Honda did something silly during the launch of its all-new 2011 Odyssey minivan. The automaker built a large autocross-type "track" in the parking lot of San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium and invited journalists to take its latest eight-passenger family hauler for hot laps. It was an interesting "fish out of water" introduction to Honda's fourth-generation people mover.
Designed, developed and manufactured in the United States, Honda considers the 2011 model an "American Odyssey." The domestic development team, owners of 46 Odysseys between them, labored to deliver a minivan with distinctive style, greater interior versatility and improved fuel economy. Did Honda build itself a worthy successor and how did it fare on the autocross?
Sharing its platform architecture with the Honda Ridgeline and Pilot, the all-new 2011 Odyssey is wider and lower than the model it replaces. The automaker's California design team penned a much more stylish and distinctive edge to the new model, unlike its arguably bland predecessors. It's a look we first scoped in concept form at the 2010 Chicago Auto Show. Most striking is its unique "lightning-bolt" beltline. The "bolt" is functional, as it improves outward visibility from the third row, but the placement is arguably less than attractive at first glance. It's as though the trailing edge of the sliding door cuts the minivan in two pieces – like the back half had been surgically grafted to the front. Making things even more awkward, the optical illusion is reinforced as the sliding door channel abruptly ends in the same spot.
The interior, on the other hand, is far from controversial. It features an expensive and upscale Acura-like look and feel. Pleasantly traditional in layout, and very friendly to the eye, the center stack is much improved over last year's model with the audio and HVAC controls now occupying the same general real estate, and human-friendly round knobs replacing toggle switches for temperature adjustments. The analog tachometer and speedometer, now the same size, join analog coolant temperature and fuel level gauges on each side.
To avoid confusion going forward, it's best to outline the model hierarchy. Anyone familiar with this automaker, or current Odyssey owners, will realize it follows Honda's existing 2010 trim levels. The entry-level model is badged the LX, followed by the EX, EX-L, EX-L RES (rear entertainment) and EX-L NAV (navigation). The flagship models are the Touring and (new for 2011) Touring Elite. Pricing starts at $27,800 (plus $780 destination) for the LX model. Odysseys with leather upholstery, such as the EX-L, start at $34,450 (plus destination). Lastly, we have the Touring ($40,755 plus destination) and the new-for-2011 range-topping Touring Elite ($43,250 plus destination).
While all models share the same basic primary instrumentation, the multi-information display centered on the top of the dashboard varies by model. The standard model (LX trim) has a one-line segment readout. This is improved slightly with a three-line segment display on mid-grade models (base EX trim). But the real eye candy is the full-color, eight-inch QVGA display (EX-L and EXL-Res trim) or its VGA counterpart (EX-L Touring trim). Both are capable of presenting a full range of graphics, including navigation, audio, trip computer and even background images similar to those on your PC or smartphone.
Dash aside, the rest of the cabin is a reflection of the American family road-trip dream. There are 12-volt power outlets galore and cup holders everywhere (15 in all but the LX trim, which only has 13). Storage nooks and crannies are seemingly hidden behind nearly every panel and there's even a chilled "Cool Box" for keeping drinks crisp (EX-L and both Touring trims).
The driver and front passenger seat are bucket-style captain's chairs with eight-way (LX trim) or 10-way (all other trim levels) power assist. Each seat features an individual fold-down armrest in the center and leather, seat heating and seat memory are trim-dependant. Between the front seats is a reconfigured center console with storage and a new flip-up trash bag ring that's sized to accommodate ordinary grocery bags. The center console is also removable, allowing a generous pass-through for those who to choose to give up the storage.
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The second-row of seating has been significantly redesigned compared to last year's model. Constructed in three seating segments, the center seat is 3.9 inches wider and can slide forward 5.5 inches – bringing it closer to the front seats. Even better, the three middle seats have a "Wide-Mode" configuration where they can be slid apart laterally by 1.5 inches each (allowing three child seats to go side-by-side-by-side with ease). The seats also fold down or can be completely removed.
The third-row of seating has also been enhanced. It has an additional 1.1 inches of legroom (for "adult-sized levels of comfort," says Honda) and outward visibility has improved thanks to the "Lightning Bolt" design. Honda's third-row "Magic Seat" is split 60/40 and each side folds and collapses flat and flush into the floor in a simple one-hand operation while the headrests remain in the seats.
A dual-zone (LX trim) or tri-zone (all other models) climate control keeps occupants comfortable, with the tri-zone system allowing the driver, front passenger and rear passengers to adjust the temperature and distribution automatically. Vehicles fitted with the navigation system take things one step further. Based on GPS data, the system automatically adjusts fan speed to compensate for direct sunlight (don't ask us how it knows whether or not there are sunlight obscuring clouds overhead).
