First Drive: 2011 Honda Odyssey Touring
By Chris Haak
The 2011 model year is definitely shaping up to be the year of the minivan, with the all-new Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey duking it out, a significantly upgraded 2011 Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan hitting dealers this fall, and an all-new 2011 Nissan Quest returning from the dead to do battle in the family-friendly kid hauler segment. In spite of their makers’ best marketing efforts, minivans really aren’t likely to be seen as “cool” anytime soon, but the current crop is truly the best that there’s ever been available.
Honda first showed its all-new 2011 Odyssey a few months ago, and after first-time observers (us at Autosavant included) picked our jaws off the floor and asked what the heck Honda did with the rear-quarter styling of their bread-and-butter family hauler, we began to realize just how good the fundamentals of this van were. The million dollar question is, does the Odyssey’s “lightning bolt” and prominent door track take too much away from what’s really a very good vehicle, or is the underlying van so good that design details are truly just superfluous conversation starters among people who wouldn’t actually buy a van?
The Odyssey already has an oddball shape, and my test vehicle’s mid-1980s-like light blue metallic paint does it no favors. Overall, the van actually isn’t bad looking; the front is a nice update to Honda’s new corporate look, the flanks are nicely detailed, and it sits a bit lower to the ground than did the outgoing model. The 18-inch all-season tires do a decent job of filling the wheelwells, and the new shape of the D-pillar is reminiscent of the Acura MDX’s.
And then it all falls apart with the jagged “lightning bolt” beltline that drops downward aft of the sliding doors. Looking at the van’s profile, the beltline rises upward through the sliding doors, then basically “resets” for the rearmost side windows so that visibility is not overly compromised. Changing that shape would necessitate changing the shape of the doors (including the position of the handles), so I’m afraid we’re stuck with it for half a decade, folks. From a straight profile shot, it’s not really that bad, but from certain angles (such as the front three-quarter view), it looks like the rear of a completely different vehicle was tacked onto the new Odyssey. Worse still, the rear three-quarter view makes the van’s rear end look like it has too much overhang, and gives that section a bit too much visual heft. The Odyssey has always seemed to sit closer to the ground than the Sienna, and the 2011 version seems to have dropped even closer to the road.
Inside, the new Odyssey gets high marks for the utility and thoughtfulness that went into its interior design. There are a number of clever storage features, such as the ample door pockets with upper and lower storage compartments and a “trash bag ring” that is specifically designed to hold a plastic grocery bag drafted into garbage-bag duty. Toyota threw large dual sunroofs onto the Sienna’s options list, but the Odyssey soldiers on with a single standard-sized one. The funny thing about panoramic sunroofs in family haulers, though: kids don’t really appreciate having sun in their eyes, so maybe Honda got this one right. My wife and I have our Sienna’s sunroof shade closed nearly all the time for this reason.
Unfortunately, the interior quality appears to have gone down a half-step compared to the previous-generation Odyssey, with hard plastic on the dash top, glove box, and nearly everything that the driver touches. A half-step decline is perhaps not so bad when you consider that the 2011 Sienna’s interior went down a full step in quality. Based on photos, though, Chrysler appears to have stepped up its interior game on its 2011 vans, though it’s hard to tell for sure without actually sitting in the vans and spending some time with them (, of course, poking around on the dashboard and door panels). On a more positive note, there is soft plastic at the front passenger’s knees, and the darkly-grained fake wood surrounding the HVAC controls looks decent and breaks the monotony of all of the plastic on the dash.
The Odyssey’s center stack has a million buttons (that’s just an estimate; I didn’t actually count them) and though they are large and clearly-labeled, it’s a bit excessive, and will likely require some sort of learning curve until their function and location become second nature to the driver. As in nearly every Honda and Acura product, secondary controls have a same consistent, silky actuation feel whether you’re turning on the headlights or adjusting the radio volume. Though Honda has cut some corners here and there with interior plastic, they did not in the quality of the switchgear.
For 2011, the Odyssey continues with an array of safety features, including an ACE (Advanced Compatibility Engineering) body structure designed to protect occupants, ABS, stability control, three-row side curtain airbags with rollover sensor, driver and front passenger side airbags, and dual front airbags. The Touring and Touring Elite now come with a blind spot detection system as well, which is one of the most effective (and frequently used) safety features available. The system literally makes an additional 0ver-the-shoulder confirmation of an empty lane unnecessary. Missing from the safety/convenience roster is any sort of adaptive cruise control, which Toyota has been offering in its top-spec Siennas for several years. Honda installs a similar (and very effective) system in several Acura models, so the technology does exist in-house.
