Dream big, that's what we say. Honda did with its new Odyssey. Honda engineers wanted to take their van from merely excellent to desirable, even cool. They wanted it to look like a "ferocious lion." Did they succeed? Uh . . . no. But their efforts have made the Odyssey far nicer in most aspects, if a bit less so in one.
The outgoing model was pretty nice already. True, competitors were breathing down the Odyssey's tailpipe. The Toyota Sienna, in particular, has combined Camry-esque-some would say Lexus-like-refinement with the full plethora of modern minivan features both major and mundane, from all-wheel drive and curtain air bags to roll-down windows in the sliding doors and side-window sunshades. Then there's the ultra-stylized Nissan Quest-and, really, if a cool minivan were possible, this would be it-which boasts fold-flat third- and second-row seats, a power tailgate (both also offered by Chrysler), and multiportal sunroofs.
Surprisingly, Honda did not match its competitors with regard to two major features. Its second-row seats do not fold into the floor (they must be removed), so buyers who frequently convert their vans into big cargo boxes might be better served by a Nissan or a Chrysler. Also missing is optional all-wheel drive, leaving the winter-wary to shop Toyota or GM.
Otherwise, Honda filled its cart at the minivan features mart, adding side curtain air bags with three-row coverage, a power tailgate, a sunroof, stability control, roll-down windows in the sliding doors, a convex "schoolbus driver" second inside mirror, a 60/40 split third seat, side-window sunshades, power-adjustable pedals, and a rearview camera. Honda further upped the ante with a few new items of its very own, including a "PlusOne" middle seat that can be added to the second row (raising total capacity to eight) and an in-floor storage well accessed through a hatch behind the front seats.
In the previous model, that storage well was home to the spare tire, which has migrated to the far corner of the cargo area; uplevel models, which get run-flat tires, can go spare-less. Honda engineers allow that the well also would make a perfect home for the battery pack, should the Odyssey get the company's hybrid powertrain (going into the Accord this fall).
For now, the Odyssey retains its 3.5-liter V-6 and five-speed automatic. That engine's 255 horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque (up from last year's 240 and 242) put Honda atop the minivan class, albeit just barely. There actually are two versions of the engine, a VTEC and an iVTEC. Both have the same output, but the iVTEC, found in the leather-trimmed EX and the new range-topping Touring, can shut down one bank of cylinders, thus traveling one extra mile per gallon in city driving and three on the highway. To combat the inherent noise from running only three cylinders, iVTEC Odysseys feature active noise cancellation, which works through the sound system's speakers. The effect isn't exactly like donning noise-canceling headphones, but overall the Odyssey (with either engine) is quieter than before. It also rides better, now that the rear dampers are mounted in an upright position. The Sienna's influence can be seen in the move toward greater quiet and refinement, but we can't cheer the Toyota-like steering. The Odyssey has lost the sport-sedan feel and reassuring buildup of effort that made the steering in the old model such a standout.
Otherwise, though, there are no dissenting notes. A shorter nose yields a two-inch-longer cabin; the extra space is applied directly to third-seat legroom. The back bench is also easier to access and flops into and out of the floor with less effort. Up front, the new instrument panel is more upscale and now houses the shifter. In between, the DVD player's nine-inch screen offers better video gazing.
The new Odyssey might not be a ferocious beast, but it will be welcomed again as a loyal member of the family.