First Drive: 2011 Honda Odyssey

Up Front

Minivans, once thought to be as dead as the dodo, are making a comeback. With Generation X and Generation Y families expanding and more moms staying at home, total U.S. minivan sales are expected to rise to around 600,000 by 2012, up from the nadir of under half a million in 2009.

That's good news for families. In a bid to nab the new business, Chrysler is redesigning its popular Town and Country and Dodge Grand Caravan for 2011, with the new models due out in the fourth quarter, and Toyota (TM) has already introduced a redesigned 2011 Sienna. Now Honda (HMC) has followed suit with a major revamping of its classy Odyssey van.

The 2011 Odyssey is decidedly better than the previous model. Its cabin is roomier and nicer inside, there are more fancy features, and it's the clear leader in fuel efficiency. However, the new Odyssey has some downsides. It's ungainly looking, even for a minivan. The rear third of the body seems tacked onto the rest, partly because the rear-door slides are visible rather than concealed, as they are in the new Sienna. Also, some shoppers may prefer the rear seating in Chrysler vans. Oh, and the Odyssey is pricey.

You can get an Odyssey LX for $28,580, but the base model has only manual sliding doors, as well as such basic amenities as power accessories and a seven-speaker sound system. The EX starts at $31,730 and includes improvements such as power sliding doors, a hard-drive sound system, and alloy wheels.

However, Honda expects some 70 percent of sales to be of the fancier EX-L and Touring trim lines. The EX-L, which comes standard with leather interior trim, a power tailgate, and backup camera, is priced at $35,230. The price rises to $36,830 for an EX-L with a basic rear-seat entertainment system, and to $37,230 with a navigation system instead.

The Odyssey Touring, which goes for $41,535, has both the navigation and entertainment systems. The new top-of-the-line $44,030 Touring Elite comes standard with all of the above, as well as a blind-spot warning system, a 12-speaker, hard-drive sound system, and a fancier rear-seat entertainment setup with a 16.2-in. screen that can display two movies at once. (Separate sound comes via wireless headphones.)

The Odyssey LX, EX, and EX-L trim lines come with a five-speed automatic transmission; the fancier Touring and Touring Elite have a more efficient six-speed automatic.

The Odyssey's only power plant is a 3.5-liter V6, rated at 248 horsepower. That's four more horsepower than previously, but the Odyssey still trails its rivals. The 2011 Sienna's V6 is rated at 265 hp and the 2011 Town and Country will offer a 283 hp V6. The Sienna also is available with a four-cylinder engine at a starting price of $25,270.

The Odyssey's advantage is that it offers V6 power with the fuel economy of a four-cylinder engine. That's largely because of Honda's sophisticated power management system, which allows the engine to run on as few as three cylinders at cruising speed.

The Odyssey Touring and Touring Elite are rated to get 19 miles per gallon in the city and 28 on the highway (2/3 mpg better than before); the LX and EX are rated at 18/27 (2/4 mpg better than before). That's better than the V6 Toyota Sienna and Chrysler Town and Country, which are rated at 18/24 and 17/25, respectively. Surprisingly, it's also better than the four-cylinder Sienna, which is rated at 19/24.

Chrysler remains the sales leader. During the first eight months of this year, it sold 78,492 Town and Country models (35 percent more than in 2009) and 66,897 Grand Caravans (up 10 percent). During the same period, the Odyssey's sales fell 0.4 percent, to 71,584, and the No. 3 Sienna's sales rose 17.2 percent, to 62,211.

However, Honda says the Odyssey is the leader in retail sales. That's because fleet sales, mainly to rental car companies, account for only about 3 percent of the Odyssey's total, versus nearly half for the Town and Country, Honda says, citing R.L. Polk data.

Behind the Wheel

Honda worked hard at making the new Odyssey more emotionally appealing, but it still isn't very quick. Honda says the 2011 jumps from 0 to 60 in about 8.6 seconds, versus around 8.8 seconds for the Sienna and around 9.3 seconds for the V6-powered 2010 Town and Country.

Independent testers have found the Toyota much quicker. clocked the new Sienna at 7.9 seconds (versus 8.8 seconds for the 2010 Odyssey). Car and Driver timed the Sienna at 7.8 seconds and Toyota says its internal tests put the time at 7.7 seconds. The 2011 Town and Country—when powered by the new, bigger V6—also promises to be much faster than the 2010 model.

Otherwise, the Odyssey rides extremely well for a big people-hauler. There's plenty of oomph for passing at highway speed and the suspension does a good job of smoothing out bumps. The brakes are bigger than before and they bite hard.

The Odyssey's greatest appeal is its cabin, which is roomier and much nicer-looking than the old one. The doors and rear seats require less effort to deploy. There are numerous handy features, such as a cool box for drinks and a drawer that can hold cell phones and other gear. The base model has 10 cup-and bottle holders; the other models have 15.

There's seating for eight (seven in the base model). The second-row seats don't fold down flat, but are removable; the third row folds down into wells in the floor. Cargo capacity behind the third-row seats is 38.4 cu. ft., and rises to 148.5 cu. ft. with the second-row seats removed and the third row down. That's enough room for a sheet of plywood laid flat.

The middle seats are roomier and more versatile than previously. The middle second-row seat moves forward to make a baby seat more easily reachable from the front. The outboard captain's seats move outward, creating more shoulder space in the middle seat. The third-row seat is roomy and accessible: I watched a 6-ft.-4-in.-tall Honda official easily climb into the third row to sit comfortably.

I wonder about the utility of certain innovations. For instance, the console between the Odyssey's front seats is now removable, but there's no place to stow it in the front of the van. The former setup—in which the console folded up and down from the side of the passenger seat—seemed more practical because the console could be temporarily folded down, giving the front passenger room to slide between the seats and deal with kid problems in back.

There are also clear advantages to the rear-seating arrangement in the Town and Country, which offers captain's seats that can swivel to form a party area around a small, stowable table. Moreover, the rear seats in the Chrysler all fold into the floor, forming a large, flat cargo area. You have to remove the Odyssey's second row seats to create comparable space. Honda says the Chrysler approach requires seats that are too thin to be comfortable. If you mainly host kids riding in back, the Town and Country's seats are adequate.

Buy it or Bag It?

If you don't mind their nerdy image, minivans offer more space, utility, and high-end features for the money than do luxury SUVs or crossover vehicles.

Chrysler's minivans have suffered from quality problems in the past, but some shoppers may still want to wait for the 2011 Chryslers to come out late this year. Their seating arrangement and bigger engine make them a clear alternative to the Odyssey. Also, the Grand Caravan and the Kia Sedona—which sells for an average of about $23,500, according to Power Information Network—are the best bets for shoppers on a tight budget.

Otherwise, the top choices at the moment are the Sienna and the Odyssey. The Sienna tends to be cheaper, especially if you're content with a four-cylinder engine. It also comes with all-wheel drive, which the Odyssey doesn't. The new Odyssey is a classy vehicle—but be sure to comparison-shop.

Click here to see more of the 2011 Honda Odyssey.

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