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.