited me to Newport Beach, Calif., to show off its new Pacifica, one with “unparalleled levels of functionality, technology and styling,” the company boasted. It succeeded the long-popular Town & Country minivan in the Chrysler lineup.

It is an apparent attempt to keep pace with the Pacifica that Honda chose the Odyssey to unveil its new 10-speed for the coming year, in an automotive market category which has slumped in sales.

Twenty years ago, annual sales in the U.S. for minivans approached 1.3 million. Ten years ago, the total dropped into the 800,000s, and by last year was around 550,000. Sales for the top four models through nine months of 2017 are 107,592 for the Dodge Grand Caravan, 87,623 for Toyota Sienna, 86,342 for the Chrysler Pacifica and 75,309 for the Honda Odyssey.

The Odyssey electronic gear selector sits beneath the infotainment screen. (Honda)

The 10-gear setup replaces a 6-speed for Honda, which says the new transmission will change gears 30 percent faster, improve acceleration and increase fuel economy. It is available only in the Odyssey’s two higher trim levels, the Elite which I drove and the Touring. The lesser-priced models – LX, EX amdEX-L perform with a 9-speed automatic.

The review model’s 280-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 engine, tied to the 10-speed, performed with moderate power, and at times, with a kickdown of the accelerator, the transmission will near-instantly drop down three or four gears, say from 9th to 6th or 5th. In cruising on a flat road, the V-6 will deactivate three cylinders for more economical mpg results.

The Odyssey with the 10-speed tranny is estimated to produce fuel mileage of 19 in the city and 28 on the highway. The Odyssey in 411 miles of driving, most of it on the highway back and forth from Denver to Greeley, averaged 24.9 miles per gallon. It rides on Bridgestone Turanza 235/55R19 tires.

A somewhat unconventional vertical row of pushbutton-type controls operate the gears – push P for Park, pull down a lever for Reverse, push N for Neutral, push a larger button for Drive, push it a second time for Sequential mode to accommodate the paddle shifters mounted at the steering wheel.

The Odyssey’s many safety innovations include lane-keeping assist which jiggles the steering wheel as the van wanders near the lane marker, then will barely turn the steering wheel to maintain in-lane position.

It’s an easy step-in to the roomy Odyssey interior, which offers lots of storage compartments, particularly in the front-seat area. The fairly flat front seats are wide and comfortable, leather-covered, heated and ventilated.

“Magic Slide” second-row seats move forward and back, as well as side-to-side. With keys in a pocket, swing a foot beneath the rear bumper and the liftgate opens to a cargo area of 38.6 cubic feet. Tucked away in the driver’s side rear corner of the cargo area is a vacuum cleaner, with a hose that will stretch to the front seat floorboards. Chrysler has copied this feature in its new Pacifica.