Honda minivan hits the streets

A decade after Chrysler gave birth to the first minivan, Honda is finally getting in on the action with the official launch, later this month, of the Odyssey.Perhaps, in the spirit of its hesitancy in entering the minivan market, Honda is...

A decade after Chrysler gave birth to the first minivan, Honda is finally getting in on the action with the official launch, later this month, of the Odyssey.

Perhaps, in the spirit of its hesitancy in entering the minivan market, Honda is even reluctant to call its new creation a minivan.

Rather, it refers to the Odyssey as a ‘people mover.’

Dennis Manning, senior manager of marketing for Honda Canada, says the Odyssey has been designed as a ‘premium people mover,’ taking the driveability and convenience of a car, and marrying it with the space of a minivan.

Honda’s strategy comes from the belief that the key to success in the minivan market is to offer a product that is more car-like in its features to appeal to more sophisticated buyers.

The company also believes that strategy, and its focus on driveability, will appeal to women, who they expect will account for 80% of Odyssey drivers.

To launch the brand, Honda will spend $7 million on a mixed-media campaign beginning mid-January and running through spring.

Creative will focus on how Odyssey is designed to meet the transportation needs of families.

Features such as the minivan’s flexibility of seat and cargo arrangements will be highlighted.

Doner Schur Peppler is Honda’s Canadian ad agency.

Manning says the Odyssey will aid Honda in its battle for market share in North America not only because it enables the automaker to compete in the fast-growing minivan sector, but also because it gives current Honda customers an argument to stay with the Honda brand.

‘Prior to Odyssey, when a Honda owner needed a minivan, he had to go to our competitors,’ Manning says.

‘Odyssey will keep Honda people in the Honda family,’ he says.

Honda ranks fourth in the Canadian automotive market with about 9.1% of sales.

General Motors of Canada, Ford Motor Co. of Canada and Chrysler Canada, in that order, rank above it.

As a late entrant in the minivan market, Honda has several established brands to contend with.

40% share

Chrysler was the first entry in the category and now owns 40% of the North American market with its Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager models.

Ford is No. 2 on the strength of its new Windstar model, introduced last March as a 1995-year model; the Villager (a joint venture with Nissan and the sister minivan to the Quest), first seen in 1992, and, the Aerostar, launched in 1985.

The rest of the market is covered by gm’s Astro and Safari minivans, and various models from Nissan, Toyota and Mazda.

Honda is skipping over the entry level segment dominated by Dodge and Chrysler products at around $20,000, and going head-to-head with a slew of pricier models, including Ford’s Windstar and Villager, Nissan’s Quest, Toyota’s Previa and Mazda’s mpv.

All are models that may start around $22,000, but have median transaction prices of around $28,000 when the customer is finished adding options.

Odyssey comes fully-loaded at about $28,000 (the final price has yet to be confirmed.) Consumer choice will be limited to choice of color and seat configuration (either six or seven passengers.)

In staking out a positioning for Odyssey as a people mover, rather than a minivan, Honda has raised a few eyebrows, but it is not breaking new ground.

The Toyota Previa was also billed as a people mover when it was launched in the 1991 model year.

Car-like features

David Stone, Toyota Canada public relations manager, says the Previa recognized then that the trend in minivans favored more car-like features.

The Previa is similar to Odyssey in that it is a seven-passenger vehicle with a low step in, and, Stone says, offers a ride as comfortable as a car.

Stone says Toyota also recognizes women as the primary driver.

He says women control 75% of the purchases by buying 50% and influencing another 25%.

In attempt to be more car-like, Honda designed Odyssey on an Accord platform, and has given it four hinged doors rather than the sometimes-awkward sliding doors for the back seats most of its competitors have.

It also claims to have the lowest step-up height in the market, making it easy to get in and out of, and, because it is much lower to the ground, gives the impression of being smaller than other minivans.

Spaciousness

Inside, it has the spaciousness of other brands, with three rows of seats, a back seat that folds down into the floor, six cupholders, dual air bags and a previously unheard of feature, two glove compartments.

Odyssey is the first new brand for Honda since it introduced the Acura division and the Legend and Integra models in 1986.