Preview Drive: 2011 Honda Odyssey

Redesigned minivan excels most notably in handling, offering broad choice of trim levels

by James M. Flammang

2011 Honda Odyssey

LA JOLLA, California - If Honda has anything to say about it, minivans just might be ready for a revival in the marketplace. Rather than downplaying or shunning that ever-so-practical body style, Honda has given its long-lived Odyssey a major makeover for 2011.

When the first Odyssey appeared back in 1995, on an Accord sedan platform, it had a four-cylinder engine and four swing-out doors. For 1999, a new global light truck platform served as the Odyssey's foundation, with a V-6 engine under the hood and a third-row "magic seat." Variable Cylinder Management and three-row side curtain airbags marked the 2005-10 generation. Honda has been manufacturing Odysseys in Alabama for nine years. The current model was designed in California and engineered in Ohio.

Honda promotes the "modern new styling" of the 2011 Odyssey, along with its "athletic performance" and versatile interior. Developers "gave it ultimate utility," said chief engineer Art St. Cyr, as well as airplane-inspired "chic new style." Honda calls it "100-meter design," which means an informed observer should be able to tell what it is from afar.

A little wider and longer this time around, the Odyssey features a "lightning-bolt beltline." Seven trim levels are available, as before; but now, the list is topped by a new Touring Elite model.

Principal engineer for chassis design Stephen Frey stresses the Odyssey's "class-leading dynamic performance." Developers sought to focus on "ands," not "ors," he said.

Horsepower from the V-6 engine is up by 4 (to 248); torque has increased by 5 pound-feet. Overall, the Odyssey is 47 kilograms (103 pounds) lighter for 2011.

Fuel-economy estimates depend upon the model, partially - but not entirely - due to the difference in automatic transmissions: five-speed for LX, EX and EX-L models, versus six-speed for Touring editions. LX/EX/EX-L Odysseys get an estimate of 18 mpg in city driving and 27 mpg on the highway. A Touring Elite gets 1 mpg additional for each category of driving.

Overall body rigidity has increased by 22 percent, and the coefficient of drag (a measure of aerodynamic efficiency) is 5.5 percent better. Roof strength is 2.2 times stronger than before, and side extrusion is 3.7 times the prior figure. Tires use low-rolling-resistance compound.

Interiors promise six-passenger adult comfort, with space for eight family members when needed, plus five LATCH positions for child seats. Honda claims best-in-class legroom in all three rows. Six airbags and active head restraints are standard.

The multi-function center seat is 4 inches wider, and can serve as an armrest and fold-down tray. Second-row seats can move 5.5 inches fore/aft, and have a new "wide-mode" position that's more than 3 inches wider. Thirsty riders might note that an Odyssey contains 11 cupholders and four beverage holders. Up front, there's a handy flip-up trash bag ring. A "Cool Box" for cold storage sits in the console. Pulling air off the climate system's evaporator, it has an on/off switch. Odyssey is claimed to be the only minivan with this feature.

Five basic trim levels are offered: value-priced EX, base-model LX, volume-leader EX-L (in three versions), premium Touring, and top-of-the-line Touring Elite. Touring models get a six-speed automatic, 18-inch alloy wheels, acoustic windshield, and parking sensors. Stepping up to the Touring Elite adds, among other features, a Blind Spot Sensor and a wide-screen (16.2-inch) rear display that can let back-seat occupants see two separate screens side-by-side, or one ultra-wide image. Honda's three-mode rearview camera, if installed, can provide a normal, top down, or wide-view image.

No longer are minivans aimed at baby boomers, according to chief engineer St. Cyr, who's officially the large project leader. Generation X and Y parents are the target market: young folks "putting their family even more in the focus of their lives." There are a "lot more stay-at-home moms now," St. Cyr said, and Honda aims the Odyssey at the "family-first, modern and active family."

Roadgoing talents are the main attraction, along with versatility

Even though acceleration in an Odyssey EX cannot rank as stunning, there's definitely no shortage of power under any reasonable conditions, delivered smoothly and confidently. Responsive performance isn't the Odyssey's principal trait, though. That would be handling - a strong point in the prior generation as well.

Steering feels just as appealing as claimed: heavy enough to produce a high confidence level, but light enough for comfortable control. Honda's claim that its Odyssey is in the "sweet spot" for steering feel both on the highway and for parking, "directly between minivan and sporty SUV," would be tough to refute. Roadholding is hard to beat. In fact, ordinary rival minivans cannot come close. An Odyssey can whip through every curve handily, at speeds that could almost make one forget this is a minivan.

Odysseys don't ride as glassy-smooth as some competitive minivans. Some body motion may be transmitted to occupants; but there's not a hint of harshness on any pavement. On smooth surfaces, the ride is quite enticing, and moderate imperfections aren't troubling at all.

Acceleration feels more vigorous in a Touring model, yielding only the slightest snarl when pushed. Otherwise, the high-level Odyssey is exceptionally quiet overall.

Seats are effectively bolstered; well-cushioned, and helpfully supportive - just fine for the long haul. The dashboard-mounted gearshift is right at hand. Abundant glass means visibility is not an issue. Control buttons are bountiful, but most are logically marked.

John Mendel, executive vice-president of auto sales, calls the fourth-generation Odyssey the "benchmark in its class," made for "discerning buyers who must have the best for their families." Furthermore, Mendel believes that "the future of the minivan is bright."

On sale since late September, the Odyssey starts at $28,580 (including destination charge). A Touring Elite stickers for $44,030. Honda intends to produce 110,000 units per year.

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Text and photos by James M. Flammang