(first posted 10/8/2013) By 1995, it was crystal clear that Chrysler’s minivan was a runaway success. Both of Mopar’s main domestic rivals had taken (at least) one swing at building a credible competitor, and each time had came up short. By 1995, it was Honda’s turn.
During the two or three years after the unveiling of Chrysler’s 1984 minivan, the competition could be forgiven for failing to understand its appeal; the first three installments in this series outlined their respective failures. Both the Chevy Astro (CC here) and Ford Aerostar (CC here) were based on the mistaken belief that Mr. & Mrs. America would really prefer a minivan that was simply a downsized big van. Bzzzzzt…sorry, wrong answer. Then came the GM Dustbuster vans of 1990 (Olds Silhouette CC here), which took the opposite direction by providing a car-like experience along with the kind of full-out styling razzle-dazzle that only GM could do. Bzzzzzzt…wrong again.
By the early 1990s, two things had become abundantly clear: First, the car-buying public liked Chrysler’s mix of car-like ride and practical packaging; and second, the minivan market was too big to ignore. With that in mind, Honda, being Honda, tried a different approach.
In September 1990, Honda’s Chief Engineer for research and development, Kunimichi Odagaki, led a twenty- member team to the U.S. to assess the American minivan market. What they found was an American minivan segment in full flower, with Chrysler-built versions leading the market by a huge margin. Odagaki surely understood that Chrysler’s minivan formula would naturally translate to Honda’s front-wheel-drive Accord platform; after returning to Japan, he started work on a minivan that he was convinced could be sold not just in America, but throughout the rest of the world as well.
Then, higher-ups at Honda cancelled the minivan program, undoubtedly due to the rough Japanese economy at the time. However, the resourceful Odagaki channeled his inner John DeLorean and took the program underground, hiding its work under the guise of research and development for a “Personal Jet.” Eventually, Odagaki was able to sway management into bringing the program back above ground, and development of what would become the Honda Odyssey continued.
Key design parameters included maximizing interior size while minimizing exterior size, and also using as many existing components from existing lines as possible. Japan’s economy was in terrible condition in those years, and manufacturing efficiency would be extremely important to keeping the value high and the costs low. These budgetary concerns would serve both the company and potential buyers in need of maximum car for minimum money. Therefore, the Odyssey would share its 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine and four-speed automatic transaxle (and most of its other mechanical components) with the Accord.
Honda was also forced to pay heed to the U.S. “chicken tax”, which would make any imported vehicle classified as a light truck prohibitively expensive due to the 25% tariff attached to it. That may have been one of the considerations that dictated four hinged doors, rather than the more common (American) configuration of two front doors and a single slider on the side. More likely, though, hinged doors were already in the company’s repertoire, while the slider would require fresh engineering and tooling. Also, every U.S.-bound vehicle would be designed to accommodate six or seven passengers, plus rear-area heating and air conditioning. There would, of course, be no cargo version offered.
The Odyssey’s most notable design feature was its flip-and-fold third seat. Remember, this was at a time when all of America was muscling heavy third-row seats in and out of their minivans. Honda’s design was the original stow- and-go seat, giving owners the freedom to reconfigure the van’s seating in sixty seconds while eliminating the need to store the bulky back seat in the garage or basement when not in use.
Manufacture began in 1994, and the Oddy was introduced as a 1995 model. The groundbreaking Odyssey went on to become Honda’s fastest-selling new vehicle ever, surpassing the record of the original Civic. Everywhere except in the United States, that is.
Here, the Odyssey’s North American debut resulted in a pronounced yawn, making it one of the few new Honda models that was not a breakout success in America (where it was sometimes called the Honda Oddity). So, what happened?
