It was difficult, as we arrived in balmy San Diego, to drum up much excitement over the drive that lay ahead. Not because we were about to drive a minivan, mind you, but because that minivan, the Honda Odyssey, is already so darn good. The current iteration, which dates back to 2005, is still the best in its class. By a good margin. What drama could there be regarding the new one? How about this: In an attempt to draw younger families into the shrinking segment, Honda is proclaiming the new Odyssey to be "the minivan redefined." To which our natural response is: redefined how? And why? Was Honda about to ruin a good thing in order to attract customers who would otherwise purchase one of the brand's four crossovers? As if that's not enough, we learned that engineers had the audacity to retune the Odyssey's steering for less effort. (Cue foreboding music.)
OK, cut the music. In truth, the Odyssey has not been redefined at all. More like reinvigorated. Take, for instance, the styling, which deviates very little from the concept that debuted at the Chicago auto show. Unlike some new-age people movers, including Honda's own Accord Crosstour, there's no ambiguity regarding the Odyssey's purpose. Core minivan attributes such as dual sliding doors and a sloping nose remain sacrosanct. Instead, Honda follows the route taken by the new Toyota Sienna, wrapping a traditional minivan in sleeker and tauter sheet metal. Well, maybe not sleeker. The Odyssey rides between 0.4 and 1.5 inches lower on its larger seventeen- and eighteen-inch wheels (depending on trim level) but at the same time has grown about two inches wider and nearly an inch longer. The result can appear bloated and overwrought in pictures but in person comes off as fresh and upscale.
Mechanically, there's even less redefining going on. As before, the Odyssey comes solely with a 3.5-liter V-6, which gets four more horsepower, for a total of 248 hp. Cylinder deactivation, an option on the last model, is now standard. We hope that the new six-speed automatic transmission will soon be standard as well. For now, it only comes on Touring and Touring Elite models. Even with the old five-speed slushbox, fuel economy improves to a best-in-class 18/27 mpg (six-speed models achieve 19/28 mpg) thanks largely to minor engine improvements, lower-rolling-resistance tires, a significant diet, and the more aerodynamic shape. Where the new transmission really makes a difference is in drivability, as five-speed models strain noticeably when accelerating up a grade. With either transmission, the Odyssey feels slower and less refined than a six-cylinder Sienna, which enjoys a 20-hp advantage.
That said, the Honda would still be our minivan of choice to drive on all but the straightest, smoothest roads. The Odyssey retains its independent rear suspension -- a rarity in the segment - and presses its ride and handling advantage with a stiffer unibody, softer bushings, and new bypass dampers that provide better body control over most surfaces but soften large impacts. It doesn't hurt that it's lost 50 to 100 pounds (depending on trim). Through mountain switchbacks and then an autocross course -- yes, an autocross course -- the new setup provided predictable, controlled, and creak-free handling along with a slightly more isolated ride than the old model. As for the steering, we were unable to discern any difference in feel and effort save for in parking lots, where it is slightly easier to maneuver. Everywhere else, it's still quick and precise enough to mask the vehicle's size during spirited driving. Mind you, the seventeen-foot-long Odyssey is no Civic Si. But should you venture off the highway and get lost on an undulating and winding road, the kids probably won't get carsick and neither will you.
If you're in an upper trim level Odyssey, though, you probably won't get lost-and the kids won't care where you drive. Whereas the last-gen model relied on the same compromised navigation system offered in a $20,000 Fit, the new Odyssey gets a much improved hard-drive-based setup that's easier to use and far better at scoping out points of interest. The 15-gigabyte hard drive can also store music from USB devices connected through a new port in the glovebox. In back, the optional flip-down video player can now display two movies on one wide LCD screen. Top-of-the-line Touring Elite models, essentially Acuras minus the badge, add a 650-watt surround-sound stereo and an HDMI input for the rear entertainment system. Aesthetically, the update is less ambitious. There are some more soft plastics-including a crucial piece atop the inner door panel -- and the whole dash takes on the functional, if somewhat busy, design of the current Accord. It's by far the most attractive, highest quality cabin you'll find in a minivan, but it doesn't try as hard to impress as what you'll find in most similarly priced crossovers.
Of course, the Odyssey's calling card has always been its versatility, and that hasn't changed. Whereas competitors have ventured into clever gimmicks like card tables and recliner seats, Honda has mined even more functionality and comfort out of the tried-and-true minivan layout. Lead interior engineer Rudy Mayne takes us through the changes with all the exuberance one expects of a proud parent: outboard second-row seats now shift 1.5 inches sideways so as to make room for a third child seat in the center (for a baby toting total of six, overall); the third-row seats offer more legroom (best in class) and fold into the floor with greater ease than before; rear storage has been increased by relocating the spare tire to the floor beneath the driver and the front passenger; and the removable center armrest now has a concealed storage area large enough for purses and features a flip-up ring on which to hang small trash bags. Cupholders? Fifteen, plus a cooler under the center console that will store four more bottles. As in previous Odysseys, the features all work as advertised and serve a clear purpose beyond advertising fodder.
This functionality is ultimately what makes the new Odyssey worthy of its name and distinguishes it from the pack. It may wear more stylish threads but rest assured, it's the thoroughly engineered competence that makes this Odyssey what it always has been: the best minivan, period.
2011 Honda Odyssey
On sale: Now
Base price: $28,580
Engine: 3.5L V-6 248 hp; 250 lb-ft