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First Drive: 2011 Honda Odyssey

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Minivans are great for family duty, but their appliance-like ubiquity has come to be detested by certain types of parents.

Of course, most of these people who reject simply reject minivans, and probably mutter something about how they wouldn't be caught dead in one, probably don't know that most minivans actually drive better than SUVs—even, in many cases, midsize crossover utes. The responsive-driving and cleverly packaged Honda Odyssey has always been one of the best examples; climb behind the wheel, and you're quite likely to become a minivan convert.

Honda recognizes this, and thinks it has a good chance of increasing minivan sales in going after a new crowd. With the redesigned 2011 Odyssey, Honda is for the first time going after Gen X and Gen Y shoppers who, Honda says, have grown up to be a little more family-minded than their parents. Some of these shoppers will still reject the minivan outright, but a large portion of them are "hesitators," debating between a minivan and an SUV.

So to go after those younger families, and to convince them that the Odyssey is a better choice, Honda placed more of an emphasis on styling, while improving interior comfort, refinement, and features.

While the Odyssey's space-efficient, box-on-wheels intent is unmistakable, from straight ahead and behind, the Odyssey's look is surprisingly conservative, with strong influences from Honda's cars rather than trucks. From the side, it's more interesting; the Odyssey gets a sleeker look, with a slightly more arched roofline, brightwork accenting all around, and most notably, the "lightning bolt" hump along the rear window—complemented by a sculpted (aerodynamically functional) rear fender. While the Lincoln MKT has a comparable beltline rise, the Odyssey's drops down, to give the third row more glass. In front, the small front windows, ahead of the doors, are a functional cue shared with Honda's small cars.

Inside, the changes are evolutionary at first glance. Although materials are completely new, the instrument panel hasn't really changed much in structure. Honda kept to a "cool and intuitive" theme and aimed to make the Odyssey a little easier to operate. That, officials said, meant keeping knobs and buttons large, as well as high enough.

Better mileage, new six-speed

The powertrain in the 2011 Honda Odyssey is familiar—a variation of the same 3.5-liter i-VTEC V-6, here making 247 horsepower and 250 lb-ft of torque. The slight power and torque gains come via a new two-stage intake and cold-air intake system. While all Odysseys come with the same engine, top-of-the-line Touring and Touring Elite models get a six-speed automatic and the rest of the line gets a five-speed auto. Fuel economy ratings are improved by two to four miles per gallon—to as high as 19 mpg city, 28 highway—through aerodynamic improvements, improved accessory management, and an improved Variable Cylinder Management system, also featured across the line, that will run the engine on as few as three cylinders during coasting or low-speed cruising. Honda couldn't do any better with a four-cylinder engine, an official said, so don't hold out for a smaller engine. Considering the Odyssey's 21-gallon fuel tank, it should be good for at least 500 miles of highway cruising, if your bladder can make it.

There's no breaking from the minivan mold here. Acceleration isn't quick, but it feels fast enough; with the six-speed, the Odyssey can get to 62 mph in 8.8 seconds, according to Honda.

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Comments (4)
  1. "...with the six-speed, the Odyssey can get to 60 mph in 8.8 seconds, according to Honda. That's technically a slight bit faster than the Sienna V-6."
    How is it faster if Sienna takes 7.9 seconds 0-60???
    And what happened to 1/3 of this van? That part just looks awful and there's no way to sugar coat it...

  2. JKD, I've taken out Sienna acceleration references, for lack of an official number -- or test numbers for each from the same source. Driven back to back, the Sienna did feel slightly quicker.
    I have to admit that I wasn't sure at all about the lightning-bolt cue until I saw the whole vehicle in person. The lowered beltline at the back gives it a hunkered-back look that grew on us -- and it increases visibility.

  3. The black one you've pictured looks like a hearse. The morticians are no doubt lined-up at Honda stores already.
    This thing looks like the minivan stylists were doing just fine until they got to the C pillar - and then they went insane. There are hints of the Benz R-Class there, elements of the Nissan Quest, and even a passing resemblance to the late and unlamented Chrysler Pacifica. What were they thinking? If this thing is a sales success it's proof that Honda could put their name on a pile of steaming dog poo... and people would buy it.

  4. Here's a question for the 6'6" editor. OK, the second row was fine, but how was the front passenger seat for you? In the previous models, the front passenger seat was impossible for any man about average height. The gigantic glove compartment ate up all of the knee room, so it was impossible to sit there without repeatedly banging my shins on the glove compartment. Even on a short trip, I could expect bruised shins if I wasn't careful. In addition, the leg room on the passenger side was so shallow that it was impossible to extend my legs fully. Bad enough on short trips, but on long ones torture, like riding in an airplane seat. And the problem has been getting worse, not better - each year's model seems to have a little less legroom than the previous year.
    For what it's worth, the Sienna is even worse, because the center console also intrudes into the passenger's leg compartment, resulting in bruises not only on the shins but also on the side of the left knee. The 2011 Sienna does nothing to fix the situation. Does the Odyssey?
    Why on earth do they do this anyway? Every other Honda and Toyota car, SUV and truck that I have ever sat in has better configured leg space on the passenger side than their minivans do.

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