Honda hopes clever seats that slide apart will sell new Odyssey minivan

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USA Today

In an age when automakers pile on tech innovations, Honda is about to see whether it can attract buyers to its new minivan with a fresh take on a feature as basic as a seat.

But these are no ordinary seats. With the pull of a lever, the second-row seats in the 2018 Honda Odyssey slide apart sideways, making them far more flexible than just being able to move forward or back. Parents can slide them apart in order to separate fighting youngsters or to make it easier to access the third row. Honda believes Magic Slide seats give it something special in the minivan segment.

It's an innovation that's almost a counterpoint to an age when cars are dominated by technology, like being able to automatically stop themselves before they crash or having infotainment systems that can be operated with the wave of a hand. With its seat feature, Honda is going after parents who aren't interested in glitz. Rather, they just want to quell outbreaks among their quarreling children.

"When kids are happy, parents are happy," Susie Rossick, assistant vice president of marketing for American Honda, said in a statement.

An inventive second-row seat is the latest in a series of advances in minivans. While many consumers have shunned minivans in recent years as frumpy compared to the more aggressive styling of SUVs, there has been no shortage of creativity in trying to keep the boxy vehicles relevant.

Minivans now include loudspeaker systems to talk to kids in the third row. Second-row seats can stow out of sight below the floor in some models. Honda, for its part, installed a built-in vacuum cleaner in the rear of the last generation of its minivan to help parents suck up the Cheerios, M&Ms and straw wrappers that messy young passengers leave behind.

Sliding seats — not the minivan's technology improvements — take center stage in the first TV ads for the new Odyssey. Called "Keep the Peace," the ads feature battling monsters, much like Godzilla ripping apart Tokyo while battling a reptilian rival, that can only be stopped by separating them. The monsters turn out to be a pair of kids fighting over a toy. A 60-second version is being shown before family-friendly movies in theaters.

The print ads carry the same theme, showing items that are dangerous when in close proximity, such as a balloon and a cactus. In an interview, Rossick and Dan Tiet, the senior product planner, say that even though the Odyssey has a number of innovations, the advertising crew focused on the Magic Slide seats as the single improvement most likely to capture the attention of potential buyers.

Odyssey could use a dose of that attention. Honda sold 37,010 through the first five months of the year, down 29.8% from the same period a year ago,  Autodata reports, though sales often sag before a new version of a vehicle is introduced. The outgoing version of the Odyssey has been outsold so far this year by Toyota Sienna, Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Pacifica.

Minivans typically are bought by families who need space for people and cargo. The Odyssey, depending on how it is configured, seats either seven or eight. It, like other minivans, are typically bought when the focus of a couple's attention is kids, pets and other members of the family.

"We cater to the customer who embraces this life stage," Tiet says.

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