There is a notion that the Japanese automakers could do no wrong in the 1990s, but anyone who thinks that clearly has forgotten the 1995-99 Honda Odyssey. A minivan seems like a pretty difficult thing to screw up, but Honda managed it—and Isuzu also paid the price.
Cast your mind back to the early 1990s: The Dodge Caravan, Plymouth Voyager and Chrysler Town & Country were the hottest family cars on the market. Despite the fact that they were really just tall K-cars, competitors (especially the Japanese) struggled to come up with a minivan that was even remotely competitive. The road was strewn with not-quite-good-enough pretenders, including the Chevrolet Astro, Ford Aerostar, Toyota Previa, and Nissan Quest.
Honda was known for doing things its own way—The Honda Way—so it came up with a minivan of its own. Based on the hot-selling Accord, the 1995 Odyssey had four forward-hinged doors and a low-slung, carlike stance. Honda figured it knew its customers better than anyone, and the company was sure this was the van that would appeal to Civic and Accord owners.
Except, as we all know with the benefit of hindsight, it didn’t.
A Rare Screw-up From Honda
It was clear from the first test drives that Honda had made a rare misstep. The Odyssey did indeed deliver a carlike driving experience that was similar, though not identical, to that of the Accord. It even managed to deliver passable acceleration from the Accord’s 140-hp, 2.2-liter inline-four, which gave it a fuel-economy advantage over V-6 vans that weren’t any quicker.
But minivan buyers didn’t want a vehicle that was carlike, they wanted something that was bus-like, with lots of seats, lots of cupholders, and lots of luggage space. Here, the Honda was just barely two for three. The nifty third-row “magic seat” folded down into a well in the floor, but that meant the spare tire had to live inside the cabin, eating up valuable cargo space. And the swing-out rear doors exacerbated a problem other minivans’ sliding doors solved: your over-exuberant, sugar-fueled kids, eager to get into Disneyland, slamming their doors into the cars parked next to you.
In a March 1995 comparison test against the Nissan Quest, which was then a small-ish but more conventional minivan, our colleagues at MotorTrend praised the Honda’s carlike driving position and tried to be as nice as possible about its too-small cabin: “We’ll assume that you wouldn’t be considering either of these two if absolute interior volume is a top priority,” we wrote. “If you need a lot of room, there are better choices and better values.” (Man, did they know how to not ruffle feathers, or what?)
An Odyssey of Buyer Indifference
Turns out that absolute interior volume was most buyers’ top priority, and first-generation Honda Odyssey sales were nine kinds of lousy: 25,000 sales for 1995 and 27,000 for ’96. In 1994, Chrysler sold twice as many minivans per month. And if that wasn’t bad enough, just as its first year was picking up speed, the Odyssey ran head-on into Chrysler’s greatly-improved 1996 Dodge Caravan, Plymouth Voyager, and Chrysler Town & Country, with their rounded styling and first-ever available dual sliding doors. Toyota’s first passable minivan, the Sienna, arrived for the ’97 model year. The Odyssey didn’t stand a chance, and sales dived to 20K per year for ’97 and ’98.
Now, any other lousy-car story would end with this epitaph: Honda built a crappy product and didn’t realize it until the market rejected it. They hit the drawing board and, four years later, came up with something truly better in the second-gen ’99 Odyssey, which cast a mold that Honda still uses today.
But the Odyssey story has a strange twist: In 1996, Isuzu started selling it as the Oasis.
Honda and Isuzu: A Match Made in Sales Hell
The Honda-Isuzu hookup has to be one of the most bizarre rebadging deals in automotive history, and by the time the Oasis skulked into Isuzu showrooms for the 1996 model year, things were already going badly. Isuzu was a significant SUV player in the late 1980s and ’90s with the Trooper duking it out with the Mitsubishi Montero and Ford Explorer for early dibs. (Isuzu’s hilarious Joe Isuzu commercials were a big help.) Honda didn’t have an SUV of its own, so it arranged to rebadge the Isuzu Rodeo as the 1994 Honda Passport.
Here’s the problem: Honda was known for its build quality, and the Indiana-assembled Rodeo wasn’t. The Passport put a massive ding in Honda’s quality stats for the four years it wore a Honda badge, and just before Honda dropped it, Isuzu got one last laugh: The second-gen ’98 Rodeo/Passport had severe frame-rusting problems, and in 2010 Honda wound up having to repair or buy back 150,000 Passports. The experience was so bad that Honda mothballed the Passport moniker for twenty years.
Meanwhile, right about the time the Odyssey was failing to attract buyers, Honda started rebadging the Isuzu Trooper as the 1996 Acura SLX—just in time for Consumer Reports to give it a “Not Acceptable” rating due to a purported tendency to roll over. The inevitable lawsuits dragged on for the better part of a decade and a half, but for Acura, the damage was done. It pulled the SLX from showrooms in ’99, two years before Acura’s first homegrown SUV, the MDX, was ready.
So even though it got a minivan buyers didn’t want, it still seems that Isuzu got the better end of the deal.
Buyers Didn’t Want the Isuzu Oasis, Either
Turns out putting an Isuzu badge on the Odyssey did nothing to create desire. Isuzu sold barely 3,000 Oasises per year. For reasons no one has ever been able to adequately explain, these Isuzus became inordinately popular as taxicabs in New York City.
Maybe if there had been a second-gen Oasis, Isuzu would still be with us today. But we don’t live in that alternate universe, and Chrysler still rules the minivan roost with its about-to-be-discontinued Dodge Caravan outselling all other one-boxes by a significant margin (thank you, rent-a-car companies), but at least Honda Odyssey sales lead the Chrysler Pacifica (if not by much) as well as the Toyota Sienna and Kia Sedona.
Still, it’s hard to believe that 25 years ago, Honda and the Odyssey got it so, so, so wrong.