We have our first teachable moment in the redesigned 2011 Honda Odyssey at the Torrey Pines Gliderport of all places. Back in the 1930s, this idyllic cliff overlooking the Pacific really was a testing ground for the engine-less airplanes that dropped troops into hostile territory. Now, we're just watching paragliders fly away from the cares of the world.
And then it dawns on us that we can't jump off the cliff, because we're driving a minivan. And a minivan, even an apparently cool minivan like the Odyssey, isn't for the faint of heart. Maybe you have the luxury of shirking responsibility, but we've got mouths to feed, pacifiers to retrieve and tummies to rub.
Although Honda has taken a few risks with the styling this time around, the 2011 Honda Odyssey doesn't pretend to be anything other than a one-box vehicle with three rows of seating. It goes on sale September 30 with a base price of $28,580, and Honda officials tell us the first batch of vans will smell like ointment and pre-moistened wipes by October 7.
I've Fallen in Love With Seats
Your best bet is to inhale the aroma of obligation, and just enjoy the 2011 Honda Odyssey's seats. The whole point of buying a minivan is the useful seating configuration, and Honda has fiddled with its familiar slidey-seat formula to impressive results in our top-of-the-line Odyssey Touring Elite test vehicle ($44,030) and every Odyssey below it — regular Touring, EX-L with Navigation, EX-L with Rear Entertainment, plain EX-L, EX without leather, and finally, because-you-don't-love-your-family-enough LX.
To start, Honda made the 2011 Odyssey wider. It's 2 inches broader across the shoulders than the 2010 model at 79.2 inches, and that's spread across a wider track — now just over 68 inches front and rear. The Odyssey's wheelbase is still 118.1 inches, but the van is almost an inch longer overall at 202.9 inches.
That extra width makes room for a real center seat in the 2011 Honda Odyssey's second row. It's wide enough for a deluxe car seat and comfortable enough for a 170-pound adult, and the seat scoots forward so you can coo over that person. The second-row outboard chairs also adjust fore/aft, plus you can laterally scoot them 1.5 inches closer to each sliding door. This allows you to get three car seats across (with LATCH provisions in each position) or three teenagers across with no thrown elbows, except in the LX, which forgoes the center seat and tops out at seven-passenger capacity. Legroom, always an Odyssey strong suit, is up almost an inch in the middle row to 40.9 inches. There's even a fold-out ring for a trash bag back here, eliminating the front passenger's main job.
Life is just as good in the 2011 Honda Odyssey's third row, which is now sized and cushioned to accommodate 6-footers. Legroom is a generous 42.4 inches, and thanks to various noise-dampening measures undertaken during the redesign, grandparents seated back here have a good shot at hearing you muttering under your breath from the driver seat about how they burped the baby wrong and that's why he just puked on your shoulder.
Larger, comfier seats are usually a pain to reconfigure, but the Odyssey's 60/40 third-row seats are actually easier to fold flat this year; a new strap design eliminates the need to lean into the van to execute the maneuver. The second-row chairs still do not fold into the floor, but they are lightweight enough for a fit adult to remove and carry into the garage without herniating a disc. The liftgate is power-operated on EX-L, Touring and Touring Elite models, but the thing is so light and ergonomically designed, it's kind of fun to shut it the old-fashioned way.
New Transmission for Some
Once the kids are asleep or plugged into one of the entertainment systems — either the conventional DVD system in the EX-L and Touring or our Touring Elite tester's widescreen setup complete with HDMI input — you can fly down a back road in the Odyssey. Once again, it's the fun minivan in a vehicle class where nobody expects to have fun.
The big story for drivers is the arrival of a six-speed automatic transmission — the first appearance of this transmission in a Honda-badged product. For now, though, you can only have the six-speed on 2011 Honda Odyssey Touring and Touring Elite models; other Odysseys stick with last year's five-speed automatic. Everybody gets the familiar 3.5-liter V6, which now makes 248 horsepower (an increase of 4) and 250 pound-feet of torque (+5) thanks mainly to a revised intake.
If you're set on buying an EX, definitely don't test-drive the Touring. Once you've experienced the six-speed transmission's shorter 1st gear, closer ratios (identical to the Acura MDX) and quicker shifts, there's no going back to the five-speed, which provides merely adequate performance. Six-speed Odysseys also deliver slightly higher EPA fuel mileage ratings — 19 city/28 highway/22 combined versus 18 city/27 highway/21 combined for the five-speed. Either way, though, you'll still be driving the most fuel-efficient minivan of them all, save for the small-fry Mazda 5. All 2011 Honda Odysseys are front-wheel drive; all-wheel drive won't be offered.
