Honda Improves Odyssey

By Derek Price

The Honda Odyssey has long been the most popular minivan for individual buyers in America.
Now a new fifth-generation Odyssey is launching, but it won’t be an easy path for Honda to retain its popularity in a segment with stronger competition and buyers moving in ever-increasing masses to crossovers and SUVs.
After driving it for a week, I think it makes a compelling case for why the Honda van is still relevant, though, with a barrage of new features and updates.

Honda’s minivan gets a fresh look that’s more sleek and sculpted than before, yet it’s still instantly recognizable as an Odyssey. This 2018 model is the introduction of a new generation of the van’s design.

Let’s go through the laundry list:
— Magic Slide seats: These appropriately-named seats in the middle row are absolutely brilliant for families. They let you slide them in different positions to make the cabin even easier to use, whether you want to access the back seat, slide them without removing baby seats, or position them close together in “buddy mode.”
— CabinWatch: A camera mounted on the ceiling lets parents keep an eye on their kids through the 8-inch digital display in front. It shows both the second and third rows of seating and even works at night thanks to an infrared mode.
— CabinTalk: Are the kids getting too noisy in back? Need to make sure everyone hears you? A microphone up front lets the driver act like a subway conductor and talk to passengers through the speakers.
— CabinControl: Odyssey owners can download an app that lets them control the rear-seat entertainment system and climate control, plus send destinations to the navigation system through their smartphone.
— 10-Speed Automatic: A new transmission feels nicely sorted, never hunting for gears, and helps the Odyssey achieve a fuel-economy rating of 28 mpg on the highway. Gas mileage remains one of the best reasons to choose a minivan over a full-size SUV, and this one makes it even better.
— Social Playlist: Perfect for road trips when your passengers want to be DJs, this feature lets up to seven people upload songs to the van’s audio system from their smartphones. Honda calls it a “virtual jukebox” that lets people share their favorite songs for others to enjoy, which I imagine could be heavenly or awful depending on your passengers’ musical taste.
Two of the Odyssey’s most compelling aspects, though, can’t be boiled down to bullet points.
One is the way it drives. The Odyssey remains the best-driving van for people who like to feel a connection to the road, something in stark contrast to the more floaty feeling of the Toyota Sienna and Chrysler Pacifica.

The new Odyssey’s cabin is quieter than the previous generation, with increased use of high-strength steel blends and soundproofing to cut down on road and wind noise.

Personally, I prefer the Toyota and Chrysler products on the highway with their relaxing, supple, squishy suspensions, but I like the Honda much better in city driving. Its firmer suspension and better feedback through the steering wheel and brake pedal make me feel safer and more in control in traffic.
Part of the Odyssey’s excellent road feel comes from a new trailing-arm rear suspension design. It improves handling and allows for more cargo space in back and — silly or not — 19-inch wheels on some top trims. Maybe the next generation can add 22-inch dubs.
Secondly, the Odyssey’s top selling point has got to be its reputation for durability.
Minivans typically take a beating from their Cheerios-munching passengers and constant, stop-and-go runs to soccer games and ballet practice. This one has earned a reputation a van that stands up to that kind of abuse, with a virtually unbreakable cabin and bulletproof drivetrain.
That’s a big reason the Odyssey’s resale value is insanely high. If this new generation lives up to the standards of its forebears, it should provide years of relatively trouble-free use and high prices on used-car lots for years to come.
Pricing starts at $29,990 for the base LX model and ranges up to $46,770 for the Elite level that’s trimmed out better than some luxury cars.

At A Glance

What was tested?
2018 Honda Odyssey Elite ($46,670). Options: None. Price as tested (including $940 destination charge): $47,610
Wheelbase: 118.1 in.
Length: 203.2 in.
Width: 78.5 in.
Height: 68.3 in.
Engine: 3.5-liter V6 (280 hp, 262 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: 10-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 19 city, 28 highway

Style: 6
Performance: 7
Price: 9
Handling: 7
Ride: 7
Comfort: 8
Quality: 9
Overall: 8

Why buy it?
It adds a laundry list of fun and useful features for a new generation of families. It enjoys a long-term reputation for durability and drives in a way that lets the driver feel connected to the road, a rare thing in minivans.

