COAL: 2000 Honda Odyssey — Not-Quite-Magic School Bus

This school bus traveled incognito.

Back in the year 2000, an animated kids’ show was on constant rerun, called “The Magic School Bus”. The bus driver was named “Miss Frizzle”, voiced by Lily Tomlin, and she would drive the kids on the bus into all sorts of fantastic science-y field trips. Our local museum had well-attended science programs, led by a museum employee dressed up as Miss Frizzle. Our by-then five year old daughter was enchanted with it, and later grew up to work in a science lab. Did the show have an influence on her affinity for science work?

An animated series popular with kids and also with their parents, back in the day.

I am getting slightly off-track here, as the story for today is about carpooling those five-year-olds to school, and to the museum programs, in the vehicle of the day most widely and universally used for the task, at least in our neighborhood and environs. They could have been painted yellow and labeled as school buses, and then they would have lined up like Blue Birds or Crown Coaches at the elementary school, indistinguishable from the rest of the Odysseys, but for details. As it was, a variety of grey and tan and silver Honda Odysseys would converge at the school grounds, at the beginning and end of each school day, depositing and later collecting flocks of five year olds and eight year olds. Our neighborhood was spread out and hilly, and for some reason, the school district was unwilling to provide bus service, and somehow got away with it. So the parents took it upon themselves to arrange a highly organized and structured carpool network, that got passed down from each set of parents, to the ones who followed a few years later, as their kids came of age (elementary or middle school age, that is).

“Prime time” for carpooling, for our young ones, was about 1998 through about 2010. We had the Intrepid, which held five, including the driver, but it was time to be able to carry seven, if one wanted to be fully involved in carpooling and carrying one’s full weight in the task. There was no way that kids could simply be stuffed headlong into work vans or the backs of station wagons, without dedicated seats and seat belts. The level of parental helicoptering in 2000 demanded certain minimums, such as a seat and seat belt for every smaller-sized person. And to have a capacity of five instead of seven let down the side, and also messed up the carpool scheduling. A seat for the driver plus six more for the little persons was what was expected.

The Intrepid was also getting on in years and miles. Beyond the limited seating and the spectacular transmission explosion, the car was simply getting on in years, and things such as switches and dashboard controls, along with all the innards of the doors, were getting a bit sloppy and undependable. We had gotten good use out of the Dodge, but it was time to move on; the stars were aligned for such a change.

The Odyssey had sort of come out of nowhere in 1999. The older version, like so many Japanese van offerings of the day, was a bit small and lightweight. The Japanese vans generally weren’t optimized for large populations of big kids, often because of quirky Japanese home-market rules and tax rates on car size and engine size. Additionally, the first Honda offering utilized traditional front-hinged doors for the second row, which was a bit away from American expectations. The minivan in the U.S. was supposed to have a sliding second door, for rapid ingress and egress, en masse, of the little passengers. Alternatively, loading bulky cargo was a lot easier when the door simply slid out of the way. So while the first-gen Odyssey sold reasonably well, the minivan buying world was not beating a path to its door (so to speak).

The first-gen Odyssey of the mid-1990’s had four doors arrayed like a sedan, with swinging second doors rather than sliding doors. Product planning “missed it by that much”.

For model year 1999, Honda pulled out all the stops. Detecting a substantial market for a larger, differently configured minivan, Honda decided to build a van optimized for the U.S. market, rather than the up-to-then custom of exporting a van optimized for Japanese customers. The second generation Odyssey would be a big, heavy brute of a vehicle. 800 pounds and 80 horsepower were added to the mix.

The second generation Odyssey weighed in at 4,200 pounds plus, with a 210 horsepower 3.5 liter VTEC engine, seats and seat belts for seven, and sliding doors standard on both sides of the van (typically a high-priced option on some other vans). Also a fold-down third seat into a flat floor, and two substantial second seats that could be folded forward or removed all together, to make a roomy and long flat floor, with a high ceiling, that could be easily loaded and unloaded from three directions at once, if need be.