The Odyssey's infotainment system is very capable, even in its simplest form. The base audio package (LX trim) is a 229-watt AM/FM/CD five-speaker system. Higher option levels (EX or EX-L trim) gain a 2GB audio library and two more speakers. Adding the navigation system brings a 15GB hard drive to the package. The top audio package (found only on the Touring Elite trim) is a 650-watt AM/FM/CD/15GB Hard Disk premium audio package with 12 speakers including a subwoofer. The center channel speakers for its 5.1 surround-sound audio system are located in the roof just in front of the second row.
The basic rear entertainment system (RES) available on the EX-L and standard Touring models is a 9-inch wide QVGA ceiling-mounted screen (480 pixels x 234 pixels) for viewing DVDs or devices through the audio/video input jacks. Even more enticing is the Touring Elite model's "Ultrawide" RES, featuring a 16.2-inch wide WVGA ceiling-mounted screen (1,600 pixels x 480 pixels). It can show one (full screen) or two sources (split screen) of programming simultaneously while the audio portion is sent to wireless headsets. The system also includes a high-definition HDMI port for external device input. A similar ultra-wide viewing screen can also be had on the 2011 Toyota Sienna and seems to be making its way around the minivan segment.
Under the hood, Honda is hiding a 24-valve 3.5-liter V6 that's nearly identical to last year's engine. However, Honda has pulled a few tricks to wring out more horses from the proven powerplant. To reduce friction, the aluminum engine block has been honed and very lightweight 0W-20 oil fills the crankcase. To improve breathing, there is a new two-stage intake manifold, and Honda claims the refined engine delivers 248 horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque on regular unleaded fuel. (For the record, last year's models are rated at 244 horsepower and 245 pound-feet of torque).
Honda's now-familiar Variable Cylinder Management (VCM) is standard on all trim levels for 2011. In layman's terms, the technology starts the engine with all six cylinders firing. Things change during moderate-speed cruising and at low engine speeds when the rear bank of cylinders shuts down to effectively create a three-cylinder powerplant. For moderate-speed acceleration, the left and center cylinders of the front bank operate, and the right and center cylinders of the rear bank operate (the engine runs on only four cylinders). Computer-controlled, VCM closes the intake and exhaust valves of the cylinders that are not used, thereby eliminating pumping losses. Fuel supply is cut, but the plug continues to fire to prevent fouling and keep the spark hot.
While Honda has gone to exhaustive lengths to improve the engine's efficiency (even lowering the amount of tension on the alternator belt), one cannot help but wonder why they haven't embraced today's innovative technologies. If you've already relegated owners to driving on three or four cylinders during most of their driving, why not just seal the deal with a direct-injected turbocharged four-cylinder engine in the first place? (We'll remind readers that Hyundai's new 2.0T Theta II engine trumps the Honda 3.5-liter in horsepower, torque, efficiency, weight and packaging).
Power is sent to the front wheels (there is no all-wheel-drive offering) through one of two transmissions. The standard transmission on the lower trim levels is a five-speed, while a six-speed automatic – a Honda brand first – is standard on the top trim levels (Touring models). Compared to the five-speed, the gearing on the six-speed transmission is lower in first through fifth to improve acceleration, and taller in sixth to boost fuel economy.
The Odyssey's wheelbase is unchanged from last year's model, but its track is up 1.4 inches in the front and rear. The independent suspension design remains the same (MacPherson struts up front, multi-link out back), but Honda engineers worked hard to isolate passengers from road noise by using very stiff mounting points in the rear and "blow-off" valves on all shock absorbers that reduce harshness when a wheel hits a severe jolt, such as a pothole.
Many automakers have moved towards electric power steering pumps, but Honda bucks the trend by retaining a traditional hydraulic pump. As expected, there is more power assist at lower speeds to reduce steering effort. At higher speeds, when more feedback is desired, the system automatically reduces boost to improve steering feel while simultaneously lowering parasitic drag on the engine.
The disc brakes on all four corners are larger than their predecessors. The standard wheels have grown by an inch across the board, with all lower trim levels wearing 17-inch steel wheels (235/65R17 tires) and Touring models equipped with 18-inch alloys wrapped in lower profile 235/60R18 tires. Honda does not offer run-flat or extended mobility tires and instead, the minivan is equipped with a compact spare hidden out of view under the load floor between the front seats.