Posted in Honda

A Car That Cares

By Derek Price

A few car companies are doing something that would have been unthinkable just a couple of years ago: dropping small cars from their lineup.
It started with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles deciding to kill off the Chrysler 200 sedan, a car that wasn’t all that bad by the end of its life. I liked a lot of things about it, but FCA decided to pull the plug and stop investing in small cars completely. There’s more money to be made in trucks and SUVs, so that’s where they’re focusing instead.
Now Ford is hinting that it will be dropping some car nameplates from its lineup, too. And it makes sense in a way. If you’re investing billions of research and development dollars into future products, it’s better to pour your money into high-profit crossovers and SUVs than low-profit sedans that buyers seem to be abandoning anyway.
I think that’s short-sighted for a number of reasons. It eliminates the first step in the buyer funnel that General Motors pioneered 100 years ago, selling affordable, basic cars to masses of people who would move up to bigger, pricier models later when it fit their changing life stages.
Even more critically, killing small cars will leave companies woefully unprepared the next time gas prices spike. It’s just a matter of time.

The Mazda3 has an expressive, flowing, athletic look that matches its fun-to-drive feeling from behind the wheel. It’s a vehicle that appears and feels more expensive than it is, with a starting price around $18,000.

I also think buyers wouldn’t be shying away from compact cars if Ford, Chrysler and other brands could build more compelling products like this one, the Mazda3.
To me, this car is the perfect template for what every manufacturer ought to be doing to breathe new life into compact vehicles.
It gets great gas mileage for starters, rated for 38 mpg on the highway with its 2.0-liter, four-cylinder SKYACTIV-G engine. Other brands seem to be letting their investments in traditional fuel-saving technology evaporate — spending it instead on headline-generating hybrid and electric vehicles that represent a tiny sliver of the market — while Mazda shows everyone just how much farther there is to develop and improve the internal combustion engine.
Second, the Mazda3 is really, truly fun to drive. It’s obvious that the steering, suspension and brake feel were all tuned by people who actually care about those things, something you can’t say for most of its competitors. It makes you feel connected to the road in an exciting, visceral way, one of the chief selling points for compact cars that too many other companies have forgotten.
Third, it looks great inside and out. Looking at most cars in this class, I get the impression they were styled to be inoffensive to focus groups, to be cheap to produce, or both.

The Mazda3 has a stylish, well-built cabin with a generous level of equipment for the price.

Looking at this one, though, I think someone at Mazda said, “Let’s make our low-priced cars look like they’re expensive.” The body is expressive and distinctive, and the nicely styled cabin uses more soft-touch materials and tighter construction than you usually find in compact cars.
Again, it’s like the people at Mazda actually care about small sedans.
And, sadly, that’s what sets the Mazda3 apart. It’s not that its size, trunk space or horsepower are in any way exceptional. It’s that so many of its competitors feel like they’re throwing in the towel, resigned to a drab world where fun-to-drive sedans are disappearing in favor of bulbous crossovers.
If that’s the future of the automobile, it’s a depressing one. It makes me wonder how many more cars could be sold if manufacturers put in the time, money and effort to make them as spectacular as this one.

At A Glance

What was tested?
2018 Mazda3 Four-Door Grand Touring ($24,195). Options: Cargo mat ($75), pearl paint ($200), scuff plates ($125) appearance package ($1,300), premium equipment package ($1,600). Price as tested (including $875 destination charge): $28,370
Wheelbase: 106.3 in.
Length: 180.3 in.
Width: 70.7 in.
Height: 57.3 in.
Engine: 2.5-liter four-cylinder (184 hp, 185 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 28 city, 38 highway

Style: 9
Performance: 9
Price: 10
Handling: 8
Ride: 7
Comfort: 7
Quality: 8
Overall: 9

Why buy it?
It’s a spectacularly good compact car. From the way it looks to its crisp, sporty driving feel and excellent gas mileage, it’s clearly built by people who make small sedans a priority.

