WOLFEBORO, N.H. -- When it came time to update its popular Odyssey minivan for 2014, Honda opted not to make a clean sweep: it just tidied up around the edges.
Exterior changes to the fourth-generation van are so subtle they practically fall into the "if you say so" category, and the body sides retain a distinctive but polarizing character line that Honda calls the "lightning bolt."
While Honda has added some convenience features, it devoted much of its attention to improved crash safety. And, in keeping with the times, it has raised the fuel efficiency a bit on some versions.
But the big attention-grabber is an addition that Honda claims to be an industry first, and one it is heavily promoting in its advertising and marketing of the new Odyssey: a built-in vacuum cleaner intended to appeal to parents of small children, pet owners and the terminally sloppy.
Called the HondaVac, it was developed in conjunction with the Shop-Vac Corporation and is tucked into the left bulkhead of the rear cargo area. Its hose stretches -- barely -- to the farthest reaches of the interior.
I tested the top-of-the-line EX-L Touring Elite, which for $45,280 included the HondaVac and just about everything else short of the kitchen sink. The base LX model starts at $29,655.
My brother, visiting from Ohio, used the integrated vacuum to easily clean up dog hair. I stretched the hose to the front footwells to suck up some gravel tracked in from the driveway.
Alhough Honda did not completely re-engineer the Odyssey, it made significant structural changes to enhance front-end crash protection. The Odyssey uses the second generation of Honda's A.C.E. body structure (for Advanced Compatibility Engineering), which includes high-strength steel.
Honda credits this reinforced structure for helping most of its new models get the top grade in the new, more stringent small-overlap crash test that the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety began conducting last year. The new Odyssey scored the highest rating, Good; because it also received Good ratings in the institute's other crash tests, it received the highest overall designation, Top Safety Pick+.
No other minivans have yet been subjected to the small-offset test.
In another effort to improve passenger safety, Honda changed the design of the side curtain air bags so that they extend farther forward.
(The 2014 model was not included in a recall last week of 318,000 Odysseys from the 2003-4 model years, as well as 2003 Acura MDXs, for air bags that could deploy without warning.)
All models now have a rearview camera, and trim levels starting with the midlevel EX-L get forward-collision and lane-departure warning systems. These provide visual and audible alerts if sensors detect an impending crash or if the vehicle strays from its lane.
Honda has also included blind-spot monitors. The Touring Elite that I tested flashes warnings on the housing of the side-view mirrors if a car is detected in the blind spots. Other trim levels get the Honda LaneWatch that first appeared on the Accord: it incorporates a tiny camera on the passenger-side mirror that displays a view down the van's right side on the center dashboard screen.
The engine is essentially the same as last year's, a 3.5-liter V-6 that makes 248 horsepower. But all versions now come with a 6-speed automatic transmission. Previously, all but the top two trim lines had 5 speeds.
The 2014 Odyssey is rated 19 m.p.g. in the city and 28 on the highway, up 1 m.p.g. in either driving mode over the old 5-speed. The Odyssey continues to have a mileage advantage over its main competitors, the Toyota Sienna (rated 18/25) and the Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan (17/25).
My best real-world mileage in the 2014 Odyssey was 26.7 m.p.g. on a 214-mile round trip with just one passenger. My worst was 21 m.p.g. on a 180-mile round-trip from northern New Hampshire to this town on Lake Winnipesaukee with six people on board.
Over all, the Odyssey works well as a family room on wheels. It is spacious and seats up to eight. Even adults as tall at 6-foot-4 can sit comfortably in the third row without making passengers in the second-row seats -- which slide forward and back for legroom adjustments -- suffer.
The Odyssey is reasonably quiet on most road surfaces for such a big, boxy vehicle, and the ride is comfortable.
My one gripe continues to be the steering. Heading into a turn is a good time for steering to have some weight and feel. But that's precisely when the Odyssey's steering feel seems to get lighter and gives up communicating anything to the driver.
The navigation system had some quirks. If you decide to deviate from the mapped route, it does not give up and recalculate as quickly as some others do. And twice it told us that we had arrived several miles before our true destinations, one of which was a major hotel.
In recent years, although the Odyssey has not been the No. 1 minivan in J. D. Power's Initial Quality or Vehicle Dependability studies, it has come in second to various competitors. According to ALG, a company that estimates the future value of leased vehicles, the Odyssey is likely to retain more value after three years than any other minivan.
Even though it has some minor flaws and the vacuum could be considered gimmicky, Honda is doing something right. Although the Sienna has a more powerful engine -- and an all-wheel-drive option -- and the Grand Caravan is less expensive, the Odyssey has been outselling its competition this year.
With families continuing their exodus to crossovers from vans -- LMC Automotive says the minivan share of the vehicle market has slipped to 3.4 percent this year, from 8.5 percent in 1995 -- Honda is hoping a gee-whiz gimmick like the vacuum will generate some new customers.autonews
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.