The curb weight of the flagship Touring Elite model we tested is 4,560 pounds (the entry-level LX tips the scales about 200 pounds lighter). Nevertheless, it still scoots to 60 mph in about 8.5 seconds, says Honda. Much more important to minivan owners is fuel efficiency. This is where the 2011 Odyssey shines. Models with the five-speed transmission (LX, EX and EX-L) earn 18 mpg city/27 mpg highway (21 combined). The Touring/Touring Elite models, with the six-speed automatic, earn 19 mpg city/28 mpg highway (22 combined). With a standard 21-gallon fuel tank, the range on the highway should easily exceed 450 miles.
Safety also sells minivans, so Honda has made occupant and pedestrian protection part of its core business strategy. Standard safety equipment includes Vehicle Stability Assist (VSA) and four-wheel ABS with electronic brake distribution (EBD) and brake assist. Dual-stage, multiple-threshold front airbags and active head restraints protect those in the front seats and there are standard three-row side-curtain airbags with a rollover sensor for all outboard passengers within the cabin. The driver's and front passenger's side airbags are fitted with Honda's Occupant Position Detection System (OPDS) - an innovative technology that deactivates the side airbag if sensors determine that a child or small stature adult is leaning against the door.
Inside the cabin, all seating positions feature three-point seatbelts (automatic pretensioners on the front seats) and there is a class-leading total of five childseat Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH) positions (four in the entry-level Odyssey LX). There is also a "pedestrian injury mitigation design" in the front of the vehicle. The 2011 Honda Odyssey has not been crash tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) yet, but Honda says its Odyssey minivan is targeted to achieve the best 5-Star/Top Safety Pick scores.
We spent a full day with the 2011 Honda Odyssey in San Diego, but before heading out, we took a few minutes to sit in all three rows of the Odyssey - and each proved comfortable for a six-foot two-inch average-weight male. Even the third row, often the seating zone for small children, was accommodating thanks to the additional shoulder room gained by keeping the sliding door tracks low on the platform. Honda brought along a 2011 Toyota Sienna for comparison, and the third row in the Odyssey was noticeably roomier for our adult frames.
Turn the traditional key (there is no push-button start, as found on the Sienna) and the familiar V6 fires to a muted idle. Drop the dashboard-mounted shifter down into "D" and the Odyssey is good to go.
A slight press on the throttle sends the Odyssey off the line with confidence. Around town, there is more than enough torque to move around smartly and weave between the tourists who obviously aren't under any type of schedule. We spent about 15 minutes on the surface streets, never bumping much over 50 mph. The transmission shifts smoothly, the brakes work as expected and outward visibility is just fine. The power from the engine is exactly what you would expect from a six-cylinder eight-passenger minivan.
The new Odyssey was every bit as capable on the highway. Stable as a laden Honda Accord in its mannerisms, the minivan cruised down the highway at 70-plus with aplomb. We could have driven this way – content, comfortable and locked in conversation with our passenger – until the fuel tank ran dry.
However, prodigiously consuming fuel is not one of the Odyssey's strengths. While there was plenty of six-cylinder power around town, the minivan seemed to prefer running on fewer cylinders on the highway where it could squeeze another ten miles out of each gallon. Drop your right foot to pass at 60 mph and there's a slight hesitation (and a simultaneous downshift) as everything spools back up. It feels as if part of the engine has gone to sleep – because it has. While the behavior is far from a deal breaker (we became accustom to it after a few hours), it served to remind us that saving fuel was much more important than entertaining acceleration. And as it should be.
Over at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium, we took Honda up on their offer, but with reservation. Nobody enjoys flogging a 4,500-pound front-wheel-drive minivan around a road course – even when it's someone else's vehicle.
Not to burst anyone's bubble, but the Odyssey didn't carve corners like a Porsche Cayman. This is still a minivan, after all. Yet, when we expected it to exhibit severe understeer in the corners and roll over its front outside tire, it didn't. With 56 percent of its weight over the front tires, a wide track and some downright ingenious suspension tuning, the Odyssey feels almost neutral at the limit. Apply power mid-corner and the eight-passenger family hauler drifts wider and wider in a completely controlled increasing radius arch. While not exactly a joyride, it's safe and predictable (not sketchy and sloppy, as we had predicted). We refuse to call it sporty, but "impressively competent" seems like the best description.
After a long day driving around San Diego, we came away impressed by the Odyssey and had a much clearer picture of how it compares to the 2011 Toyota Sienna, its primary competitor.
Honda and Toyota have unquestionably raised the bar significantly with their latest round of completely redesigned minivans, leaving their primary competition all but wallowing in a trail of spilled Cheerios. Both vehicles offer comfortable accommodations for eight, with a slew of amenities and entertainment to keep occupants occupied through the road trip doldrums. However, the similarities end there.
While Toyota's product is sleekly styled, modern and sporty, it's Honda's approach – familiar, family-friendly and fuel efficient – that seems to have earned the edge.