2011 Honda Odyssey Review - First Drive

Honda wants you to love the Odyssey for its body, but its best feature has to be its brains

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2011 Honda Odyssey Review - First Drive
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All new for 2011 the fourth-generation Honda Odyssey is the first to be designed, engineered and built in America. More importantly, the team that’s been hard at work reengineering the class-leading family hauler is made up of men and women who have owned numerous past Odysseys, using them in daily family life, giving the team a unique perspective of exactly what is needed on this new car. And the results are impressive.

FAST FACTS

1. Fuel economy is up and easily leads the segment with 18/27-mpg (city/hwy) for most models and 19/28-mpg for top-trim Touring models.

2. A new Wide Mode seating arrangement allows the outside sections of the 2nd row bench to slide out to make room for three child seats side-by-side or two child seats next to each other with access to the third row.

3. A new Touring Elite trim includes the Ultra-Wide Rear Entertainment System with a 16.2-inch display and 12-speaker 650-watt surround sound system.

4. Pricing starts at $27,800 and tops out at $43,250 with the volume EXL model priced from $34,450.

While “all-new” and sporting a somewhat unconventional design, there’s a lot about the 2011 Odyssey that’s familiar. Most importantly, the engine and chassis are carryovers, hinting that while Honda is optimistic about growth in the minivan segment, they aren’t betting on it.

Instead, Honda decided to focus much of its engineering talent on improving and perfecting the functionality of the Odyssey rather than reengineer it; and that’s smart thinking as there’s no reason to knock either the chassis or the engine. Quite the contrary.

BEST-IN-CLASS FUEL ECONOMY

Thanks to modifications to the engine, use of Variable Cylinder Management (VCM), a lighter overall curb weight and a sleek aerodynamic body, Honda wears the fuel economy crown in the segment. The new rating is an impressive 18-mpg city and 27-mpg highway, which bests the Toyota Sienna’s 18/24-mpg rating for the V6 and is even better than the 4-cylinder Sienna’s 19/24-mpg rating. And Honda even offers a six-speed automatic transmission on top trim Touring models which then get 19/28-mpg – family sedan numbers.

It’s also nice to know that with the improved fuel economy, performance hasn’t been sacrificed. Miniscule increases in engine power put the new totals at 248-hp and 250 ft-lbs of torque and when combined with a reduced curb weight of 103 lbs., the Odyssey delivers best-in-class acceleration. Sure you might not be lining up at a stoplight with the Odyssey, but this improvement will come in handy when you’ve got a full load.

As for the chassis, changes were made to improve stiffness, although the bigger adjustment is that Honda widened the suspension components to grow the Odyssey. In total, the new van is roughly 2-inches wider, while also being almost an inch longer and roughly half an inch lower. As a result, it appears smaller and sportier.

It also looks stranger than in the past thanks to the lightning bolt design along the side of the car and the pronounced track for the sliding door. While less than pleasing to the eye, it does allow for a much larger third-row window, meaning those in the final row don’t have to feel relegated to a dark cavern.

2011: A SPACIOUS ODYSSEY

That third-row area is also more likely to be used than ever, boasting 1.5-inches more legroom than even the first row. Plus there’s six more inches back there than in the Sienna. Even with the second row all the way back, an adult male can sit comfortably with an inch or two of clearance. And if that’s not enough comfort for you, the 3rd row seats even recline.

The van’s added width also makes for some big functionality improvements with a total of three more inches in the second row. Thanks to this, Honda’s engineers designed a new innovative “Wide-Mode” seat arrangement for the minivan segment that allows the outboard second row bench parts to slide out. As a result, adults can now sit comfortably shoulder-to-shoulder, while a wider middle portion makes that seat more comfortable.

But the bigger advantage has to do with child seats. Thanks to these laterally sliding bench segments, the Odyssey is the only minivan that can accommodate three child seats in the second row – all of which come with their own LATCH hooks (in EX and up trim levels). This innovation also means you can put two child seats side-by-side, leaving one of the outboard seats free, so additional passengers can access the third row. In other minivans, you’re forced to put two child seats on the outside sections, making the third row impossible to access if you’ve got a 2nd row bench.

In the third row, Honda offers two LATCH locations, for a total of five. And while we’re on the topic of safety, it’s worth mentioning that the Odyssey gets 6 airbags. Other safety features include items like stability control and tire pressure monitors, while Honda also decided to equip 2011 Odysseys with larger brakes that offer best-in-class stopping distance. Honda has even installed a brake override system for 2011 where the car will stop if both the brakes and gas are pressed completely.

But before we move on, there’s one more important seating arrangement feature to point out. That middle seat in the second row can also move forward by 5.5-inches, which allows for excellent access if you need to pop a soother in your infant’s mouth at a stop light, or if your curious toddler just wants to be more involved.

Official cargo stats rate that Odyssey at 38.4 cubic feet behind the third row, 93.1 cu.-ft. behind the second row and a total of 148.5 cu.-ft. total.