Posted in Mazda

Rugged and Refined

By Derek Price

Like chicken and waffles, some things that aren’t meant to be together still turn out to make a perfect pair.
That’s certainly the case with the Lexus GX 460, a vehicle designed with serious off-roading in mind that still manages to deliver a silky smooth feel on pavement.
In some ways, the GX feels like a dinosaur, a hulking creature from another era when body-on-frame SUVs ruled the world. Most of those SUVs got killed off by an asteroid called awful gas mileage, but the current GX manages to survive despite its 15-mpg rating for city driving.
Its survival skills are helped by the upscale market Lexus is targeting: people who won’t be bothered by prices at the gas pump. With a starting price around $52,000, it’s loaded to the gills with luxury features, a truly off-road-capable 4×4 system and V8 power.
What sets the GX apart from most luxury SUVs is that off-pavement capability. I’ve driven it on trails and hills — something I bet most Lexus buyers never actually do — and came away impressed at just how well it navigates rocky, rutted paths and easily finds traction where lesser vehicles struggle.
Electronic crawl control makes it easy to descend steep hills. A Torsen limited-slip differential, ample ground clearance, electronic locking capability and a low-speed transfer case give you all the same goodies you usually find on a built-for-the-trails Jeep, just with a Lexus level of luxury.

The Lexus GX 460 is part of a rare breed: a true body-on-frame SUV designed for off-roading.

On pavement, which is where I encounter the vast majority of GXs, it still manages to impress. While not quite as buttery as luxury models that don’t share its off-road-capable underpinnings, it’s nonetheless beautifully composed and quiet. The same body-on-frame design that makes it hold up to abusive terrain also helps it feel heavy, stable and solid on the highway.
While the GX has managed to look reasonably contemporary on the outside, with its gigantic Lexus family grille up front, it looks less so on the inside. That’s more a criticism of its style, not its substance, as the materials and construction are both top-notch. Its cabin just doesn’t look as sleek and space-age as some of the cars and crossover that fall within its shadow in a modern Lexus showroom.
I’m actually a bigger fan of the digital toys in the GX than I am in some of its more newly redesigned siblings, including the wild-looking LC coupe. The SUV’s familiar, more traditional button layout makes it easier to operate.
It still offers a high-tech feel, though, with a customizable screen that can show three different features simultaneously. You could set it up to show a navigation map, audio information and the weather, for example.
The most unusual thing about the GX’s layout is its rear cargo door. The entire door swings sideways, unlike most SUVs and crossovers that have a lift gate that opens up toward the sky. Otherwise, it’s a fairly straightforward cabin with three rows of seating, providing reasonable room for seven and decent cargo space.

With seating for seven, the Lexus GX has a roomy cabin with a number of impressive tech features, including a digital screen that can be split and customized to show as many as three functions at the same time.

It offers a suite of safety features that are unsurprising in this class of vehicle, including radar cruise control, lane departure alert and blind spot monitors, along with one that’s a bit more unusual: Driver Attention Monitor.
This system uses a camera to watch the driver’s face. If the driver shows signs of inattention, like not facing forward when a collision seems imminent, it will sound a warning alarm and — if there’s still no response — gently apply the brakes automatically.
Pricing starts at $51,680 for the base model, $55,225 for the Premium level with upgraded trim, or $62,980 for the Luxury line with its adjustable suspension and enhanced technology package.

At A Glance

What was tested?
2017 Lexus GX 460 Luxury ($62,980). Options: Dual-screen rear-seat entertainment system ($1,970), sport design package ($1,625), driver support package ($4,340), carpet cargo mat ($105). Price as tested (including $975 destination charge): $71,995
Wheelbase: 109.8 in.
Length: 192.1 in.
Width: 74.2 in.
Height: 74.2 in.
Engine: 4.6-liter V8 (301 hp, 329 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 15 city, 18 highway

Style: 7
Performance: 9
Price: 5
Handling: 6
Ride: 8
Comfort: 9
Quality: 10
Overall: 8

Why buy it?
It’s designed with off-road ability in mind, yet it still feels smooth, silent and very solid on pavement. It’s a truly capable SUV in a world where that’s becoming rare.

Posted in Lexus