Developing the 2018 Honda Odyssey

This is the fifth generation of the Honda minivan. Stronger, safer and 
even more clever than its predecessors.

The large project leader—or chief engineer—for the 2018 Honda Odyssey, the fifth generation of the vehicle, is Chad Harrison (the first, 1995-’98, was based on the Accord platform, and like an Accord sedan, had four swinging doors). He worked on the refresh for the fourth generation vehicle (2011-’17). “I’ve been focused on the Odyssey for five-plus years,” he says.

The new Odyssey is based on the company’s light-truck platform that was first deployed for the third generation (the current) Acura MDX. From the MDX it was then used for the Honda Pilot, then the Honda Ridgeline. Harrison explains that the Odyssey isn’t simply a minivan shell placed on top of the SUV structure, but that it shares the same ideas and approach used on the SUVs, such as how the loads are transferred for crash energy management. He cites a simple case of where the types of vehicles call for a rather massive modification: “On an SUV the side frame section is continuous, but we have a sliding door with a rail.” (Honda switched from those swinging doors on the first generation to dual sliders on the second—1999 to 2004.)

Serious Steels
But like the MDX, Pilot and the Ridgeline, there is significant use of steel for the Odyssey body. In all, the body structure consists of 7 percent press-hardened steel, 8 percent ultra-high-strength steel (UHSS), 37 percent advanced-high-strength steel (AHSS), and 6 percent high strength steel (HSS), for a total of 58 percent. In addition to which there is 41 percent mild steel and 1 percent aluminum (the hood structure and skin).

A couple of notable applications of these steels: there are 1500-MPa UHSS steel door reinforcement beams and front door outer stiffener rings that are laser welded. There is also the use of a tailgate ring, which is a metal structure that surrounds the tailgate to help provide rigidity to the vehicle. (This is a borrowing from the 2016 Honda Pilot.) Overall, they calculate a 44 percent improvement in torsional rigidity compared with the previous-generation vehicle.

And as welding has been noted, it should be pointed out that in assembly there are 147.6-feet of structural adhesives (applied at the roof edges, around the moonroof opening, in the front floor and cowl area, in the A- and B-pillars, around the front suspension upper mounts, and elsewhere) applied prior to welding; this helps increase the overall stiffness of the body structure by some 3.5 percent.

Speaking of assembly—the vehicle is produced at Honda Manufacturing of Alabama in the city of Lincoln—there is a first for the Odyssey being performed in the plant: acoustic spray foam is being shot into 14 locations (e.g., bases of the A-, B-, C-, and D-pillars, tops of the C- and D-pillars, base of the windshield frame) and acoustic tape and foam stoppers are being deployed; this is being done while the vehicle is still a body-in-white. The objective, of course, is to minimize noise entering the cabin. They calculate that these measures result in a 55-percent reduction in body leaks, which means reduced cabin noise.

Structurally Sound
One of the reasons why there is the extensive use of the high-strength steels is to help provide occupant protection, which is particularly germane in the case of a minivan, especially one that senior product planner Dan Tiet describes as a minivan that is focused on people. Like all Hondas in recent history, the Odyssey uses the Advanced Compatibility Engineering (ACE) body structure, the second generation ACE, which is orchestrated to distribute crash energy in frontal collisions, to ameliorate the consequences of small front overlap collisions and to help keep vehicles involved in a collision from over- or under-riding the other. In addition, the Odyssey, picking up, again, from the Pilot, uses a “3-Bone” structure under the front floor: there are three load pathways created to channel energy around the passenger cabin. One bone moves the energy directly underneath the cabin while the other two channel it through the left and right side frames.

Located under the front floor of the new Odyssey is a variation of the "3-Bone" structure first used in the Pilot that improves impact load management, directing energy around the passenger cabin in the event of a frontal collision. The structure creates three different load pathways, or "backbones," that channel collision energy. One channels collision forces from the front of the vehicle directly underneath the passenger cabin; the other two channel collision forces under the vehicle's left and right side frames. The result is an improved capability to safely channel energy during a frontal crash.

And it certainly proves advantageous from a miles-per-gallon standpoint, as well, in that as much as 75 pounds of mass are saved on the new vehicle vis-à-vis a comparable version of the previous generation.

OK: the weight save isn’t entirely based on the steel. There is the aforementioned aluminum hood. And an aluminum front bumper beam provides a 2.6-pound save. There is a cast composite component that supports the battery; it saves 2.9 pounds.

One place where steel has given way to an alternative material is the steering hanger beam, the structural element to which the steering column and the instrument panel are attached. Harrison says that in the previous generation the component was a steel weldment. For the new Odyssey it is a cast magnesium part. Because it is a single piece, it has a simpler, more precise construction than the multiple pieces of steel welded together. What’s more, it is lighter: 10.1 pounds lighter. (It is interesting to note that this, too, is an approach that debuted on that third-gen MDX: the learnings achieved at Honda are clearly transferred among projects to positive effect.)

Addressing Aero
From an aerodynamic standpoint, a minivan is pretty much like shoving a large brick on wheels through the air. So a challenge for engineers and designers of the 2018 Honda Odyssey was to make the vehicles—relatively speaking—as slippery as possible. They set about doing what they could to reduce the drag of the vehicle without penalizing its primary function, which is to carry people, in this case, eight. While the wheelbase is the same as that of the fourth-generation Odyssey (118.1 inches), and there are fractional changes to the length—+0.3 inches, to  203.2 inches—and height— -0.1 inches, to 68.3 inches—the most substantial difference is to the width—down 0.7 inches, to 78.5 inches. As a result of this, there is a reduced frontal area, which helps reduce drag.

