First Drive: 2011 Honda Odyssey minivan

Consumer Reports News: September 09, 2010 04:39 PM

I drove to Honda's introduction ride-and-drive event yesterday for the 2011 Odyssey minivan with a combination of anticipation and dread. With the current Odyssey at the top of our minivan Ratings, you wonder if they made a good thing better—or if they messed it up.

But there was another part to this. I just bought a 2010 Odyssey for my household. Over $5,000 off sticker and strong resale, even for our less-than-concours 2005 Odyssey, helped push the purchase. (Read: " Should you buy an all-new car or a proven, carry-over car?") Plus, I knew that the last year of a body style means the bugs are usually worked out. But in true Honda fashion, details on the redesign were sketchy —until this event. Would driving the new van make me regret not waiting?

2011-Honda-Odyssey-rear
The new Odyssey is longer, wider, and lower. The width changed the most, increased by a whopping three inches. Immediately apparent is the aggressive-for-a-minivan styling. Honda says the (no pun intended) striking "lightning-bolt" beltline will help you spot which van is yours from "100 meters" away. While it sure will stand out in the day care parking lot at first, it probably will eventually blend in once Honda moves a good chunk of the approximately 110,000 units they expect to sell each year. The styling isn't helped by a very obvious sliding door track seam and the black-painted mirrors (claimed to help them blend into the greenhouse). It all hangs together better in darker colors. More important than styling, the body structure is claimed to be considerably stronger, with projected top marks from both IIHS and the new NHTSA crash-test rating system.

For 2011, all Odysseys get a 3.5-liter V6 with a cylinder shut-off system that cuts fuel flow to two or three of the six cylinders as load dictates. Adding this system to lower trim lines (which previously lacked it), along with tweaks to tire rolling resistance and engine efficiency, considerably improved fuel economy to 18 mpg city, 27 mpg highway. (That's four mpg highway better than the previous lower-trim-line vans.)  Another aid for better fuel economy: losing 100 pounds, despite more content.

The mechanical difference between the trim lines is now the transmission. Most 2011 Odysseys have the same five-speed automatic as in the last van. But the top Touring and Touring Elite trim lines feature the six-speed automatic first seen in the Acura MDX. You'd think that would help fuel economy, and indeed these top trim levels get the best EPA estimated numbers—19 mpg city and 28 mpg highway. But Honda claims that low-resistance tires and aero tweaks on these models are the actual cause for that difference; the extra gear helps more with acceleration and drivability. Either way, the Odyssey's powertrain remains smooth and willing, with minor improvements in horsepower and torque.

I drove a 2011 Odyssey EX-L, the volume seller. (My colleague, Gabe Shenhar, drove a Touring Elite.) The Odyssey remains the only game in town if you want a full-sized minivan that handles with agility. Steering effort has been reduced to address what Honda says was a common customer complaint with the 2005-2010 van. But in our brief drive, we found the steering to be too light at sub-highway speeds.

One of our main complaints with the Odyssey has long been elevated road noise. That has been notably improved, but the van still doesn't seem to quite match the quiet cabin found in other three-row family haulers like the Ford Flex or GM's Traverse/Acadia/Enclave.

2011-Honda-Odyssey-dash
Inside, regrouped controls better cluster all of the radio and climate controls together, though climate controls are a bit of a reach. EX-L and higher models have a large, colorful center dashboard screen that also serves as a backup camera. Dashboard materials are more purposeful than luxurious. The formerly-touch-screen navigation now uses a controller knob and includes free lifetime traffic information.

Honda traditionally seems to like to cluster options with getting leather, which starts at the $35,230 (with destination) EX-L model. Some highly desirable minivan features—a power liftgate, factory backup camera,  Bluetooth, and wide-screen rear seat entertainment system—require buying at least the EX-L trim level. (Toyota lets you get these features with lower-level, less-expensive cloth-lined models.) Oddly, while the old van required you to get rear entertainment to get the navigation system, you can't get both unless you buy a Touring for thousands more than the EX-L.

Minivan innovation often focuses on the second-row seat. Chrysler has their fold-in-the-floor Stow 'n' Go second row. Toyota's Sienna has a second row that slides fore-and-aft over a generous range, aiding flexibility. (Chrysler's center picnic table and Toyota's mini-ottoman lounge chairs are less successful innovations.) The Odyssey is no exception. Most versions seat eight, with the center second-row "PlusOne Seat" being much wider and more comfortable. A "wide mode" feature allows you to pull the outboard seats toward the doors so you can fit wide car seats three abreast, facilitated by LATCH anchors in each second-row seating location. And the third row has more leg room. Other unique features include a hoop for trash bags and a cooled beverage bin.

Minor Odyssey interior improvements and changes abound. The key now has integrated buttons for the side doors—no separate fob needed. Switches for the sliding side doors and seat heaters are more intuitively located. The ambient temperature readout isn't buried in the odometer display, and a fuel economy readout is finally standard. A removable deep center console takes the place of the old tray table between the front seats. (Sadly, the in-floor storage compartment with its swiveling "Lazy Susan," a personal fave, is now where the spare tire resides.) Roof rack rails, found on most previous Odysseys, are a dealer-installed option.

Upper level models offer even more electronic features. You can control music in your iPod or the van's hard disk by voice. Blind spot monitoring and HID headlights are standard on the top Touring Elite model, as is a super-powerful stereo and high definition video hook-ups.

Despite all the changes, the Odyssey still feels like, well, an Odyssey. That makes me feel better about buying my 2010, despite the give-and-take of changes to the new one. But the (much) bigger question is how those changes will affect the Odyssey's test score, which now is at the top of the minivan heap. We'll find out when we buy an Odyssey very shortly after its September 30 on-sale date.

Tom Mutchler

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