The Honda Odyssey is about function and making family life easier. It can carry a family of eight, or half a high-school soccer team, with all their coolers, balls, tents, shoes, whatever. It can tow a small trailer with a motorcycle or watercraft. It can carry 4x8 plywood flat on the floor, with 10-foot-long boards can be stacked on them, extending between the front seats when the convenient removable console is taken out. Best of all, it's loaded with conveniences designed to simplify life.
The Honda Odyssey was thoroughly redesigned and re-engineered for the 2011 model year, marking a new generation of one of America's favorite multi-purpose vehicles. For 2012, the only change, besides a new color, is that the 2012 Honda Odyssey EX gets some of the fancy electronic equipment previously reserved for the Odyssey EX-L.
Though still called a minivan, there is nothing mini about the modern minivan. The Honda Odyssey, Nissan Quest, Toyota Sienna, and Chrysler Town & Country are big passenger vehicles. If you need a true mini-van, you might consider a Mazda5. For many uses, and especially for carrying people, a Honda Odyssey or one of its competitors makes more sense than a full-size sport-utility or crossover. A minivan handles better, is roomier, and is more fuel-efficient than an SUV does.
The Odyssey is less expensive than a luxury SUV, gets better fuel economy, and has more cargo room, with greater flexibility in how the space is configured. Unless you need four-wheel drive or you tow a big car or boat, the Odyssey should work. Odyssey's third-row seats set a new standard in legroom, with as much space as the front seats in a Cadillac Escalade or even the Odyssey itself.
The Honda V6 engine leads the class in fuel economy and delivers 248 horsepower. A 5-speed automatic transmission is standard, but Touring models get a 6-speed automatic that delivers better acceleration and better fuel mileage. Honda is a leader in engine development and the Odyssey's V6 is smooth.
Comfort and poise are excellent, even with six large people on board. Six airbags including three-row side curtains are standard. The Odyssey leads its class in safety ratings, with 5 Stars from NHTSA and Top Safety Pick from IIHS. Honda boasts that it's the only eight-passenger minivan to ace both tests.
Odyssey's main competition is the Toyota Sienna, which offers more choices with a four-cylinder engine, a sport model and all-wheel drive available but not eight seats. The re-engineered Chrysler Town & Country is an eight-seat rival.
Honda Odyssey LX ($28,225); EX ($31.475); EX-L ($34,875); EX-L rear entertainment ($36,475); EX-L navi ($36,875); Touring ($41,180); Touring Elite ($43,675)
The Honda Odyssey got longer and wider in its 2011 revision, resulting in good aerodynamics. It's still plus or minus a couple inches of its competitors in every measure. The grille and headlamps appear to be a cross between the Honda Insight and Civic, and Toyota Sienna. Odyssey's looks are somewhat daring, but boxy minivan architecture, function and mission all conspire to limit styling. Touring models have aero rocker panels and mirrors, and larger wheels.
One distinctive visual feature is the drop at the bottom of the window line, behind the sliding doors. They call it the lightning-bolt look, a bit of an exaggeration, but it does break up the monotony and improves the view from the third row.
The front and rear door handles are paired in a mild recess, almost reminiscent of a Rolls-Royce with rear-hinged rear doors. The power sliding doors can be opened without having to shift to Park first, sometimes useful but not a good idea to do so, especially with kids.
The roofline looks something like a tent pulled taut over a stake, similar to that of the Acura MDX, or even the Mercedes R-Class. Taillights use clear lens signals with amber bulbs for visual pop, without the expense of LED lamps. A spoiler atop the hatch is standard, and the power tailgate (EX-L and above) has pinch protection. Roof rails are a dealer accessory.
The Odyssey LX seats seven, and all other models seat eight. We found it roomier and more comfortable than any SUV including a long-wheelbase Cadillac Escalade. Only a Sprinter van offers more interior space, until you get to buses and motor homes.
With all three rows of seats up, the cargo area is 38.5 cubic feet, just 7 less than the biggest SUV. With the third-row folded it grows to 93 cubic feet, and with the second row down there's a breathtaking 148.5 cubic feet. A 4x8-foot sheet of plywood will go flat on the floor, and 10-foot-long 2x4s will even fit, between the front seats when the center console is removed. The floors are lower than they are on SUVs, so loading is easy. The Lazy Susan-like cargo area under the floor carries a spacesaver spare tire.
High-quality cloth upholstery is used in the LX and EX, leather in the other three models, with carpeting and soft-touch panels above the muddy foot zone. The LX doesn't feel cheap like a commercial vehicle, while the Touring model is as luxurious as the nicest Accord. The Odyssey is full of useful bins and good ideas. If you've never owned a van, the Odyssey makes you wonder how you managed without one.
The dashboard, center stack and controls are conventional, and the styling is conservative. The Toyota's swooshy woodgrain interior is fancier (and it has dual gloveboxes), but the controls aren't as simple or logical as they are in the Odyssey, and that's a big thing.
The major gauges are easy to see through the steering wheel, which can be tilted and telescoped. Four small displays at top center are shaded by a hood, and we could see them even wearing polarized sunglasses. Center vents frame the climate controls, including a sync button to match all the zones, while audio and navigation controls are lower. Operation of all controls is reasonably intuitive, and if you don't like buttons there's voice command.
The rear climate controls are overhead, where only a kid could spill a milkshake on them.
