First Drive

2011 Honda Odyssey

Honda’s fourth-generation minivan boasts best-in-class fuel economy and best-in-class braking and ac

2011 Honda Odyssey

LA JOLLA, CA

Minivans sales have been falling as consumers switch to SUVs and CUVs. Ford, General Motors and Hyundai have all dropped out of the scene. Chrysler and Kia continues to offer minivans and Toyota recently released an entirely-new Sienna for 2011. Hard on its heels comes the 2011 Honda Odyssey.

The fact is, nothing is as practical as a minivan and there isn’t really anything else that takes their place. Which is why they remain one of the most popular vehicles for growing families.

When asked why Honda went to the expense of developing an entirely new minivan at a time when sales have fallen from 175,000 units per year to 75,000, Honda Canada executive vice-president Jerry Chenkin said "because our customers want them and it makes good business sense."

He added that Honda believes sales will level off and there will continue to be a strong demand for minivans simply because they remain the most practical vehicle design on the market.

Designed, developed and sold only in North America, this is the fourth generation Odyssey. The first was the swinging door version in 1995 based on the Accord platform.

The second came along in 1999, based on the company’s new global light truck platform. The third generation was introduced in 2005 with variable-cylinder-management, three row side airbags and electronic stability control.

The current minivan market is sharply divided into low- and high-ends. Chrysler dominates the low-end segment with the vast majority of its sales to fleets. Honda is not interested in slugging it out in that market.

The company says 70% of Odyssey buyers opt for the highest trim levels and these are the customers it had in mind during development of the latest Odyssey. They want all the features and amenities of a luxury car – in a vehicle with three rows of seating.

Many are returning to minivans after experiencing the operating costs and negative (gas guzzler) image of large SUVs.

The 2011 Odyssey is greener, safer and boasts numerous new features. And this big box performs. In addition to best-in-class fuel economy, Honda claims best-in-class braking and acceleration.

The new Odyssey is 53-mm wider, 30-mm longer and 11-mm lower, resulting in a more planted or purposeful look. Extensive wind tunnel work has achieved a 5% reduction in aerodynamic drag. Body rigidity has been increased by 29%and the rigidity of the front sub-frame that carries the engine and transmission by 59%.

The first thing you notice is the unique belt-line, which dips sharply at the C-pillar. Honda refers to it’s as a lightning bolt. While it adds a bit of character to the exterior, it adds a lot of visibility for those seated in the third row, thanks to greater glass area. It comfortably seats six big adults, two in each row.

Even those in the third row have ample head and legroom. And getting in and out of that row is pretty easy thanks to a clever single-touch, flip/fold feature of the second row seats.

The centre portion of the second seat is 10-cm wider and can be folded down to serve as an armrest or pulled ahead 14-cm to bring a child within easy reach of a parent in the front-row. There are five child seat LATCH provisions.

Babies and parents are a common theme when you talk to the youthful team of designers and engineers responsible for the new Odyssey. Among them, they have owned 43 minivans and have almost as many children.

That first-hand, real-life experience shows in everything from seat comfort to the separate drink-holders and game inputs at each seating position. Neat touches abound: a 115-volt outlet to run games etc., 11 cup holders and four bottle holders, a flip-up trash bag holder designed to take a plastic garbage bag, a cool box at the bottom of the centre console, 4x8 sheets and 10-foot studs can be accommodated with the doors closed.

Built-in entertainment systems are a big deal in this class of vehicle and Honda has partnered with Sony to ensure the new Odyssey can offer some outstanding stuff. Sony developed the control unit on the front centre stack of upper trim levels and provides a crystal-clear eight-inch screen on the instrument panel, 650-watt, 12-speaker sound system and giant 16-inch wide screen for those in the rear that can be split into two screens allowing one to watch a movie while the other plays a game, each using wireless headphones.

There is also a 60-gig hard drive to hold favorite songs, games and movies.

Power comes from a modified version of the 3.5-litre V-6 used previously and in other Honda and Accord vehicles. It produces 4 more horsepower and 5 additional lb-ft of torque than last year’s model and has been tuned for improved low- and mid-range performance.

Combined with a 47-kg lighter vehicle the result is improved performance. Fuel economy has also been improved by one litre per 100 km across the board.

Variable-cylinder-management lets the Odyssey operate on three, four or six cylinders. A five-speed automatic transmission is standard on all but the Touring trim level, which gets a six-speed.

On the negative side, there is no all-wheel-drive option and the second row seats do not fold perfectly flat or into the floor. Weighing 22.5-kilos each they have to be removed to maximize floor space.

The 2011 Odyssey comes in LX ($29,900), EX ($33,900) and Touring ($46,990) trim levels. The EX is available with rear-seat entertainment and leather packages. The base price is $1,700 lower than the outgoing model and the Touring $2,700 less despite increased content.

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