Few forces are more powerful than human vanity. We shape and recast the world around us in ways that enhance our image, as if we were jewels, and the world our setting: the society lady commands workers to construct a grand staircase where she can dramatically appear before her assembled guests; the general conquers continents so that they can be ruled in the fashion he prefers.
Vanity also rules the world of cars. Which brings us to the Honda Odyssey, a brilliant vehicle with a single flaw: it's a minivan. No vehicle genre has a less-sexy set of associations: soccer moms, middle age spread and parental obligation.
Behind the wheel of a new Honda Odyssey, none of this mattered to me. It was smooth, it was quiet, and it could carry my entire family plus as much sporting gear as I cared to throw in – it swallowed bicycles and scuba tanks without blinking. The Odyssey reminded me of a small, leather-lined Greyhound bus, except that it handled better.
The Odyssey has a beautifully designed interior, a superb V6 engine (with variable valve timing, not that it matters to the average minivan buyer) and a surprisingly sophisticated suspension – while most minivans make do with a beam rear axle that's one step from a Conestoga wagon, the Odyssey has independent rear suspension with double-wishbones.
Perfect. Except for the psychology.
I bought an Odyssey back in 2002, and it gave our family some of the best driving experiences we've ever had. There was enough room to bring friends with us on trips, and the kids set up a cooler filled with food and drinks in the back, and watched movies on my laptop computer.
Like all minivans, the Odyssey adheres to the cardinal rule of industrial design – form must follow function. But human beings don't always see things that way, and the fortunes of the minivan are an object lesson in the vagaries of automotive fashion.
The genre was born in the early 1980s when Chrysler kluged together a "Magic Wagon" with K-car parts. The sheer usefulness of the Chrysler minivan made it a sales sensation (and saved the nearly-bankrupt car maker from extinction.) By 2000, North Americans were buying nearly 1.5 million minivans a year. But then things started to go downhill – by 2008, sales had fallen by nearly 50 per cent. Why? Psychology. Many car buyers wanted more room than a sedan could provide, but they hated the image of the minivan. So instead they bought SUVs, which burn more fuel than minivans and have less interior space relative to their size.
When we owned our minivan, I often received condolences from friends who assumed that I hated it. I didn't. It was actually one of my favourite vehicles ever, because it was so perfectly suited to our mission: we were hockey parents who took long summer driving trips towing an ultralight airplane.
Along with competitors like the Toyota Sienna, the Nissan Quest and the Dodge Caravan, the Odyssey is a perfect vehicle for many people, particularly young families. And yet countless candidates turn to SUVs, simply because of image. I know dozens of them myself, including a couple who nearly bankrupted themselves with a gigantic SUV that cost over $75,000, and burned about three times as much fuel as a minivan would have.
Am I surprised? Not really? We live in a world where women will suffer in five-inch heels because it makes them look better, and where men will spend their life savings for hair plugs. Fashion might not make any sense, but it rules the world.
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