More of Everything
The Honda Odyssey is all new for 2011, and a leap forward in terms of features and options. With seating for up to eight, this van is aimed at families that may not be the most style-conscious shoppers. Honda admits "owners told us how much they loved their vans with one exception: they didn't like the fact that they couldn't tell the Odyssey apart from other minivans in a large parking lot."
So Honda has made a clear effort to make the 2011 Odyssey less boxy. The result is somewhat successful, as the new Odyssey does look a little sleeker than, say, a Dodge Grand Caravan.
Comfort and Joy
In most minivans, the third row seats are usually the least comfortable, with generally little legroom. In this respect, Honda has gone above and beyond. The third row isn't cramped at all. There's plenty of space throughout, and the first and second rows are remarkably comfortable too.
Accessing that third row is easy: a fold-and-slide feature moves the second-row seats out of the way. The second row is more than three inches wider than the previous Odyssey and all three chairs can accommodate a child safety seat.
Passenger protection includes stability control, traction control, head curtain airbags for all three rows and a sensor that deploys those airbags if a rollover is likely.
This van was surely designed by people with kids. There's a cooled storage box up front, 11 cup holders, four plastic bottle holders and a collapsible ring mounted to the rear of the center console that converts a supermarket plastic bag into a secure garbage bag.
Geeks will want the range-topping Touring Elite trim. It offers satellite navigation with traffic; 650-watt, 12-speaker surround-sound audio system; 16.2-inch video screen for the rear seats; HDMI input to play videos from a portable HD source; two auxiliary input jacks; blind spot sensors and self-leveling HID headlights. That's in addition to 18-inch aluminum wheels, ambient interior lighting, front fog lights, third-row sunshades, leather, USB port, XM radio, Bluetooth and a power liftgate.
The popular EXL also has a rear parking camera that uses the dash-mounted information display as its monitor. The EXL with navigation or the Touring has Honda's new Multi View Camera that allows the driver to switch between three modes: Normal, Wide and Top Down. "Wide" makes visible a greater area around the vehicle; "Top Down" points toward the ground and is excellent for lining up a trailer hitch or backing into a tight parking space.
A longer, wider and lower stance helps the Odyssey look a bit more like a sleek wagon than an upright van. The Z trim accent running along the side is a nice effort, but it's the more masculine front end and metallic grille that will turn heads. The pulled-back headlights and larger tail lights give a look that's more in keeping with the overall style of other Honda family members.
Road Trip Essentials
The Odyssey now packs extra horsepower. The 3.5-liter V6 from the 2010 van remains, but now it has 248 hp; four more than before. Previously, only the Touring version came with Variable Cylinder Management (VCM), which shuts down part of the engine under light loads to save fuel. This is now standard on even the base model, helping to achieve a fuel economy estimate of 19 miles per gallon city and 28 highway (better than offerings from Dodge, Kia and Toyota). Acceleration is not amazing, but adequate.
The Touring Elite gets a new six-speed automatic transmission. Unfortunately, all other versions retain the 2010 model's five-speed. These lesser models get one mile per gallon less, so not a big deal. Drive both, and it's obvious the five-speed is less sophisticated. Acceleration feels lazier and shift points are not as well timed. Toyota puts a six-speed in all versions of its new Sienna and that, combined with a more powerful engine (a 266-hp, 3.5-liter V6), explains why it feels quicker.
One thing Honda has always got right with the Odyssey is its driving dynamics. Granted, no one buys a minivan to tackle challenging back roads, but this one corners well, without sacrificing a smooth, comfortable ride. There is a precision and athleticism that instills confidence. Like a sporty sedan, there's enough feedback to stay in control, but not so much that the drive becomes tedious.
Those who use the third row of seats frequently will appreciate the fact that Honda gave the 2011 Odyssey an even quieter interior. The goal was to allow passengers to converse between all three rows at normal speaking levels. It works, even on the freeway at 70 mph.
Chrysler and Dodge sell the most vans, thanks to the Town and Country and Grand Caravan twins, although many of those are sold to rental agencies rather than individuals. They look distinctly American and have attractive features, but the execution is poor. The Honda feels constructed to a higher standard and with better materials.
From a practical standpoint, Honda and Toyota offer the best vans in terms of quality, features and flat-out luxury. Both brands also enjoy an excellent reputation for safety features and stellar resale values. The choice will likely come down to your personal preference more than anything else. The Sienna rides softer and has lighter steering. Whether you like that better than the Odyssey's firmer but more connected driving dynamics, is really up to you.
Those especially focused on style may like the Ford Flex crossover, which features a funky boxy design, can come with plenty of luxury features and is almost a useful as a minivan.
Odyssey buyers opting for the top trim may experience sticker shock. Although luxurious enough to wear the Acura badge, the Touring Elite is nearly $45,000. The base model starts at a more modest $28,580, about $3,000 more than an equivalent Toyota Sienna ? which has a four-cylinder engine. Every Odyssey comes with a V6.
If the 2011 Odyssey seems expensive, it's largely because Honda endowed the various trim levels with most of the equipment buyers would choose anyway. The EX is one step up from base, but includes power sliding side doors, 17-inch wheels and triple-zone climate control. At $31,730, it's not cheap, but represents significant value.
Honda predicts most will choose the EXL, priced just over $35,000 and with features like a power liftgate, leather interior, plus an eight-inch dash-mounted screen that displays audio and climate settings, and doubles as the monitor for the standard rear-view camera.
This is an excellent family conveyance, long on standard features and capable of being equipped to luxurious levels. There's just one thing that's not quite right: getting the more fuel-efficient and sophisticated six-speed transmission means buying the most expensive version.