A power driver's seat is standard. Adjustable pedals are unavailable. Tall drivers might find their right leg resting sharply against the center tunnel.
The Odyssey chassis uses active noise cancellation and active engine mounts to minimize vibration. A laminated windshield reduces wind noise, in the Touring. In the middle row, any noise comes from the sliding door, and in the third row it comes from the rear tires. We found it is easy to carry on a normal conversation at freeway speeds.
The view out the windshield from the rear seats is very good, with tidy pillars and front headrests. Of course, if the passengers are watching a movie using the available entertainment system, the drop-down screens take away visibility both directions, but that's how it goes, it's worth it. Having six passengers in back will be more of an issue, because the center shoulder belts anchor in the roof on opposite sides. Upper models have parking sensors, multi-view rear camera and blind-spot warning, but in the rearview mirror, the driver can see through the right rear anyhow, unlike some SUVs with thick pillars.
There's a whopping 40.9 inches of legroom in the second row. The seats can be moved apart so that three child seats will fit, or you can have two child seats and still be able to move the third section for back-row access. The middle section slides forward for an easier reach for front-row occupants, or creates a large center armrest, and all can be removed for cargo. One lever will fold, tilt, slide or remove the seats. We love it all.
Third-row seats set a new standard in legroom, with as much space as the front seats in a Cadillac Escalade: 42.4 spectacular inches. It's three-wide for kids and two for adults, with good headrests. Like the second seat, the split-folding wayback seat can be folded into the floor with one tug.
If gadgets and details make the minivan, the Odyssey does not disappoint. Besides that removable center console, you can get a six-pack coolbox under the dash, grocery hooks, 15 beverage holders, four coat hooks, a trash bag holder for passengers, and bins, cubbies and reading lights throughout. Indeed, the Odyssey is a great vehicle for six adults out on the town.
On Odysseys with leather, for $1600 you can get the rear-seat entertainment system with a 16-inch widescreen that shows side-by-side images or one panorama, using 650 watts driving 12 speakers in 5.1 surround sound. So in the unlikely event anyone asks, Are we there yet? you won't hear them.
It's easy to see why the Honda Odyssey is called a benchmark by reviewers. When it comes to road manners, it's the most refined of its kind. When it grew in 2011, it also got tighter.
The 3.5-liter V6 is smooth, quiet, and efficient. It has active cylinder management that runs on 3, 4 or 6 cylinders as needed, improving fuel efficiency.
Honda Odyssey is rated 18/27 City/Highway miles per gallon by the Environmental Protection Agency. That's better than the Toyota Sienna and Nissan Quest, each EPA-rated at 19/24 mpg. The Sienna V6 has a bit more power than the Odyssey does, but it isn't as refined or as economical when cruising on the highway.
The Odyssey is about equal in power to the 4.0-liter V6 in the Chrysler Town & Country, but gets better fuel mileage, even with its 5-speed automatic versus the Chrysler's 6-speed automatic. Town & Country gets an EPA-estimated 17/25 mpg. With an EPA-rated 21/28 mpg, the Mazda 5 is more fuel-efficient than the big Odyssey around town, but the Odyssey nearly matches the much smaller Mazda 5 on the Highway fuel economy rating. Kia Sedona is rated 18/25 mpg. Regular gasoline is recommended for the Honda Odyssey and the other minivans.
Odyssey Touring models come with an excellent 6-speed automatic transmission. The Touring models weighs an additional 200 pounds, but thanks to its 6-speed it accelerates better and climbs hills more smoothly than do the LX and EX models. The 6-speed transmission and its aero kit helps raise the EPA fuel economy rating of the Honda Odyssey Touring to 19/28 mpg City/Highway. The transmission lacks a sport mode, but we don't think it's needed.
Vans generally handle better than people expect. They are often more stable than SUVs because they're lower. Among minivans, the Odyssey is one of the best handling. The steering is light on center, and weights up nicely with cornering effort. It's direct without being quick, gives good feel for the front tires, and pulls a U-turn in 36.7 feet, way tight for a long-wheelbase minivan. The brakes also have good feel, unfazed by our downhill charges. No van is tuned for sports-car handling, but that didn't stop us from trying sports car roads and parking-lot autocross courses. That tells you something about how it would behave in an emergency maneuver.
We found the Odyssey corners like a heavy, front-wheel-drive sedan: stable, predictable and secure. The electronic stability control is not invasive; on the one occasion we managed to reach the limit it gently and quietly put things back on the ideal course.
The Odyssey rides like a big sedan, too, admirably soaking up bumps. The Toyota Sienna is stiffer but compared to the Odyssey feels rubbery, leaving the driver slightly less connected and passengers rolling more. Among the minivans, the Honda is the driver's car.
The Odyssey doesn't offer all-wheel drive, so it's not a van for places with lots of snow. The Toyota Sienna is available with AWD.
The Honda Odyssey seats eight, has a vast cargo capacity, passenger legroom, and is chock full of storage places and good ideas for convenience. Its crash ratings are the best for any minivan. The Honda V6 is smooth and efficient, with excellent fuel economy. The 5-speed automatic works well, but the 6-speed offers better performance and fuel economy. The handling and ride are sweet. The Odyssey can be equipped for full-tilt style and fun, with a rear-seat entertainment system.
G.R. Whale and Sam Moses contributed to this NewCarTestDrive.com report.