B. Grant Whitmore, Contributor
We see them all the time: minivans loaded to the gills with kids, pets and housing supplies, hurtling down the freeway toward some unknown suburban destination for a soccer match, piano recital or doctor's appointment. Does anyone ever look at the minivan and think to him or herself, "Boy, I sure wish I had one of those things for toting my kids around?" Maybe some people do, but I bet most of us have been leaning toward sport-utility vehicles when it comes time to make a decision to buy a family car. In fact, Edmund's knows that people have been buying more sport-utes than minivans, because we've figured out how to read monthly sales charts.
Most people on Edmund's staff would probably buy an SUV before a minivan, too. Strangely, though, the most vehement minivan detractor on our staff has decided that one minivan in particular suits his lifestyle more than a sport-utility vehicle. What changed his mind? What caused him to admit that he may, in fact, be a dork? The completely redesigned Honda Odyssey, that's what. Our intrepid writer had the chance to spend a week with the Odyssey over the Thanksgiving holiday, followed immediately by a full-size SUV comparison test. While the SUVs were impressive and their coolness factor incomparable, the Odyssey offered his brood greater utility than the largest multi-passenger, ground-pounding, sport-utes on the market.
The Odyssey is totally new this year, gaining an increased wheelbase, greater interior volume, and sliding rear passenger doors. The Odyssey 's motor also got a huge power jump during the redesign: a 60-horsepower and 70-foot-pounds torque increase that totally transforms the Odyssey. These are considerable improvements for a minivan that was cited as too small and underpowered since its introduction in 1995. As we've said before, Honda only makes mistakes one time; the new Odyssey stands poised to redefine what it takes to compete for family car dollars.
Before you sport-ute defenders out there start composing your emails, let me explain. The editor who's judgement you question does not need a vehicle for four-wheeling-he would rather hike through the great outdoors than drive over it. He also doesn't need a vehicle for driving in foul weather-he lives in Southern California. What he does need is a vehicle that can handle his wife, two large dogs, three small cats, and a whole lot of gear, for routine trips to the family cabin and to his parent's house during the holidays. Could an SUV do the job? You bet. He and his family have done the drive plenty of times in Navigators, Explorers, Mountaineers and Rodeos. None of those trucks, however, was as perfectly suited to the job as the new Odyssey.
Just looking at the Odyssey lets you know that it is purpose-built for moving large quantities of people and their stuff great distances in comfort. A mere 201 inches separates the tip of the front bumper from the tail of the rear bumper on the Odyssey. Yet this minivan offers 15 more cubic feet of total cargo space (163.3 cubic feet with folded and stowed rear and second-row seats) than the 219-inch, road-hogging Suburban. Sure, the Odyssey may seat only seven people, as opposed to the Suburban's nine, but, unless you are the captain of a softball team, you probably don't need to drive nine people around on a regular basis.
Where the Odyssey differs from sport-utes, and other minivan competition for that matter, is the ease with which the Odyssey's people- and cargo-carrying capacities can be exploited. Dual power sliding rear doors make entry to the second-row seats easy and convenient. A low floor makes it easy for toddlers and puppies to clamber aboard without banging their shins. Variable seating locations mean that the middle seats can be positioned as captain's chairs or a bench seat by merely sliding the modular units along a lateral track. The rear seat can be used to hold three additional passengers, or can be folded flat with the floor for cargo hauling by simply pulling on two straps and pushing it downward. In our opinion, nothing, not even the vaunted Chrysler minivans, offers as much interior versatility as the Honda Odyssey.
The Odyssey does not cater solely to passengers and cargo; drivers are also treated to a number of controls and features that will make their experience on the open road a pleasurable one. Peering out of the windshield of the Odyssey is like watching the world go by on an Imax screen. The Odyssey's windshield seems impossibly large, offering the most amazing forward visibility some of us have ever enjoyed. To capitalize on this, the front seats sit relatively high, giving owners that king-of-the-road feeling that so many sport-ute buyers crave. An eight-way power driver's seat (standard on the EX) makes it easy to find a comfortable seating position, and well-positioned center console controls mean that even short drivers won't have to lean to the right to change the interior temperature or activate the rear window defroster. Steering wheel-mounted cruise control and stereo buttons further enhance a driver's ability to operate the Odyssey with eyes on the road. An abundance of cubbyholes makes it easy for drivers to stow cell phones, chewing gum and road maps, and the cupholders had no difficulty accepting a large Mountain Dew. Our drivers found the Odyssey to be a comfortable, if not terribly invigorating, place to spend the afternoon.
The driving experience in the Odyssey may lack excitement, but it is by no means bad. The powerful 3.5-liter V6 under the hood is derived from the same engine found in the ultra-smooth Honda Accord. In this application the motor gains a half-liter of displacement and makes 210 horsepower @ 5200 rpm and 229 foot-pounds of torque @ 4300 rpm, giving the Odyssey very good acceleration and passing ability. This is particularly impressive because the Odyssey now qualifies as a Low Emissions Vehicle (LEV) as classified by the California Air Resources Board (CARB).
Transferring the power from the engine to the front wheels is Honda's ubiquitous four-speed automatic transaxle that also sees duty on the Accord. We found that the shift quality was typically good, providing a strong kickdown when passing was necessary, and although it was seamless during regular around-town driving, the Odyssey suffered somewhat during hill climbing. In particular, the Odyssey's transaxle was hesitant to shift from overdrive into third gear when travelling uphill at freeway speeds. With the cruise control set, the minivan would begin to lose power, hesitate for a second, then shift with an abrupt jerk into third gear, finally giving us enough oomph to regain our lost speed. While not an earth-shattering defect, it was annoying enough to turn off the cruise control on hilly sections of road. We found that jabbing the throttle when the engine started to bog reduced the transaxle's tendency to lag.
The Odyssey rides on a four-wheel, double-wishbone suspension; it's the first minivan to ever use this type of setup. This improves the Odyssey's handling characteristics by reducing the amount of bump the rear of the vehicle experiences when traversing uneven pavement. It also helps give the Odyssey fairly neutral handling, keeping this tall five-door vehicle from leaning too hard around tight corners.
Was our odyssey with the Odyssey perfect? Well, no. We wish the power door lock and window switches were backlit; we found them difficult to find and operate at night. We also wish the seat upholstery were more upscale-crushed velour looks low rent in this otherwise tastefully appointed cabin. As previously mentioned, we can't help but want the Odyssey's transaxle to have better shift quality.
Nevertheless, the Odyssey is a nearly perfect family vehicle. While a full-blown comparison test may be in order to confirm this, we are fairly certain that the Honda Odyssey is the best minivan on the market in the United States right now. There is a downside to that, however. Honda is planning to build only 60,000 Odysseys this year. Demand is expected to be high, so plan on paying sticker for quite awhile.
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