HONDA REALLY DID THINK OF EVERYTHING

With all those seats full, you’re likely to find a few thirsty individuals onboard, which is why the Odyssey has 11 cup holders and four bottle holders. It even has a new cool box located at the bottom of the dash that can hold either four 20 oz drinks or six 12 oz drinks. (Perfect for tailgating too, we see)!

Other drink-oriented features include a space on the top of the middle console that’s coated in a grippy rubber and is actually the perfect size to hold a four-slot drink tray.

And with passengers consuming plenty inside the Odyssey, there’s bound to be lots of waste and so Honda engineers even designed a ring that flips up from the back of the middle console where you can clip on a garbage bag.

Some other small but important upgrades include 3rd row seats that now fold with less effort thanks to a one-step pull-chord, plus those seatbacks feature bag hangers that are at the perfect height to keep a bag taught, so your groceries don’t slide out and all around the compartment.

We do have one gripe about the tailgate, however, as those nearing the six-foot mark will find it doesn’t open high enough, meaning you’re likely to hit your head. A Honda engineer told us this was done so it can still open inside a garage, however, from Honda we’d expect something more innovative like the two-stage setup found on the Mazda5.

Finally, we have to point out the slide-out tray on the lower portion that’s located next to two 12V outlets and includes cut-outs for wires, so you can charge your Blackberry or iPod while they’re safety stowed.

And speaking of electronics, the Odyssey can come as a virtual home theater on wheels thanks to an Ultra-Wide Rear Entertainment System with a 16.2-inch display, 12-speaker 650-watt surround sound system on the Touring Elite model. The rear screen can play two movies at once in a split-screen or as one large screen. Along with playing DVDs, there are also RCA jacks and even a segment-first HDMI port. We had a chance to experience the setup with Avatar playing and it’s easy to get caught up in the amazing theater experience.

TRIMS AND PRICING

For 2011 most Odyssey models have increased by roughly $1,000 with the base LX priced at $27,800.  EX models add 17-inch wheels, five LATCH positions and power slide doors for $30,950 while the EX-L trim tosses in a power tailgate, heated leather seats, Bluetooth, XM Radio and a backup camera for $34,450. Both a navigation (with a lifetime subscription to Real Time FM Traffic and a 3-view backup camera) as well as a rear entertainment system (with 9-inch screen) can be included, although if you’re going to go all-out the $40,775 Touring model adds the 6-speed transmission (with improved fuel economy), 18-inch wheels, parking sensors and a memory seat. And for 2011 a new Touring Elite model tops out the range for $43,250 with that incredible home theater system.

BEHIND THE WHEEL

On the road there’s no denying the Odyssey is a Honda and to prove this point Honda even laid out a novelty sized autocross course for us at Qualcomm stadium in San Diego. You might not think handling dynamics and responsive steering matter on a minivan, but they may some day help you avoid an accident.

The normal city streets, curving coastal highways and tighter sections of road in-land, the seating position feels a bit lower, while the added width of the van doesn’t make it at all cumbersome. It’s easily the most car-like of the bunch, aided by typically direct Honda steering. In fact, Honda went through the trouble of measuring the steering response (from the moment of input, to the moment the wheels turned), proving that the Odyssey has the least amount of delay.

The ride itself is quiet and smooth with Honda claiming adjustments to the suspension setup and a reduction of 1.5 dB of road noise entering the cabin.

THE COMPETITION

It’s hard to compare the Odyssey to its Dodge/Chrysler counterparts as the price difference between the two models almost puts them in separate classes. This is compounded by the fact that 70 percent of Odyssey sales are made up for the more expensive EX-L and Touring trims.

Instead, the Odyssey competes directly with its Japanese rival, the Toyota Sienna. And while the Honda is more responsive and less boaty in the corners, not all families will prefer that.

As for its ‘100 Meter Design’ (meant to be distinguishable from 100 meters away), the Odyssey isn’t all that captivating to look at and is sure to blend in with the previous three generations of the van six months after it goes on sale. And the cockpit, while functional, well appointed and easy to use, just looks busy compared to the Toyota, which is simpler and feels significantly more luxurious.

THE VERDICT

In those respects, Honda has fallen short on its goal of building the Odyssey as a vehicle that has more appeal to the right side of the brain and, therefore, a greater chance of winning over a group of potential customers Honda refers to as “hesitators.”

It’s obvious that the Odyssey fulfills the needs of modern families and the fourth generation has improved on an already incredible package with enough innovations to fill an inch-thick three-ring binder (no joke, Honda actually gave us one).

But has it succeeded in being a practical vehicle that’s attractive for more superficial reasons? In terms of improved driving dynamics: yes, but they’re mostly irrelevant in selling a vehicle like this. And in terms of style and the image the van conveys: sadly, no with Honda falling short of the Sienna in this department.

Can you get passionate about the new Odyssey? Sure, but not the way Honda wants you to. With class-leading fuel economy, incredible innovations, and a textbook worth of smart new features, it’s hard not to love the Odyssey for its brains.

LOVE IT
  • Fuel economy
  • Innovative 2nd row seating
  • Even more car-like ride
  • Endless small improvements really add up
LEAVE IT
  • Expensive
  • Tailgate doesn’t open high enough for taller folks
  • Misses the mark on styling

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