Honda’s high-line Touring Elite model boasts, heated front seats with two memory positions, navigation (though the installed system is several generations behind class leaders with low-res, requires a silly knob – which is truly a surprise considering the van’s all-new-for-2011 redesign), and a widescreen 16.2″ ceiling-mounted video display, which is basically the same as what Toyota optionally installs in the 2011 Sienna. As in the Toyota, the picture can be stretched to fill the screen’s entire width, or letterboxed, or split between two input sources. Unlike Toyota, Honda also allows HDMI input, which is unique to the segment. Aside from the DVD player, there are several other entertainment options: USB, XM, HDD, DVD (controls on dashboard; double-wide screen), rear source, rear AC outlets, rear input jacks, HDMI jack. The stereo sounds pretty good, with decent power and clarity in the Touring. It’s rated at 246 watts with 7 speakers, including subwoofer, and I’d imagine that it sounds even better in the Touring Elite. That model gets 12 speakers and produces an impressive 650 watts peak power.
The van’s electric sliding doors have separate buttons for closing and opening (actually, it’s one rocker button with two positions). Other vans have a single open/close button that closes an open door, opens a closed door, reverses a closing door, or reverses an opening door upon pressing it. The Honda system seems as if it could be confusing to children or older individuals. My children (the youngest of whom is about to turn three) have been able to open and close our Sienna’s doors for quite a while on their own (under supervision, of course), and I’m not certain that they would have been able to in an Odyssey. I guess we’ll find out when one makes its way to the Autosavant Garage. I also noticed that the steering ratio is fairly slow, meaning that you have to turn the wheel surprisingly far in order to go around a 45 degree corner.
One thing the Odyssey has but Toyota and Chrysler don’t is an extra belted seating position in the center position of the second row. This small extra seat (whose long-trip comfort I’d have to be skeptical of, given its minimal size) makes the Odyssey an eight-passenger vehicle, at least on paper. That seating position can also be moved forward to make a very small child more accessible to parents’ care. This adjustability could also allow kids sitting in the center row’s outboard positions more elbow room if the center seat is offset relative to the outer ones.
The third row Magic seat folds flat into the well in the cargo area (as do the seats of the Odyssey’s competitors), and sadly, the Odyssey’s third row isn’t as “magic” as the incredibly versatile seats found in the Honda Fit. At least the third row seats are very easy to fold and unfold. Anyone considering a large crossover as a suitable replacement for a minivan hasn’t actually used a minivan; you really can’t beat the van’s utility and space.
The 2011 Odyssey feels like it has decent power, which is impressive, considering that the Sienna and Chrysler twins both out-power it. Horsepower from the SOHC 3.5 liter V6 is 248 with 250 lb-ft of torque; the Sienna is rated at 265 horsepower/245 lb-ft and the Caravan/Town & Country is rated at 283 horsepower and 260 lb-ft. Though down on power versus the Toyota, the Honda felt as if it had adequate power. Helping this is the first six-speed automatic ever installed in an Odyssey. (The six-speed only comes with the Touring and Touring Elite models; lesser Odysseys soldier on with a five-speed automatic, while the competition comes with standard six-speeds). When I tried to quickly get up to speed after slightly mis-judging the closing speed of a car coming down the road, it felt a bit down on torque. An owner would have a very good idea after a short time of what the van’s capabilities are, and could avoid the type of situation that I put myself into.
Though the Odyssey has six forward ratios, you can’t actually manually select gears in the Honda as you can in the Sienna and Town & Country; both of those vans have manual shift gates that allow you to tap up or tap down to a different gear. Instead, Honda gives only Drive, Low, and a “D4” button on the side of its gearshift for towing or more extreme conditions. The new transmission does offer the benefit of one mile per gallon better fuel economy than the five-speed offers (in both the city cycle and the highway cycle) and also improves acceleration with a lower first gear and more closely-spaced gear ratios that does a better job of keeping the engine in its powerband.
Honda refuses to submit to the temptations of electric power steering (some of those temptations are fuel savings, more ability to tune, and less complexity) and fits a traditional pump-actuated hydraulic steering system onto the Odyssey. Curiously, the system muffled some of the communication between the van and the road by being slightly overboosted. When I last drove a previous-generation Odyssey, the feeling was very much akin to driving a slightly taller, slightly heavier Accord; this model instead feels less surefooted vis a vis the Accord than expected. Generally speaking, the Odyssey is still the minivan that people who love to drive will prefer, but the Sienna SE and the forthcoming Dodge “Man Van” may snatch that title.
As much nit-picking and complaining as I’ve done in the previous paragraphs, I still feel that Honda’s execution, and near mastery of the minivan genre brings the Odyssey to the head of its class. If the Odyssey was available with all wheel drive, and this was December 2007 (when I was actually looking for a new van to buy) instead of November 2010, I probably would have picked an Odyssey over a Sienna or Town & Country. Honda really needs to keep on its toes, though, because the competition is hungry and aggressive its own clever features, improved powertrains, and upscale interiors.