(first posted 4/6/2016) The minivan may have reached its peak popularity in North America long ago, but the segment is still a lucrative one that’s continually innovating, as evidenced by products such as the latest Kia Sedona, and the upcoming Chrysler Pacifica. Though its current fourth generation is getting a bit long in the tooth, the Honda Odyssey largely remains the benchmark upon which minivans are judged by, and an upcoming redesign should help it regain its spot as the undisputed industry leader.
A quarter-century ago, this wasn’t the case. The minivan market was booming with no end in sight, and Chrysler was king, with well over 50% share of the market. Although the Japanese automakers had proved they could build class-leading sedans that Americans would embrace in large numbers, they’d yet to produce a minivan capable of posing a serious threat to Chrysler’s dominance.
Toyota’s Previa was too big and too funky. Nissan’s Quest was too small and too impractical. But with Honda’s arguably then-highest brand perception of the Japanese Big Three and loyal following, would its first minivan for North America be a just-right hit?
Had things gone according to original plans, an astounding “yes” would’ve been very likely. Initially conceived back in mid-1990, the Odyssey was to originally feature the Acura Legend’s 200-horsepower 3.2L V6 (albeit, likely transversely-mounted), introduce a number of interior refinements to the segment, be sized to compete directly against Chrysler’s extended-wheelbase “Grand” minivans, and be built at its own dedicated factory in the United States. Rather obstinately, it would even cost as much as 50% more than the average minivan did at the time, but Honda was confident that much like its cars, Americans were willing to pay top dollar for a minivan wearing the Honda badge and its perceived higher quality.
Unfortunately, the timing for Honda to develop a minivan couldn’t have been worse. With the burst of the Asset Price Bubble sending Japan’s economy into its largest recession since World War II, Japanese automakers were forced to drastically reduce costs in all areas of their operations, new vehicle development included.
As a matter of fact, the Odyssey almost never even made it to the production stage, having been initially cancelled early in development, an effect of Honda tightening its belt. Top management considered the project far too costly, and didn’t believe an expensive minivan exclusively for the U.S./Canadian market would be profitable. With plans continuing largely in secrecy, it was only after major concessions were made, making the vehicle suitable for production and sale in Japan that the project was officially green-lighted again.
The vehicle that was ultimately sold as the 1995 Odyssey, Honda’s first minivan (if you’d even really call it that) sold in North America, was a clear reflection of these compromises, sharing a high percentage of components with other Hondas, and lacking many important features of the then-benchmark Chrysler vans.
Strict budgetary constraints dictated that the Odyssey be built on the Accord platform, and share as many parts with the Accord as possible. This was not only to minimize R&D costs, but also to allow the Odyssey to be manufactured upon the same assembly lines as the Accord at Honda’s Sayama Plant, limiting production complexities.
A direct result of this was that the production Odyssey was substantially smaller than the original plans dictated. Stretching the Accord’s wheelbase by 4.5 inches, for a length of 111.4, the Odyssey’s wheelbase was less than even the short-wheelbase Chrysler minivans. Overall length was 187.2 inches, about two inches longer than the Accord sedan and one inch shorter than the Accord wagon.
In comparison to the most popular minivans on the market at the time, the 1991-1995 Chryslers, the Odyssey was about nine inches longer than the SWB Caravans/Voyagers. Unfortunately, this didn’t translate to more space. The Odyssey was some two inches narrower, and total cargo capacity with the rear seats out of the way was a paltry 102.5 cubic feet, nearly 15 cubic feet less than the 1995 SWB Chryslers.
This disadvantageous gap was made even wider when the Chryslers were redesigned for 1996. The SWB versions were now roughly the same length as the Odyssey, five inches wider, and boasted over 40 cubic feet of additional cargo capacity, with over 70 for the LWB versions.
Adding to the Odyssey’s space deficit was that when equipped with the ever-popular second row bucket seats, seating capacity decreased from seven to six. The standard seating arrangement included a very wagon-like three-passenger second row bench. Sandwiched between the wheel wells and spare tire, the third row bench was only wide enough for two, ensuring the only third wheel back there was quite literally a wheel.
Unlike the Accord wagon, the second row bench was split 50/50, further decreasing practicality, as well as comfort for the dreaded middle position. Furthermore, due to its federal classification in the U.S. as a car instead of a truck, Honda legally could not sell Odysseys with the commonplace factory-tinted rear windows, to many buyers’ dismay and need for aftermarket tint jobs.
Under the hood, the Odyssey also utilized Accord engines, although to much detriment, only 4-cylinder power was available throughout its four-year run. Like the Accord, adding a V6 would have required enlarging the engine bay, and correspondingly redesigning the front fenders and hood to accommodate this. Honda simply was not willing to invest any more in the Odyssey than they already had, ruling out any possibility of a V6.
