Wednesday July 31, 2013

BENNINGTON -- With last year’s world record of 23 gymnasts crammed into a classic Mini Cooper, it’s downright scary to think how many people could fit into the 2014 Honda Odyssey.

For the newest model year, Honda worked off of the fourth-generation platform of its minivan, first released in 1994 and most recently completely overhauled in 2010. For the mid-generation refresh, Honda tweaked the exterior and added new paint colors, interior trims and fabrics, connectivity options, and one additional jaw-dropper we’ll get to shortly.

With gargantuan space and seating for eight, the Odyssey has room to haul most of your son’s or daughter’s sports team -- all of them if we’re talking basketball. And at the age when they’re still dropping Cheerios, there’s a vacuum to clean up after the little gremlins. Yes, the Odyssey has a built-in vacuum cleaner. It’s a stroke of genius in a minivan, but a dual-edged sword being the world’s first.

Everyone is talking about the HondaVAC (a Shop-Vac) housed in the rear, driver’s side of the vehicle, with an elastic hose that easily reaches every interior nook. The vacuum has a removable canister and replaceable filter, and operates anytime the vehicle is on and for eight minutes after the ignition is turned off.

The downside? "Potentially the world’s most expensive vacuum cleaner," proclaimed Car & Driver when pricing was announced. And besides all the potential poor puns, the bulk of buyers won’t get the vacuum as it only comes standard on the top-of-the-line Touring Elite trim, with a weighty manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $44,450. Starting at $28,825, the base Odyssey LX offers plenty of standard convenience. There’s so much comfort here, in fact, that the minivan comes off as a lot of fun in a way that has nothing to do with driving. It’s a living room on wheels.

Exhibit A in the tester: the rear DVD entertainment system with a super-wide, 16.2-inch LCD that can do split-screen and display two feeds -- one from the in-dash DVD player and a second (video game console?) via a HDMI input.

Exhibit B, although not necessarily billed as fun: the Odyssey’s Lane Departure Warning system that beeps when cameras detect the vehicle leaving its lane of travel. Given the novelty, I found myself crossing the centerline just for fun. (Oops!)

Voice commands are intuitive and the recognition system does a good job of understanding the driver. It’s interactive and personable, to the point where you might start wondering when it’s going to chide you for following too close.

But wait, the Odyssey basically does that, too. Using the same front-facing camera as the LDW, standard on the EX-L and above, the Odyssey also offers a Forward Collision Warning system that alerts drivers in risk of a collision. The Touring Elite also warns drivers about vehicles in their blind spots.

Back to interior dimensions, room in the Odyssey can be adjusted between maximum passengers (the aforementioned eight) and maximum cargo volume (with the second seats removed and the third folded flat with the floor: 148.5 cubic feet).

While some competitors have power folding seats, the Odyssey’s middle row comes out easily and the third row disappears with one-handed ease. Pretty much everything else is powered in the upper trims, including front seats, sliding doors, and the tailgate.

Standard across the line is a rearview camera -- very useful for a vessel of this size.

All trims come with a 248-horsepower, 3.5-liter six-cylinder mated with a six-speed automatic transmission; the latter is a step up over last year’s entry five-speed, while the former is a carryover. With the extra gear, all Odysseys are now rated at 19 mpg city, 28 mpg highway by the Environmental Protection Agency. This puts the Odyssey solidly in the middle of the pack economy-wise, but what did you expect? It weights between 4,581 and 4,613 pounds depending on trim.

The powertrain combination moves the Odyssey with a predictable amount of thrust while the suspension and chassis do a commendable job of soaking bumps.

If you’re in the market, what’s not to like? Fully loaded, the Odyssey has everything and then a vacuum cleaner.

At lower trims, you’ll have to cross-shop feature-for-feature with the competition.

When all vehicles are electric and drive themselves, there’ll be no reason not to opt for the minivan.