The 2011 Honda Odyssey has been thoroughly redesigned everywhere you can plainly see and re-engineered nearly everywhere you can't see. It's not an all-new model but clearly marks the next generation of one of America's favorite vans. These multipurpose vehicles aren't minivans anymore.
The Odyssey is all about function and making the business that is family life easier. It will carry two families of four and coolers and tents to supply them. It can tow a small trailer or a couple of personal watercraft. It can carry 4×8-foot materiel flat on the floor, and it can carry 10-foot long objects like 2x4s or lighting tracks inside. It is loaded with conveniences to simplify things and can be loaded with distractions to quell intra-family disturbances.
For most uses, the Odyssey makes a more logical, more compelling argument than a truck-based SUV and many full-size crossovers. It weighs less, is usually less expensive, gets better fuel economy, offers more passenger and cargo room, and greater flexibility in how the space is configured. Unless you need genuine off-road 4WD ability or tow a large trailer the Odyssey will serve better.
The 2011 Odyssey comes with a 248-hp V6 engine that leads the class in fuel economy. A 5-speed automatic transmission is standard, but Touring models get a 6-speed automatic worth a good portion of the price premium: Because of the 6-speed, the heaviest Odysseys are also the quickest and easiest on gas. Comfort and poise on the road are first rate, and we tried it empty and with six size large people on board. Six airbags including three-row side curtains, and electronic stability control are standard.
The new 2011 Odyssey's primary competition is the recently redesigned Toyota Sienna. Sienna offers a choice of four or six-cylinder engines, sports and all-wheel drive models, and optional active cruise control/collision mitigation braking, but Sienna does not offer eight seats on the top-line model nor the fuel economy of the Odyssey. Chrysler's vans and the VW Routan based on them are due for a redesign and are not fully competitive with Odyssey or Sienna top offerings. And buyers more concerned with luxury and fuel economy on a higher budget may consider the Mercedes-Benz R-Class.
Note we refer to the Odyssey and its class as vans. What were originally known as minivans have grown considerably and those shopping for a truly compact van should look at the very good three-row Mazda5 or Kia Rondo.
The 2011 Honda Odyssey is longer and two inches wider than the previous generation but half an inch lower, so while the aerodynamics are said to be better by 5.5 percent, the net improvement based on the wider front is 3 percent. Better aerodynamics positively affect both fuel economy and noise levels, and since vans don't do the high speeds of sports cars they don't need the added stability of wings and deep front spoilers.
Van dimensions and a good deal of styling is dictated by the box-like architecture, so the Odyssey is plus or minus within two inches of its competitors in every measure and Honda has added a new element with a drop in the lower window line behind the sliding doors. They call it the lightning bolt look and, while it has nowhere near that shock value, it does break up the monotony and improves the view out from the third row.
The door handles are moved closer together and paired in a mild recess, loosely reminding one of the fixtures on a Rolls-Royce with rear-hinged rear doors. New for 2011, the power sliding doors can be opened with the brakes on, without having to shift to Park first, which better matches the way we live (though we recommend shifting into Park). As is often the case on vans the trim piece below the third-row window and above the sliding door track may not exactly match the color on the fender below it over time, and darker colors hide that track better than lighter colors.
Up front, a new grille and lighting for 2011 appear to be a cross between Honda's Insight and Civic and Toyota's Sienna. Here again, van shapes and function conspire to limit daring, as does the somewhat mundane mission of most vans. The Odyssey's shape is not unpleasant by any means, it just comes across as nondescript rather than bold.
At the rear the roofline echoes that of sister-brand Acura's MDX or Mercedes' R-Class, much like a tent pulled taut over a stake. Taillights use clear-lens signals with amber bulbs for some visual pop without the expense of LED lamps. A spoiler atop the hatch is standard on all, and the power tailgate (EX-L and above) has pinch-protection in both directions and can now be opened with the remote without first unlocking the van. Roof rails are a dealer accessory.
Touring models have a few distinguishing features, including small panels under the sides and revised mirrors to smooth airflow, and larger-diameter wheels. They also use a laminated windshield to minimize wind noise.
