"I want a minivan revolution in the U.S.," says Yutaka Fujiwara, chief engineer of the 2005, third-generation Honda Odyssey minivan, which is currently being built at Honda Manufacturing of Alabama. He adds, "If I can make a non-soccer mom minivan then I can make a revolution." The "mom-mobile" stigma that minivans have carried for the past few years presents vehicle manufacturers with a problem: Stray too far from the tried-and-true minivan formula and risk alienating loyal core customers; make just another slab-sided functional box and sales will likely never expand beyond that core.
Fujiwara's recipe for overcoming the soccer mom challenge is one part aggressive styling and one part performance enhancement. Though still recognizably a Honda, the new Odyssey, which replaces the model introduced in 1998, has been given a more pronounced grille and projector beam-style halogen headlamps whose lenses bulge out from the slope of the hood to break up the one-box flow that is an all too recognizable trait of minivans. The look suggests a sportier driving experience than can be had in the average minivan and the Odyssey has been engineered to provide just that.
Chasing Sedans. To get his team to think quite literally outside of the minivan box, Fujiwara set European sedans, not competitive minivans, as the bogies for the Odyssey's ride and handling. To achieve the solid, linear feel of those targets, the team increased body stiffness by 20% by widening existing floor members, reinforcing joint areas and re-designing the tower bars and upper bulkhead that surround the engine compartment with more rigid closed section stampings. It added a steering damper to reduce drift and shimmy and improve the on-center feel of the steering, and beefed up the bushings that isolate the front and rear subframes from the body to both enhance handling and reduce NVH. It also paid a Germanic level of attention to aerodynamics; reducing panel gaps by half in many areas, and adding underbody covers for the engine, evaporative canister and third seat pan to reduce air turbulence. The upshot of these efforts is a 5% improvement in overall aerodynamics that Honda claims makes the Odyssey the slipperiest minivan in its class.
Managing Cylinders. Under the hood, Honda coaxed 15 more horsepower and eight more lb.-ft. of torque (for a total of 255 hp @ 5,750 rpm and 250 lb.-ft. @ 4,500 rpm) out of the base 3.5 L V6 by modifying cam profiles and timing and using a new lighter weight aluminum intake manifold. But the most significant new development is the introduction of variable cylinder management (VCM), which deactivates a bank of three cylinders when the engine is under reduced load, such as cruising on the highway. Honda has been working on this logical next step to its VTEC (variable valve timing and electronic control) technology for some time, and initially introduced VCM in the low-volume Saber sedan in Japan to work out the kinks. It is apparently now ready for prime time as it will be standard equipment on almost two-thirds of the Odyssey's projected annual sales of 160,000 units. The principle behind VCM is the same as with VTEC where hydraulic pressure activates a synchronizing pin in the valvetrain, but instead of locking in a larger cam lobe for more power, the VCM system shuts down the rear bank of three cylinders for better fuel economy (20 city/28 highway mpg). Since VTEC kicks in at high rpms and VCM at the lower end, Honda had to design a new hydraulic circuit with a three-way solenoid spool valve that could move the synchronizing pin in two directions. And to deal with the increased engine vibration that results from running on only one bank of cylinders, Honda fits the VCM engines with an active-control engine mount system whose actuators move in synch with the vibration to keep it from being transmitted into the passenger cabin. For the booming noise that does make it into the cabin, there's an active noise control system that analyzes the incoming sound waves and transmits an opposite sound wave through the audio system to cancel it.
Thinking Safety. But even a minivan that aspires to transcend soccer momdom is, in the end, still a minivan, which means that safety and functionality are the chief concerns of its kid-hauling customers. On the safety side, the Odyssey has added full side curtain airbags as standard equipment as well as a vehicle stability control system supplied by Continental Teves. The Odyssey is also the first of Honda's North American-manufactured vehicles to employ the advanced compatibility engineering (ACE) body structure, which uses a newly designed front frame to distribute impact forces through the side sill, floor frame and A pillar and away from the passenger cabin.
As for functionality, Honda has not come up with anything as groundbreaking as the fold away third row seat it introduced in 1995, but it has tweaked that staple feature by adding a 60/40 split function, integrated headrests and a new one-motion folding mechanism that requires only 22 lb. of operating force compared to the current model's 59 lb. Eight-passenger carrying capacity has been added in the form of a narrow "plus-one" seat that slots between the second row captain seats and can be folded and stored in a well in the floor when not in use. That same well (which used to hold the spare tire that's now migrated to a side panel compartment in the rear) houses a clever rotating lazy susan tray segmented for small item storage.
Adding all of these customer-pleasing features had the unwanted side effect of increasing overall weight by about 70 lb., but to help offset the increase Honda expanded the use of lighter-weight high-strength steel in the Odyssey's body by 45%, so even with the addition of the body reinforcements noted earlier the body-in-white weight remains the same as the '04 model.
Will Fujiwara's Odyssey launch a revolution? Not likely. But it could prove to be the excuse that many disillusioned SUV and sedan owners are waiting for to rationalize a minivan purchase. And that might be revolutionary enough.