Fold the third row seat flat, unclip and remove the second row of seats, and you have a ton of useable space, accessible from three directions.

Minivans had been popular for a couple of decades by then. Early Baby Boomers came of child-rearing age in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, so the Oldsmobile Vista Cruisers and the big Ford wagons were the family trucksters of the day. Mid-Boomers had kids in the ‘80s into the early ‘90s, and they got Chrysler (and Ford and GM) minivans of various sorts. Late Boomers generally married and had kids a bit later, and their family truckster needs came to be in the late ‘90s through the first decade of the 2000s. This latter group is where Honda hit its minivan home run.

Honda and Toyota had built a long string of solid Civics and Accords, and Corollas and Camrys. It was natural for Late Boomers to trade up from any of those to the second-gen Odyssey, once the kids’ transportation needs became front and center. The Honda vans were not cheap, but they were sold out in 2000. Dealers were marking them up $10k to $15k over a substantial sticker price to begin with, and still selling out. Our personal experience was that the dealer would call us when the van was in, and we could take it or leave it, at the inflated mark-up price. As to colors and features, it was “take it or leave it”, and go back to the end of the line if you didn’t like the one that they came up with. Oh, yes, leave a substantial refundable deposit with us, in the meantime. Ugh.

We finally found a family-owned Honda dealer across town, who took down the combination of color and features that we wanted, and told us that if or when the combination we wanted came in, they would call us and we could buy it at the sticker price. No deposit required. They told us that things were so sold out that they never quite knew what would come in on the truck. But eventually we got the call, paid the sticker price, and were treated very well. Well done, Tipton Honda!

Big, long, tall, heavy. The left side sliding door was standard equipment, a rarity for the time.

The dashboard and fittings were standard fare for Honda. A bit generic, but well laid out and gave off the feel of high quality. The van had a ton of leg room, shoulder room, and head room, as befits the size of the thing. The engine pulled well from all speeds, and with a reasonable 19 to 20 mpg in mixed driving. There was one bug in the mix, that became well known over time, and that was the transmission. Sure enough, we lost ours at a bit over 100k miles, and with mere weeks left on the dealer-offered extended warranty, that we had bought. Tipton cheerfully replaced the transmission for free. We seemed to be having a string of bad luck with automatic transmissions here, two for two, including the Intrepid.

A somewhat generic but complete dashboard, giving off an aura of very high quality.

3.5 liters, 210 horsepower. Just about one horsepower per cubic inch. Access up front was good, as the engine room extended a fair way forward from the lower edge of the windshield.

The van felt exceptionally solid. Slamming the doors hard gave off a kind of ringing sensation. So, too, the van would sort of ring, with a small high-pitched harmonic, over rough pavement. A sound not of flexing, but of not flexing, but pushing back instead. Tight as a drum. Whether or not the sensations and harmonics actually meant something, they were subliminal signals of strength and solidity.

The ‘kiddie bus”, rear quarter view. Honda styling cues, such as they were, in a big square iteration.

We sold the van a few years ago to a charity, for peanuts, after over 150k hard miles and over a decade and a half of driving. The first few years it served its role as part of the local carpool fleet, and then for years as a drive-to-college vehicle. It was “the” vehicle of our kids’ growing up and family driving time, so it is associated with many nice memories. Both kids learned how to drive by practicing in it. The sequence of letters in the license plate was “KDB”, making it truly the “kiddie bus”.

Toyota actually preceded the second-gen Odyssey with the Sienna for the 1998 model year, which came in just under the 1999 Odyssey in most measurements. The rising popularity of SUVs and CUVs, for buyers that didn’t need to absolutely maximize the number of seating positions, served to split up the market into a number of subsets over the years, so the Odyssey craze played out a bit. But the Honda Odyssey still continues today, in roughly the form as introduced for 1999. They just don’t sell out like they did for a few years.