Honda has set up the 2011 Odyssey to carry seven (LX) to eight people (everything else) in total or six adults more comfortably than any SUV right up to Cadillac's long-wheelbase Escalade. Only a Sprinter van, bus or motorhome offers notably more interior space.
Odyssey uses cloth upholstery on lower models and leather on the others, with carpeting throughout and soft-touch panels above the muddy foot zone. Even the base LX doesn't feel like a commercial vehicle, while a Touring model is easily as luxurious as the nicest Accord. A slew of items will keep first-time buyers discovering useful bins, thoughtful design and more why didn't I think of that than it's about time moments. If you've never owned a van you may wonder how you ever managed without one.
The basic dash and control layout is conventional and the styling conservative; the Nike-like swoosh of woodgrain on a fancy Sienna's interior is more distinct and it has dual gloveboxes, but the controls aren't quite as logical or familiar and the glovebox lid seems flimsy next to the Odyssey.
Typical gauges are easily viewed through the tilt/telescoping steering column, and any of four display screens are top center shaded by a hood; we had no issues with polarized sunglasses and any of the displays. Center vents frame all the climate controls, including a sync button to match all the zones; the rear-seat climate controls are overhead where it's nearly impossible to spill anything on them. Audio/entertainment input is below that, and the lowest controls (still an easy reach for driver or passenger) are those for the navigation and car systems. Operation of all controls is reasonably intuitive, and if buttons annoy you, simply use the voice-recognition.
Every Odyssey has a power-adjustable driver's seat and with the adjustable column adjustable pedals aren't needed. Some taller drivers may find the shift lever housing an uncomfortable place to rest their right leg. The view outward is very good with moderate size pillars and low-profile headrests. The drop-down video screens take away some rear vision but not all of it; eight passengers will be more of an issue because the center shoulder belts anchor in the roof on opposite sides. Top-line models have parking sensors, multi-view rear camera and blind-spot warning, but we had no issues with blind spots.
Second-row seats have been redesigned and 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.
Third-row seats set a new standard in legroom no minivan or SUV can match, with as much space as the front seats in Cadillac's Escalade or Odyssey's first two rows. It's three-wide for kids and two for adults, with headrests that will keep the tallest occupants protected. The wrap-over roof corners do make the pillars feel closer than on the Sienna. As before, the split-folding rear seat can be folded into the floor with one tug.
Gadgets and flexibility make vans, and the Odyssey does not disappoint. Though they vary by model, you can get a six-pack sized coolbox under the dash, purse and grocery hooks, fifteen beverage holders, four coat hooks, a trash bag holder behind the console, reading lights throughout, and smaller bins and cubbies scattered about. Indeed, these are great vehicles for six adults for a night out on the town.
On leather-equipped Odysseys you can get a conventional rear-seat entertainment system. The Touring Elite's entertainment system uses a 16.2-inch widescreen that shows side-by-side images or one panorama and has 650 watts driving 12 speakers in 5.1 surround to insure if anyone asks Are we there yet? you will not hear them.
The lazy Susan underfloor storage area of earlier Odysseys, which tended to store things long-term like a teenager's bedroom, now carries the spare tire. If you get a flat the flat tire will not fit in that space but is secured behind (or on top of a folded seat) the third row.
For big stuff the cargo area holds about 38.5 cubic feet of gear, just seven less than the biggest SUV. With the third-row folded it grows to 93 cubic feet and behind the first row 148.5 cubic feet, both more than a big utility. A 4×8-foot sheet of building materials will go flat on the floor and with the front console removed, 10-foot long 2x4s will go inside. The floors are closer to station wagon height than SUV, easing heavy-object loading but if it's really heavy fold the rear seat or you'll be lifting it out of the cargo well.
The Odyssey is frequently listed among the best in vans or given the benchmark label, and while vans are primarily about function the road manners also play a part. We find the Odyssey the most refined of its kind.