Initially, power came from the Accord’s 2.2L I4, producing 140 horsepower at 5,600 rmp and 145 pound-feet of torque at 4,500 rmp. For 1998, it was replaced by the new Accord’s larger 2.3L, making 150 horsepower and 152 pound-feet of torque. With acceleration from the I4 average at best, the lack of a V6 and its added torque greatly limited the Odyssey’s towing capacity and general responsiveness when loaded with passengers and cargo.
Probably the most unusual feature (or lack of one) about this minivan was that it eschewed the right-side-only rear sliding door, the defining feature of most North American minivans, for dual swing-open style doors, similar to what would be found on a sedan or wagon (like the Accord).
This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, as two rear doors not only made rear access easier, but were a feature no other minivan sold in North America had at the time of the Odyssey’s introduction. However, lacking the sliding door(s) only strengthened the view that the Odyssey was merely a half-hearted, testing-the-waters attempt at a minivan, and not a serious contender to minivans from the Big Three.
The other major hurdle Honda’s Odyssey could not overcome was its price. With base prices for the LX and EX beginning at $23,215 and $25,225 in 1995, the Odyssey was priced anywhere from $3,000-$6,000 more than rivals from Chrysler, Ford, GM, and even Nissan with their equally small Quest. Even the rebadged Isuzu Oasis failed to offer any significant sticker savings, despite its lack of the Honda badge.
Of course, for those prices, even the cheapest LX model gave buyers power windows, dual front airbags, front and rear air conditioning, four-wheel disc anti-lock brakes, full-cloth seats and door panels, AM/FM stereo with cassette player, power locks and power mirrors as standard. Just about all of these features would cost one extra dough on any other minivan.
Another bragging point was an advanced four-wheel double-wishbone suspension, with upper and lower control arms, shock absorbers, coil springs, and front and rear anti-sway bars. With a curb weight of just over 3,500 pounds, the Odyssey was one of the lightest minivans on the market, and thus awarded buyers with some of the best handling and MPGs. In addition, the Odyssey’s power rack-and-pinion steering gave it one of the smallest turning radiuses in its class, at only 37.4 feet.
The Odyssey’s high rear seating position and low beltline offering a commanding view of the road, further enhanced by tiered “stadium” rear seats. Additionally, the Honda’s lower overall height than most minivans translated to an easier step-in height, shorter reach to the roof rails, and a lower center of gravity, further improving handling.
The front and rear swing-open doors also allowed greater storage space, with little cubbies, map pockets, and cupholders, and the dashboard incorporated two glove boxes. Second row seats were removable, and both rear rows could fully recline, similar to Chrysler’s Convert-a-Bed. Most notably, the Odyssey was the first minivan to feature a third row seat that folded flat into the floor, something taken for granted on every minivan and most CUVs today.
Unfortunately, the large majority of American minivan buyers didn’t seem to care much about the Odyssey’s advantages in handling, accessibility, interior materials, and fuel economy. Particularly as a family vehicle, this was more of a black-and-white issue. Quite simply, competitors offered more space, more power, and greater versatility for less money – the primary considerations for most minivan buyers.
Marketing the Odyssey to Chrysler minivan-loving Americans was like showing up to a backyard cookout (which to our non-American readers, typically consists of hot dogs and hamburgers) with sushi. Of course, some people, including your pollo-pescetarian author, happen to really like pricey raw fish. The large majority, however, aren’t big fans, and first generation Honda Odyssey sales in North America reflected this.
In the U.S., Honda sold 230 ’95 Odysseys in calendar year 1994, 25,911 in 1995, 27,025 in 1996, 20,333 in 1997, and 13,665 in 1998 (which excludes additional 7,154 examples of the Ontario-built second generation Odyssey that went on sale in fall ‘98). Canada added roughly 2,000-3,000 additional units per year. In total, Honda sold less than 100,000 first-generation Odysseys in the U.S. and Canada, a far cry from the nearly 100,000 per year sold in Japan. Isuzu Oasis sales were barely significant.
In its own right, the 1995-1998 Honda Odyssey was a very fine vehicle. Nonetheless, it just wasn’t what the large majority of American minivan buyers wanted. The first generation Odyssey was living proof to Honda execs that one minivan couldn’t suit both Japanese and American tastes. As a result, the North American Odyssey took a divergent path for the 1999 model year, finally growing to full-size, gaining standard V6 power, and adding dual sliding doors.
“Curbside” Odyssey and Oasis photos provided by Paul N.