(“Wait a minute!” you say. “By reducing the width of the vehicle, they are reducing the passenger volume.” Which is a true point. And Honda personnel admit it. But they say that there is “almost identical passenger volume,” then note that the EPA passenger volume for a 2017 EX-L model is 170.1-ft3 and is 160.1-ft3 for the 2018 version. Which seems that the “almost identical” is something that needs to be taken with a grain of salt. A large one. However, they go on to explain that they’re using a different approach to measuring interior volume, one that they say is “more consistent with the customer experience.” What’s more, they’ve taken steps to increase the passenger volume, as in taking the air conditioning duct work from the ceiling to under the floor and then through the door pillars. Based on the measuring methodology the developers used, they acknowledge that there is a reduction in passenger volume,  not 10-ft3  but “within about 4-ft3 .” However, they’ve actually increased the amount of maximum cargo volume, from 148.5-ft3  to 155.8-ft3 .)

Speaking of the front of the Odyssey (after that long parenthetical aside), they’ve deployed an active shutter grille system. It is located below the front bumper. There is a processor that monitors factors including the engine coolant and radiator temperatures, the intake air temperature, the transmission oil temperature, and the cabin air conditioning requirements. Should the parameters warrant, then there is an electric actuator that opens or closes the four shutters that make up the system. When the shutters are closed—particularly when the minivan is cruising along—the aerodynamic drag is reduced. The system is engineered so that the shutters are kept closed as much as possible.

Not only are they keeping unnecessary air from buffeting around in the engine bay, they’re also directing the air beneath the vehicle. There are air-diverting strakes positioned in front of each of the tires, an undercover that runs behind the front fascia and beneath the engine and transmission, a flat piece between the front and rear wheels, and a cover behind the left rear tire. (Why just the left? Because the tailpipe is on the right.)

Under the Hood
In that engine bay there is a 280-hp, 3.5-liter SOCH V6 with Variable Cylinder Management (VCM), as well as intelligent variable valve timing and lift control (i-VTEC) for the intake valves and direct-injection with multi-hole fuel injectors. 

Yes, this is the engine that is found in the Pilot, as is the nine-speed automatic transmission. However, the Odyssey is also available with a 10-speed automatic, which not only provides 
a wider gear ratio spread, but also faster upshifts and downshifts. It is worth noting that the previous-generation Odyssey has a six-speed automatic.

One of the things that is different about minivans as compared with other vehicles is that when a new platform emerges, there is something that changes above and beyond exterior sheet metal and powertrains and seat fabrics.

The above-and-beyond for the 2018 Odyssey is what they’re calling the “Magic Slide” seats. Chad Harrison says that when they were concepting the vehicle, this was something that 
they knew was essential as it was based on feedback from minivan owners.

Sliding Seats
The second row seat has a center section that can be removed so that there are two outboard seats, two full-sized captain’s chairs. The second row seats can move forward and backward, as is the norm. But with the center section removed, each of the remaining two seats can adjust laterally in intervals of 3.2 inches to five positions, for a total of 12.9 inches of lateral movement. The primary objective is to provide a means by which the third row can be readily accessed even if there are two child seats in the second row. It is simply a matter of grabbing the slide release mechanism handle at the bottom of the outboard seat and sliding that seat toward the space left by the removed center seat.

There are ways of positioning these seats, such as putting the two captain’s chairs together in the middle so that they can be readily reached by front-seat occupants. Or the center seat can remain in place and folded so that it creates a massive arm rest.
It’s worth noting that for the 1995 Odyssey, Honda introduced the third-row “Magic Seat,” which allowed the third row to be folded down flat into the floor.

See and Hear
Because the Odyssey is unapologetically a family vehicle, and because today’s families are all about technology, Honda hasn’t stinted in this area.

They’ve developed a new interface based on Android with menus and tiles that are displayed on an 8-inch high resolution touchscreen interface. This is the first deployment of this Honda-developed system. Just as there are elements from the MDX and the Pilot in the Odyssey, going forward this operating system is going to be deployed in future Honda vehicles. Not only is this new operating system designed for current functionality, they’ve created it so that it can be updated over-the-air (4G LTE and WiFi) or via a USB.

Because kids are often in the second and third rows and because (1) the adults in the front want to know what’s going on in the back and (2) the adults often want to talk at those riding in the back, they’ve developed CabinWatch and CabinTalk.

The former uses a ceiling-mounted camera (with infrared capability so as to be able to see, say, a sleeping infant at night) that displays second- and third-row activities on the 8-inch touchscreen. CabinTalk allows addressing those in the back via (1) the rear entertainment system headphones or (2) second- and third-row speakers.

And there is another development that works to the advantage of the second- and third-row passengers (as well as the front passenger): CabinControl. This is a smartphone app that allows control of the rear entertainment system and rear HVAC, as well as send destinations to the embedded navigation system. (It works with all phones except the driver’s, with the driver’s phone being identified by its pairing with the vehicle.)

Although the general rule of thumb seems to be that minivans are a declining vehicle, that’s not the case according to figures from Autodata (motorintelligence.com). For 2016 it shows total minivan sales of 553,131 units, up some 8 percent compared to the 512,089 for 2015.
Honda has had a good piece of that market. Last year it sold 122,738 Odysseys, down from the 127,736 of 2015, but that was up from the 120,772 of 2014.

The point is, minivans aren’t going away (and arguably they may actually gain in the market as car sharing increases). And Honda continues to improve its offering in the segment.