Honda Odyssey — Smart for those in the know

 By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Since the first minivan rolled off the assembly line in 1983 nothing has eclipsed its passenger and cargo-hauling utility. Its car-like driving characteristics and its ability to comfortably haul seven or eight passengers and cargo has made the American minivan the unrivaled champion of family transportation.

Yet the minivan lost favor in the first decade of the 21st Century, unfairly slapped with a mom-mobile label, replaced first by the sport utility vehicle and more recently by the so-called crossover car-based sport utilities. Minivan sales peaked at 1.37 million in 2000 and since have fallen by more than half to around 650,000 in 2009. There was a slight bounce in 2010 and the major players in the segment are expecting some growth.

The reality — no sport utility on the planet can match the minivan’s stretch-out room for two rows of passengers with decent third-row space for two or three more. And minivans have incredible entry and exit accessibility through sliding rear doors.

For most of the last decade the Honda Odyssey has maintained a “best of the best” distinction from owners and journalists alike. This tag should carryover well to the completely redesigned 2011 Odyssey, which we found smooth and quiet, very capable in handling all eventualities of family life adeptly negotiating supermarket and mall parking lots with a tight 36.7-foot turning circle.

Acceleration is as good as any minivan we’ve driven with all models getting a 3.5-liter V-6 developing 248 horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque. Odyssey is a smooth, quiet, impeccable performer when mated to the six-speed automatic, which comes with the top two trim levels. Even loaded, the Honda is no slouch on the road, capable of 7.7-second 0-to-60 runs unloaded and a quarter mile time of just over 16 seconds. In fact the 0-to-60 and quarter mile times show that the Odyssey and the newly minted 2011 Toyota Sienna have nearly identical performance.

The big news here is that Honda, through cylinder deactivation and a more aerodynamic exterior, has achieved best-in-class gas mileage that trumps the Toyota by a mile per gallon in city driving and four mpg in highway cruising. That’s certainly a big bragging point. The EPA says expect 19 city and 28 highway on regular gas — with the six-speed automatic — in a large vehicle weighing in at 4,560 pounds.

Where we take issue with Honda. While putting the new, modern six-speed automatic in the top-of-the-line Touring ($40,755) and Touring Elite ($43,250) editions, it left the old five-speed in the five lesser models starting at $27,800 and ranging up to $36,450. The five-speed cuts performance slightly and reduces gas mileage one mile per gallon. And, unfortunately, neither transmission has the manual shift mode, handy on those pesky mountain grades.

Then there’s the Odyssey design, a rather quirky design that may drive would-be buyers away before they ever set foot on a Honda lot.

Honda has been pushing the design envelope — the wrong way in our opinion — in recent years with the big-blade grille (think Acura) and with the ponderous so-called pedestrian-friendly front ends (think Accord). This time around there is nothing wrong with the front, and, in fact, we like the grille treatment with a huge Honda “H” prominently displayed. It’s the mismatched rear and side panels that have the automotive world buzzing.

The mismatch creates what Honda calls a “lightning bolt” look, but on first glance it looks like a vehicle pieced together from a salvage yard. Honda says it allows for a bigger window for third-row passengers.

At the same time, Honda kept the sliding door “gash” on the rear panel, something other manufacturers such as Chrysler and Toyota have sought to hide under the window for a more streamlined appearance. Honda says hiding the gash requires moving the door motors, which cuts into passenger shoulder room. At least the Honda designers took a bold approach making the gash large to the point of including it into the styling statement.

Styling is a matter of taste and tastes vary. When we first saw the van in pictures we were aghast, but after living with an Odyssey for two weeks, we have — perhaps inexplicably — come to grow fond of the look. Go figure. If we were in the market for a new people mover, the Odyssey design would not put us off.

But even if we had reservations, the new Odyssey is so good in the ways that really count — user friendliness, performance, quiet comfort and frugality — that we would be forced to put it at the top of our shopping list.

The new van also features a strengthened sub-frame that allows for softer suspension bushings resulting in better ride quality and an impressively quiet interior. On one of our longer test drives we shut down the very good 650-watt audio system simply to enjoy the luxury of one of the quietist interiors available in America for less than 50 grand.

Honda has insured that the Odyssey’s interior accommodations are first class. One feature new to the minivan segment is what Honda calls the “wide mode,” which allows passengers to move the two outboard second-row seats a few inches sideways. This not only offers more comfortable accommodations for bigger people, but aids in strapping in three-across child seats.

Other neat features depending on model include a 16-inch widescreen high-definition entertainment system for second and third row folks that can also accommodate two movies — or games — at the same time; a removable center console with a flip-up trash bag holder; and a “cool box” beverage cooler built into the bottom of the dashboard’s center section. Honda’s navigation system, rear backup camera and blind spot warning system are among the best in the industry; all available on our test vehicle.

Our top trim Touring Elite at $44,030 including destination brought us everything that the Odyssey has to offer. The Odyssey, which starts over $28 grand including destination, is more expensive than most of its competition, but the extra bucks bring a premium product even with its quirky design.

Base price: $28,580; as driven, $44,030
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6
Horsepower: 248 @ 5,700 rpm
Torque: 250 pound-feet @ 4,800 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3/3
Wheelbase: 118.1 inches
Length: 202.9 inches
Curb weight: 4,560 pounds
Turning circle: 36.7 feet
Towing capacity: 3,500 pounds
Luggage capacity: 38.4 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 149 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 21 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 28 mpg highway, 19 mpg city
0-60: 7.7 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Chrysler Town & Country, Toyota Sienna

The Good:
• Very fuel efficient V-6
• Quiet cabin
• User-friendly interior

The Bad:
• Higher priced than most minivans

The Ugly:
• 6-speed automatic available only on top trim levels