"The penetration rate for AWD in the minivan class is only 5-7 percent," Art St. Cyr, chief engineer on the Odyssey, tells us. "To make room for the prop shaft, we'd have to raise the floor, reducing interior volume just to accommodate a small percentage of people."
Honda conservatively estimates that six-speed-equipped 2011 Honda Odysseys will hit 60 mph in 8.8 seconds — exactly the number we recorded in a 2010 Odyssey. We suspect the new van is a few tenths quicker, but it won't touch the 265-hp 2011 Toyota Sienna (7.9 seconds).
Good Handling for All
What the 2011 Honda Odyssey gives up in straight-line speed, it more than makes up for the first time you go around a corner. It has the flattest cornering attitude of any minivan we've ever driven. Honda has reduced the steering effort at low speeds on the 2011 model (via a variable-flow hydraulic power steering pump), but the Odyssey's steering is still more direct and precise than the Sienna's electric-assist setup.
Ody nerds will note that the 2011 van's chassis is basically a carryover from the 2005-'10 generation, but Honda engineers have stiffened and lightened the unit-body. Company officials tell us it's 22 percent more rigid overall, 59 percent more rigid at the rear-subframe attachment points and about 100 pounds lighter (per trim level) due primarily to increased use of high-strength steel.
Honda has fitted new dampers and softer rear bushings to give the 2011 Odyssey a more compliant ride, and indeed, our Touring Elite tester copes well over concrete-slab freeways. Spring rates are also higher in the rear, and there's a slightly larger front stabilizer bar. Of course, wheel sizes have increased, too, but in the usual Honda fashion, the new all-season tires offer plenty of sidewall, whether you end up with the 235/65R17s on LX and EX models or the P235/60R18 Michelin Primacy MXV4s on Touring versions.
Honda officials tell us these Michelins were selected for their low rolling resistance — one of many small reasons the Touring models are more fuel-efficient. Oftentimes, such tires make a minivan stop-resistant as well. However, we've been assured that the 2011 Honda Odyssey will deliver the shortest braking distance of any minivan thanks to larger brake rotors, new brake pads and a new master cylinder. It has to beat the Sienna's 127-foot 60-0-mph distance.
More Stuff, Carpet Pre-Treated With Cheerios
Honda tries to keep things simple by packaging vehicles in trim levels rather than allowing myriad permutations of options, but with the addition of yet more modern conveniences, the 2011 Honda Odyssey line has gotten more complicated.
The 2011 Honda Odyssey LX has the basics — an engine, a bunch of airbags, an auxiliary jack and manual, three-zone air-conditioning. The EX ($31,730), meanwhile, isn't quite the step up it used to be. It'll work for you if you just want alloy wheels, power-sliding doors, second-row sunshades, a power driver seat, a better audio system (with 2GB of hard drive space for ripping CDs) and automatic climate control.
If you want a USB input, you have to get the EX-L ($35,230), which also includes heated leather front seats, Bluetooth, a back-up camera and XM Radio. In addition, you can have either the $2,000 hard-drive-based navigation system (with 15GB of music storage space, FM-based traffic updates and enhanced wide- and overhead-view displays for the back-up camera) or the $1,600 rear entertainment system on the EX-L, but not both.
Conveniently, the 2011 Honda Odyssey Touring ($41,535) comes with both nav and rear entertainment, plus a laminated windshield, third-row sunshades, driver-seat memory, and front and rear parking sensors. The Touring Elite comes with that deluxe rear entertainment setup capable of playing movies in true 5.1 surround sound through an upgraded 12-speaker array, along with HID headlights (low beams only) and a blind-spot warning system.
You cannot get keyless start, adaptive cruise, telematics or a pre-collision system — all stuff that's available on the Sienna.
Before we all got excited about crossovers, the minivan segment accounted for more than a million units in sales each year. In the grim year of 2009, the class shrank to 442,070 units, but more than 100,000 of those vans were Honda Odysseys. Honda has sold 71,584 Odysseys in the first eight months of 2010.
"Minivans are going to come back because of Generation Y," Erik Berkman, vice president of corporate planning and logistics for American Honda, tells us. Still, the automaker's near-term forecast is conservative. Honda expects to sell just over 110,000 Odysseys in 2011 and a bit more than that in 2012 when it hopes the segment will rebound to 600,000 units.
Buying a minivan isn't an easy thing to do in the United States, because culturally, it's a rite of passage to the un-hip, elasticized-waist side of parenthood. However, if you're a real car lover and you drive a 2011 Honda Odyssey with an open heart, you're not going to choose a crossover over this van.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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