The Honda Odyssey might be the best minivan on the market. It's one of the most enjoyable to drive and lives up to Honda's reputation for refinement, convenience, and great fit and finish. Its flexible seating system can accommodate up to eight passengers and it has plenty of room. In short, it's a good choice for families.
Four trim levels make it affordable to a wide group of buyers: The base LX starts just below $27,000 and includes most of the features that make family travel easier. The line-topping Touring has as many bells and whistles as a good luxury sedan and offers Acura handling and Acura pricing.
Yet all Odyssey models deliver car-like ride and handling and a comprehensive set of safety features, including electronic stability control and side curtain airbags for head protection.
Honda Odyssey is powered by a 244-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 engine with a five-speed automatic transmission, and it's a good powertrain. Even on base LX and one-step-up EX models it features Honda's efficiency-enhancing Variable valve Timing with Electronic lift Control (VTEC). EX-L and Touring upgrade to intelligent i-VTEC with Variable Cylinder Management; VCM shuts down two or three cylinders to conserver fuel when conditions allow it.
High-tech features you can see and touch include a CD player that can play MP3 or WMA files, an auxiliary audio input jack, and an available Bluetooth cell phone link and a rearview camera display integrated into the inside mirror.
The current-generation Odyssey is now in its sixth year of production, and in its third season following a 2008 freshening that brought a new look up front and some new technology inside, including refinements to the VCM system described above. Changes have been minimal since then. For 2009, Honda added some more content at the EX-L level. For 2010, the DVD entertainment system is now available on the EX as well as the EX-L and Touring. It includes a 9-inch screen an a 115-volt AC power outlet. The Odyssey has won numerous awards and critical acclaim.
The Honda Odyssey cuts a curvy profile, with a front end that looks similar to the Accord sedan. Large headlights flank its big, angular grille. The air intake in the lower front fascia departs from the Accord look by being wider, and wide-open, rather than grilled. The Odyssey's hood is sculpted with curves that lead naturally back to the windshield and emphasize the big fender flares. Honda has not hidden the sliding door channels at the base of the window but left them partially obscured by a crease that runs the length of the vehicle.
All models come with two sliding doors, manually operated on the LX and electrically operated on all other models. The power windows in each of the side doors can be opened in the same fashion as in a car. The tailgate is electrically operated in the top-of-the-line Touring. We found the power doors seemed a bit reluctant to operate at times and were less responsive to key fob commands than were the sliding doors on the Toyota Sienna.
The Odyssey boasts Honda's Advanced Compatibility Engineering (ACE) body structure. The vehicle's crush zones have been engineered to provide good protection for occupants while minimizing damage in a collision with smaller vehicles and pedestrians. Its body structure is rigid, which contributes to crisp handling and a smooth ride. A low drag coefficient helps improve fuel economy and high-speed stability.
Inside, the Odyssey is both comfortable and convenient. It feels downright luxurious when ordered with leather trim. The soft materials look good and the metallic-colored trim that runs across the center of the dash is attractive.
Up front, the driver's seat is designed to hold the driver firmly and is positioned in a car-like setting. The tilt/telescoping wheel and the various manual/power adjustments create a comfortable driving position, which is even easier in the Touring model thanks to power-adjustable pedals. The shift lever is mounted on the dashboard, and while it looks odd at first, it's easier to use than a column-mounted shifter. A handy drink tray is provided between the front seats, and it can be folded down to allow walkthrough access to the second row. There is no center console. Two glove boxes are provided, which are more awkward for storage than one big one.
The second-row bucket seats are roomy and comfortable.
The third-row seat splits 60/40 and folds easily into the well provided for it, and the headrests do not need to be removed before folding.
Cubby storage includes a useful storage area hidden under the middle of the floor, accessible from both the front and middle-row seats. Originally it was designed to house the spare tire, but Honda engineers moved the spare tire to a location in the rear. Instead of removing the round space under the floor where the spare used to reside, they've turned it into a hidden storage compartment with a rotating compartmentalized bin, like a Lazy Susan. A small panel in the floor between the two front seats lets front passengers access the bin while another panel is provided in front of the second-row seats. Front and middle-row passengers can turn the Lazy Susan and access whatever is stored inside.
Eight people can fit in the Odyssey with the available PlusOne seat that fits between the two captain's chairs in the second row. If it's not needed as a seat, it can be turned into a table or stowed in the floor in place of the Lazy Susan bin. If the PlusOne seat is not being used, the right-hand seat can be slid across to allow easier access to the third-row seats. This flexibility makes the Odyssey a versatile people hauler.
For cargo, the third-row seats fold (a fairly easy task) and the second row can be removed (not so easy) to offer 147.4 cubic feet of cargo space, more than most minivans and any SUV.
