First Drive: 2011 Honda Odyssey

September 9, 2010
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.

Not all is perfect about the powertrain. Transmission behavior, as we've found in other Honda products, can be obstinate at partial throttle. If you're puttering around town, rolling through a stop sign causes a moment of hesitation as the slushbox debates about which gear to pick; the same thing happens in the higher gears when you're getting back on the gas out of a sweeping corner in Drive. There's no way to command individual gears, just the confusing combination of an 'L' mode as well as an O/D-off button on the selector. Of course, drive with your right foot mashed to the floor and the shifts are decisive, quick, and smooth.

Surprising poise

Although the Odyssey is much more closely related to the Pilot SUV, it really handles a lot like a V-6 Accord. We don't know how they do it, but the engineers manage to set this minivan corner with remarkable poise. The suspension, isolated with separate front and rear subframes, really works, omitting the sorts of queasy secondary motions that plague most of the SUV field, along with some minivans, while quelling road shocks. Part of the success could be weight control—Honda managed to actually cut about a hundred pounds from the loaded Odyssey Touring (or 50 pounds off the base model) versus 2010.

Steering remains excellent. The Odyssey has a variable-displacement power-steering pump that works splendidly, providing more power assist at parking speeds and less at higher speeds, with more effort and even a little feedback in tight twisties. Our only complaint was that Honda made it a little lighter above parking-lot speeds this time around.

We noticed very little difference in cornering feel between an EX test vehicle and a top-of-the-line Touring Elite, though the slightly harder-compound, taller sidewall tires that came with the EX were far more vocal. On a twisty road, we were left wishing for more lateral support from the front seats, along with more mid-back support.

A quiet living room on wheels

Active noise cancellation and active engine mounts, two of Honda's trump-card technologies that only made it to top trims of past Odysseys with cylinder deactivation, is standard equipment in all trims of this version. These systems help quell any of that powertrain roughness, as well as some road noise, electronically in conjunction with traditional noise abatement to keep the cabin quiet. And it's luxury-car quiet inside.

Although the basic footprint hasn't changed, the new Odyssey is a little bit wider and lower than the model it replaces, making it very slightly roomier inside. It's still a huge van inside—really, a living room on wheels.

And it's absolutely loaded with thoughtful touches. Three rows of seating are now even better for six adults, thanks to a new second-row configuration that allows the outboard seats to actually tilt and slide outward—changing the width of the second row depending on whether there are two adults, three, or a combination of child seats there (there are now five sets of LATCH connectors, for child seats). The third row gains an inch of legroom and in some trims an armrest, while its folding mechanism gets even better. Now, with a hand-held strap, you can fold either section of the seat into the floor with a single motion. Honda didn't bother with a power-folding third row arrangement, as all the ones that it tried took longer to deploy and were unnecessarily complicated. Honda's system is simple, elegant, and easy enough to do even with an arm of groceries. The spare tire has been relocated from beside the third row to under the floor in the middle space between the first and second rows. This not only helps keep a lower center of mass but also allows a wider third-row bench.

The second row is still a little more confining, for headroom particularly. While this 6'-6" editor fit well enough to be good for quick trips in the third row, I would have been happy all day in the second row.

2011 Honda Odyssey Touring

2011 Honda Odyssey Touring

2011 Honda Odyssey Touring

2011 Honda Odyssey Touring

One of the most frequent requests from Honda Odyssey owners was for a better front center console arrangement. Honda designed one this time that's completely removable. With that front-row console removed, you can now fit two 10-foot-long 2x4 studs into the Odyssey., and of course with the second row out of the way you can fit 4x8 plywood. Also among the new features are a media drawer with damped opening, and a cooler compartment below good for several beverage containers. There's also a nifty a trash-bag ring that allows plastic shopping bags to be locked down and used as a trash bag.

The new Odyssey includes Honda's Vehicle Stability Assist (stability control) system and anti-lock brakes, plus driver and front passenger side airbags and three-row side-curtain bags. In front, there are active headrests. Honda expects another Top Safety Pick showing, as well as top results in both major crash tests.

Prices for the 2011 Odyssey are up modestly across the board for 2011, with the base LX starting at $28,580 (destination included) and the top-of-the-line Touring Elite totaling $44,030.

The outdated DVD-based nav system has thankfully been replaced with one that's hard-drive based; it includes a built-in Zagat guide, a huge points-of-interest database, high-contrast VGA display, and free FM-based traffic information. Plus you can load a personal picture to use as wallpaper with the system. The new navigation system now include fuzzy-logic voice recognition, which Honda says is much improved (we'll let you know when we have one for a longer test), while a new song-by-voice feature with the high-end system allows you to call out a system verbally. It still doesn't appear to be as flexible as some rival systems, but the demonstration was impressive. Also, that top sound system will import album artwork from your iPod for display on the screen.

Where's the Bluetooth?

But a major letdown? The lack of Bluetooth in all but the top trim models, in a vehicle that will be frequented by frenzied soccer moms.

Other top tech features are represented, but in typical Honda fashion you have to go all the way up the model line to get the good stuff; Touring Elite models now come with a blind-spot system, as well as auto-leveling HID headlamps.

Honda has also opted to do away with the ubiquitous 6-CD changer entirely, replacing it with 2 GB of flash storage in EX and EX-L models and 15 GB of hard-drive space in navigation-equipped models. Honda says that this holds the contents of 18 or 175 CDs, respectively. Another standout is the new 16.2-inch wide-screen system provides entertainment and can even split the screen in half for two separate inputs. According to Honda, it's the first OEM system—from any brand, luxury included—to offer an HDMI input.

Will Honda attract those young, Gen Y families? Just getting inside is all it takes.

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