Long suffering from the stigma of being boring suburban family haulers, a symbol of a sedentary life, Japanese automakers are injecting new energy into the segment, turning the old minivan into a 21st-century living room on wheels. We recently spent time with a 2011 Toyota Sienna, got a sneak peek at the 2011 Nissan Quest, and now have gotten our hands on a 2011 Honda Odyssey, in Touring Elite trim.
Although still relying on its 3.5-liter V-6 under the hood, Honda upped the power over the previous model a little bit, and went from a five- to a six-speed automatic. Bigger changes come in the cabin tech and the exterior styling, with some hand-me-down electronics from the Acura brand.
The look of the Odyssey uses a new angular styling for Honda that we first saw on the new Pilot. On the Odyssey, you can see it in the tight grille design, the lower intake, and the headlight casings. On the sides, the front and rear door handles come together with geometrical precision, and even the ends of the side mirrors are squared off.
But then we come to the rear of the Odyssey, where a kink in the side graphic makes it look like the back end is falling off. The designers may have been trying to draw attention away from the sliding door rail, a necessary evil with the side doors.
We were very pleased with the functionality of the Odyssey's design. As with any top trim minivan, the sliding doors and rear hatch open at the touch of a button, a convenient feature. In the rear, the third-row seats fold very easily into the floor, creating a flat load space. The center console between the front seats can even be removed, making a clear path from front seats to rear.
The driver gets a commanding view of the road from which to maneuver the Odyssey. Drivability is a key attribute of minivans, and we found no difficulties with this car. At a touch of the accelerator, it promptly moved off the line with no hesitation or drama. Acceleration was smooth, letting us creep around parking lots or slog through traffic at low speed. Variable power steering made it easy to turn the wheel from a stop.
Picking up the pace, the cabin suppressed road and engine noise well. The ride tended toward firm, but was not uncomfortable. The engine moved the Odyssey without strain, and it accelerated well when we stomped the gas pedal. Variable power steering gives the wheel more road feel at higher speeds, and helped to keep it centered.
The Odyssey's V-6 generates 248 horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque, up from the previous generation's 241 horsepower and 242 pound-feet of torque. The engine features Honda's i-VTEC variable valve timing technology, but also uses a cylinder deactivation system to save fuel. This system runs the engine on three, four, or all six cylinders depending on power needs.
While driving the Odyssey, we never felt changes as cylinders powered up, a mark of good engineering. EPA ratings for the Odyssey Touring Elite give it 19 mpg city and 28 mpg highway. In city driving and heavy traffic, we frequently saw the trip computer give us around 17 mpg, definitely on the low side, and ended up with an average fuel economy of 19.5 mpg.
Impressively, the Odyssey earns an Ultra Low Emission Vehicle rating under California's emissions rating system, which tests for smog causing pollutants.
The Touring and Touring Elite trim Odysseys get the best fuel economy of the lineup because they come equipped with six-speed automatic transmissions, rather than the five speeds in the lesser trim vehicles, although the variance is only 1 mpg. The shifter in our Odyssey offered the basic options, with a single low range, but no manual gear selection. Its built-in Grade Logic feature works as a hill start assist.