Somewhere in the wilds of Montana, at the side of a road that wriggles off into breathtaking scenery in a series of serpentine, freshly paved twists, a Honda Odyssey sits on the shoulder with its sliding doors open. There is a great deal of scrubbing going on inside.
Such is the somewhat prosaic fate of the minivan, its cupholders a repository for unnameable sticky substances, while beneath its seats lies a graveyard for the Lego mini-figurine and desiccated French fry. It is a tool, nothing more; where the sports car or luxury cruiser are the stuff of dreams, especially out here among cambered curves and mountainous vistas, the minivan is a large box for people who don't particularly care about driving. It is automotive limbo – a place to be until the kids grow up and leave home.
In the pantheon of people-movers, Honda's Odyssey has always rated well. Chrysler invented the segment and sells the sales leader Dodge Caravan in staggering volumes; Toyota's Sienna is a three-row beige bean bag with a unnecessarily powerful engine; and the Nissan Quest, having suffered from poor reliability ratings in the past, is now as packed with features as a big-box electronic retailer – and sized and styled along the same lines.
The Odyssey is the “sporty” option, a descriptor as faintly ridiculous as suggesting lifeboats were left off the Titanic to make it a White Star Superleggera. Faced with a series of corners, the big Honda steers well, but rolls enough at speed to induce sea-sickness in little sailors.
Its pilot is well-advised to take a reef in the sails, to let the Honda S2000 sports car ahead flicker off towards the horizon and instead glance out the side windows from time to time. Montana is Big Sky country, and provides truly awe-inspiring sights. It's a place for the pleasure cruise, not heeled-over sailing close to the wind.
While the popular crossover segment promises family camping trips in far-flung wilderness, few vehicles can compete with the take-it-all prowess of a minivan. The seven-passenger Hyundai Santa Fe may seem a paragon of smart packaging, but its cargo area offers one-third the capacity of the Odyssey's cavernous hold.
On a camping trip with youngsters, that means simply everything comes along: twin coolers, jogging stroller, massive tent, enough plates and cutlery to serve a six-course meal to unexpected regal drop-ins. There's so much space, it all needs to be well battened-down to prevent the cargo shifting abaft.
Passengers are treated to excellent outward visibility, something missing in the rear of many modern vehicles. Ascending the aptly named Road to the Sun that runs right through Glacier National Park, a three-dimensional movie plays out before goggling eyes: mirror-pond lakes, craggy peaks, roll-shouldered grizzlies and capering mountain goats.
A careful driver helms the craft with gentle inputs, doling out power judiciously, never letting the tone of the Odyssey's 3.5-litre V6 come above an inconspicuous thrum. In a passing manoeuvre, though, the Honda moves forward purposefully with smooth mid-throttle delivery – with none of the lengthy pauses typical of its cohort, who tend to hesitate while the boilers are stoked.
The voyagers tumble out together at the trailhead, returning some hours later, sore of feet, thirsty and dusty, with new experiences and digital photos to be sorted through and catalogued. The Odyssey rocks gently as they clamber aboard, and then sets off again for the next unknown shore.
As any theoretical physicist will tell you, time is a relative thing, and as any parent of young children will tell you, the early years are rapids – blink and you'll miss them. Young minds and bodies grow, and one day, the small band of sailors disbands, the erstwhile deck-hands set off on their own ships, the officers watching them from shore as they go.
Here, as the river slows and broadens, a series of sun-kissed moments and rainy everyday travel, a time of small triumphs and tiny disasters, an odyssey of years.
In the end, all things merge into one. And a minivan runs through it.
Vital Stats: 2014 Honda Odyssey Touring
- Base price: $29,655, inclusive of $830 destination charge
- As tested: $41,880
- EPA fuel economy: 19mpg city, 29mpg highway
- Powertrain: 3.5-litre 248-horsepower V6 engine, six-speed automatic transmission
- Standard equipment: rearview camera, Bluetooth links with SMS text message and streaming audio, 60/10 split folding rear seat
- Major options: 18in alloy wheels, leather seating surfaces, power tailgate and side-doors, satellite navigation