Although it is bigger, the 2011 Odyssey is also a bit lighter than its predecessor and has a very minor increase in power from the 3.5-liter V6 with active cylinder management that runs on 3, 4 or 6 cylinders as needed. It's competitive in any school day grand prix, smooth and quite efficient.
Performance is close to the strongest 4-liter offered in Chrysler (and VW Routan) vans but gas mileage from the Honda is better, even though the Chryslers have a 6-speed automatic and most Odysseys are 5-speeds. Toyota's Sienna offers a four-cylinder version that gets the same EPA Combined rating as Odyssey's V6; the Sienna V6 rates 18/24 mpg versus the Odyssey's 18/27 mpg. The Sienna V6 has a power advantage on the Odyssey and feels livelier but isn't as refined or economical.
Odyssey Touring models come with a 6-speed automatic transmission to match other vans. With four gears to get going rather than three in the LX through EX-L models, the heaviest Touring models (more than 200 pounds more than an LX) accelerate the best, don't require as many downshifts on varying conditions and roads, and bump the EPA City rating to 19 mpg (same as the four-cylinder Sienna); the Highway rating is also up one to 28 mpg, but credit also goes to the Touring aerodynamic upgrades.
No Odyssey offers a sport mode for the transmission and we found one is rarely needed or desired. A compact shifter is adjacent the driver's right hand but it limits driver control of the transmission. If you press the button on the side it drops down two gears from top gear, where on long grades (up or down) you may want only one gear down. If you select L it downshifts gears as it slows on its programmed schedule; you don't always know when that will happen. This sometimes brings an unwelcome shove forward, puts more weight on the front wheels in the middle of a corner, or may make the front tires slide a bit on slippery descents like snowy driveways.
Steering feel is light on center and weights up nicely with cornering effort. It's direct without being too quick to respond, gives the driver a feel for what the front tires are doing, and executes a U-turn in a commendable 36.7 feet. Brakes have equally good feel and transmit no jerkiness to passengers, and seem more than adequate; a couple of downhill charges in 100-degree weather didn't faze them at all. That said, we'd want to have brakes on any trailer more than 750 pounds, less if the van is fully loaded.
Van drivers rarely consider them sporty but there is a reason driving schools use minivans rather than SUVs for teaching laps on racetracks: more of the weight is closer to the ground in a van than in an SUV, and that makes the vans inherently more stable. Most vans handle better than anyone expects, and the Odyssey is no exception.
No van is tuned for sports-car handling but that didn't stop us from trying sports car roads and parking-lot autocross courses where the Odyssey handles like a heavy, front-wheel drive sedan: stable, predictable, secure and all those other adjectives new parents love. The electronic stability system is very well tuned and not invasive; on the one occasion we managed to reach the limit it gently and quietly put things back on the ideal course.
Odyssey rides much like a big car too, soaking up bumps admirably whether we had two occupants or six adults spread across three rows. In back-to-back drives, the Sienna felt like it was stiffer but had a lot more rubber in suspension attachment points, leaving the driver feeling a bit less connected and the passengers moving about a bit more. It's not a substantial difference, but if there's a more refined van than the Odyssey Touring we don't know about it.
The Odyssey does not offer all-wheel drive like some minivans but we consider that a non-issue in any but mountainous areas with lots of snow. We'd rather spend a percentage of the price premium on a set of dedicated winter tires.
Vibration and noise play a big part in refinement, and fatigue for occupants, so all Odysseys come with active noise cancellation and active engine mounts to minimize both. The Odyssey Touring uses a laminated windshield to quell noise, so we found it interesting that with the radio off at interstate speeds front seat passengers heard wind noise from the area around the wiper blades. In the middle row any noise comes from the leading edge of the sliding door, and in the third row it comes from the rear tires. We found it is easy to carry on a conversation at normal levels and any radio, video, or chatter will drown out the wind or road noise.
The new Odyssey should have no difficulty maintaining its reputation with owners and critics alike. It combines all the seating and cargo flexibility needed in a van with a variety of features to suit different tastes, functions and budgets. Finally, it delivers best-in-class driving experience and fuel economy.
G.R. Whale filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com from Los Angeles.