It certainly wasn’t a matter of quality. The 1995-98 Odyssey may have been the all-around best Honda ever offered in America. That’s a strong statement, but not without basis: This car offered every bit of traditional Honda goodness, which was finally mated to a body that would not rust to powder within six years of its first exposure to road salt. The Oddy may be the most rust-resistant Honda ever built, and certainly was up to that time. Even today, nearly twenty years after its introduction, the few Gen-one Oddys still seen hereabouts in rust country are amazingly free of corrosion.
The Odyssey’s problem in the U.S. was threefold: the size; the lack of a V6 engine; and the price. The Honda minivan was simply smaller than virtually every other minivan offered in the U.S. This had not traditionally been a problem for Honda, which had always made small cars, and had sold quite a few of them here. But when it comes to a minivan, no amount of clever packaging will outweigh the need for the thing to be big enough for families to do what they do with a minivan. When there are Cub Scouts and soccer teams to convey from here to there (along with all their necessary junk), size matters. Chrysler proved this by cleaning up with its larger and grandified minivans.
The Honda 2.2L engine was a real honey, and was specifically retuned to match its 140 ponies with maximum midrange torque. Even though road tests could thrash an empty one to sixty in a touch over ten seconds, the little engine was severely overmatched by normal minivan duties. In the real world, the Oddy was universally labeled as slow, despite its svelte 3,500 pound weight.
Worse yet, the Honda’s undersized (and underpowered) offering was priced right up there with everyone else’s much larger minivans. I distinctly remember this, being in the market for a van in 1995. I came to discover that all passenger vans (at least those that seated seven) seemed to come in two prices. The mid-level version cost about $24,000, while the high-trim model (like this Odyssey EX) would sticker at about $30,000. So, whether you bought an Odyssey, a Grand Caravan or a Ford Club Wagon, pricing was the same. Mrs. JPC and I have long bought cars by the pound, and in an era of low gas prices, there was simply no reason to accept a cramped, underpowered minivan (no matter how well made it might be), when a huge, comfortable and powerful big van could be had at the same price. (Also, when you bought the big American one as a year-old model, you saved a lot more – yes, I’ll take the green one).
The relative few who fell for the little Honda’s charms were richly rewarded. The four-wheel double wishbone suspension was a handling delight, and all of Honda’s many other positive attributes were in full supply. In truth, this was the last really good (North American) Odyssey. To be fair, Honda had misread the U.S. market as badly as Ford and GM had done before–the difference being that where the Americans provided too much truck, the Honda provided too little. The second-generation that arrived for 1999 would be designed precisely for American tastes, and would give the Chrysler triplets their first real competition–right down to their suicidal transmissions.
I am happy to report that I eventually did become the happy owner of one of these little Oddities – a 1996 mid-level LX. I came to appreciate both its many clever little touches and extreme durability. The car reminded me of a Valiant or Dart station wagon from the mid-1960s in terms of its quality, simplicity and substance-over-style personality. I came to terms with its leisurely acceleration by appreciating that even with north of 200,000 miles at the time of purchase, everything looked and worked just as it should. Am I right that 96% of Odyssey production was painted this lifeless platinum color? Unfortunately, mine met its end when an elderly lady (in another Honda) made a left turn before she should have, sending my poor, beloved Odyssey (with its brand-spanking-new timing belt and water pump and a full tank of gas) to the salvage yard. I tried to find another, which proved that the only way to find the needle in the haystack is by looking for something other than a needle; since I was looking for a needle, there would be, of course, no suitable replacement to be found while I still had my rental car.
In those places that appreciated the original Oddy, buyers were treated to a steady stream of updated versions that flows to this very day. I suppose that in the world of Honda, we all get the minivan we deserve. You want a big, fast minivan with a floppy structure and imploding transmissions? You’re the doctor. Oy! Americans! But for markets that appreciated the merits of the original, the original they shall have. I had harbored hope during the fuel-price panics of late in the last decade that the world Odyssey would reappear on our shores, in order to fill the void between increasingly huge minivans and the too-small Mazda5. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Perhaps to Americans, a sanely sized minivan has all the appeal of a two-door station wagon. Pity.