The navigation system is one of the easiest to operate using its on-screen menus and includes Zagat restaurant data. The large eight-inch monitor is positioned high on the dashboard for easy viewing. The system also responds to voice commands, and we found it responds effectively. It's capable of responding to more than 600 voice commands and is smart enough to understand different accents and find locations without any need for input other than by voice. Apart from navigation, the system can be used to operate the radio and climate controls.
The rearview camera makes parallel parking easier and also functions as a safety feature: By displaying what's behind the car on the navigation screen, it can show the driver unseen hazards such as a small child possibly preventing a tragic accident. We find rearview cameras very useful in crowded shopping center parking lots where people are walking behind the car after we've shifted into Reverse.
The DVD entertainment system features a large nine-inch widescreen display that folds out of the ceiling for viewing by second-row passengers. The wireless headsets turn on and off automatically as the ear pads are rotated.
Honda's goal with Odyssey was producing a minivan with the handling of a European sedan, and it hasn't missed the mark by much. Underway, the Odyssey delivers everything you could ask for in a minivan: a smooth ride, responsive handling, stability at speed and a smooth, powerful engine.
The Odyssey belies its size on the road and handles like a sedan. It's not as dynamic as a European sports sedan, by any means, but it handles better than a traditional SUV. It's best compared to any of the newer crossover SUVs. We found it pleasant around town or for long drives.
The Odyssey offered a perfectly pleasant ride during a test drive along country roads in Alabama. It was neither too firm nor too soft. Granted, there is some road vibration. And there is some slack in the steering on-center: You can turn the steering wheel a few degrees in either direction before the vehicle starts to move. It was no worse than in a Chrysler Town & Country, however, and it's a common trait of many large cars and most SUVs. All in all, the Honda Odyssey is a good vehicle for a long-distance drive.
A few laps around a race track showed the Odyssey to be stable at high speeds. We were surprised how much we could chuck it into corners. We could drive hard enough into a sharp corner to feel the tires slip without any drama. While the body leaned in corners, it wasn't as bad as most minivans. In fact, an Odyssey lapping in front of us looked remarkably stable for a tall vehicle.
Parking is easy. The turning radius is among the tightest of any minivan, making it an easy to make U-turns and maneuver in parking lots. The park-assist system, with beeping tones that warn the driver of other bumpers front and rear, helps considerably when parallel parking.
Acceleration is better than that of most other minivans. Honda claims 0 to 60 mph in 7.3 seconds, which is very quick indeed. Yet even when it has all 244 horsepower pulsing through its front wheels, the Odyssey is almost devoid of torque steer (a tug on the steering wheel that accompanies hard acceleration in front-wheel-drive cars), an impressive feat.
Honda's 3.5-liter V6 engine is smooth, powerful, clean and fuel efficient. The i-VTEC V6 (intelligent Variable Timing and Electronic Control) that comes in the EX-L and Touring models gets an EPA-rated 17/25 mpg City/Highway. That's slightly better than the fuel economy of the standard VTEC V6 that comes on the LX and EX: 16/23 mpg. The advantage the i-VTEC engine has is its VCM system, which deactivates two or three of the six cylinders whenever the Odyssey is cruising at a steady speed. We were never able to discern when the engine was running on three cylinders as there is no obvious stutter or change in engine note, although a green dash light illuminates to tell you the system is working.
Both versions of the engine now generate 244 horsepower. The base version rates 240 pound-feet of torque at 5000 rpm, while the i-VTEC version makes 245 pound-feet at 4900. We were unable to tell much difference between the two engines. In short, the Honda VTEC V6 is a great engine, and the i-VTEC version is just a little better.
The brakes work well. Every Odyssey comes with anti-lock brakes (ABS) and Vehicle Stability Assist, Honda's electronic stability control system. This VSA system works in conjunction with the drive-by-wire accelerator and ABS to modulate the brakes while managing the throttle and ignition. If the vehicle starts to lose grip on a tight turn on a slippery surface, the system automatically slows the engine and gently applies brakes to help keep the vehicle from skidding out of control. In a test on a soaking skid pad we found the system works well. It only works in emergency handling situations so it's not distracting during normal spirited driving. It can be turned off, though we recommend against doing so.
We had no complaints about noise while driving any of the Odyssey models. The Touring model and the EX-L benefit from extra high-tech noise-abatement features. When the i-VTEC engine with VCM is running on three cylinders there is a natural imbalance, which can produce drumming sounds and vibrations. To counteract this, the engine is mounted on special active control engine mounts that electronically adjust themselves to counteract engine vibrations. Further booming sounds are reduced by an active noise control system that automatically sends an out-of-phase sound through the speaker system to cancel out engine noises; it also works when the engine is idling.
Honda Odyssey has it all: great road manners, easy passenger and cargo flexibility, a full array of safety equipment and better fuel economy than most SUVs. The Touring model in particular will appeal to buyers seeking the versatility of a minivan with the accommodations and features of a luxury sedan.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent John Rettie filed this report after his test drive of various models in Alabama; Kirk Bell contributed to this report from Chicago after his test of the i-VTEC engine.