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2021 Honda Odyssey First Test Drive: Family Tested, Family Approved

In which the extended Gold Family finds out just how family-friendly a minivan can be.

Aaron GoldWriterManufacturerPhotographer

PASADENA, California—In order to show off the new and notable features of the updated 2021 Odyssey, Honda invited me to the mother of all COVID-era press junkets: I was to gather my family together, pack them into the Odyssey Elite and head to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, where we'd drive onto the field, set up camp in our isolated "family pod," then watch Disney's The Lion King on the Jumbotron while munching on pizza, popcorn and candy. Yes, even in these difficult times, the job does not suck.

Turns out I'm the only one who took this really seriously. Most of the journos brought spouses and a kid or two. I packed our Odyssey to its seven-seat gills with my wife, her sister, her mother, my niece, her ex-boyfriend, and an overactive almost-five-year-old that my sister-in-law borrowed from a neighbor somewhere. Honda wanted us to do a real-world test of the Odyssey's family-friendly features, and that's what we did—for better and for worse.

Discovering the Features of the 2021 Honda Odyssey

Not all of the features worked as Honda intended. Take Cabin Watch, which lets parents keep an eye on the back two rows via a camera in the ceiling. It's a brilliant concept. I turned it on, glanced at the screen, and found myself with a bird's eye view straight down my mother-in-law's blouse.

Perhaps this was a collision of two good ideas. The Odyssey's second-row seats slide side-to-side to provide any arrangement you please, and I had positioned mine as a two-place bench to provide better access to the third row. I did this because Tyler, my niece's ex-boyfriend, wanted to sit back there with my niece, even though she has been insisting for the better part of a year that they are "just friends". I did not discourage this seating arrangement, because Tyler, besides being an extraordinarily sweet kid, is turning out to be a very talented auto mechanic and frankly would make a rather handy nephew-in-law. Also, seating two 19-year-olds next to an overactive almost-five-year-old is the best form of birth control education I know.

When Parents Talk, Kids Listen in the Honda Odyssey

That put my mother-in-law front-and-center in the second row and right in position under the camera. The resulting on-screen image elicited a screaming cackle from my sister-in-law, amplified by Cabin Talk, which we quickly renamed The Voice of God. This nifty device amplifies front-seat voices over the car's speakers, so parents no longer need to yell when threatening to turn the van around and go straight the hell home. Cabin Talk precludes use of the stereo, but that's okay—one of the things I learned on this adventure is that Radio Disney plays crap.

One unintended effect of Cabin Talk is that it gives all conversation a ballpark-announcer echo, which cracked up both me and the overactive almost-five-year-old (who we'll call "Cole" because that's his real name). I used my tour-guide voice to point out that the Rose Bowl was built in 1635 to commemorate Henry Hudson's discovery of Canada and is capable of leaping 30 feet straight into the air. This elicited peals of laughter from Cole, but to be fair, he also laughed when I used Cabin Talk to say the word "poop". Cole is my most receptive audience, if not my most sophisticated.

2021 Honda Odyssey: Stronger on Safety

All this activity may have somewhat diverted my attention away from the road. My wife and her sister can be rather vocal in their criticism of my driving, which generally comes in the form of them covering their eyes and screaming "Oh my God, we're going to die!" Well, joke's on them, because Honda has improved the Odyssey's collision-detecting radar and self-braking systems for 2021. Not that we ever actually needed them.

Well, okay, maybe we almost needed them—I had to make an emergency lane-change to avoid a rapidly-braking Escalade, which I probably would have seen sooner were it not for my mother-in-law, whose image was still on the Cabin Watch screen. Still, I'm sure we wouldn't have actually died in the crash, at least not if Honda's prediction of an IIHS Top Safety Pick Plus rating is correct.

I was paying sufficient attention to observe that active cruise control seemed to be a little better behaved than on other Hondas I've driven, which allowed me to concentrate on more important things, like turning on Cabin Talk and saying "poop". And I was impressed by the muscle of the 280-horsepower V-6, which had no problem getting our packed-to-the-rafters Odyssey up to speed. Well, good.

Odyssey's Niftiest Feature: The Built-In Vacuum

My wife and her sister's predictions notwithstanding, we arrived at the football field alive and intact. Before the requisite technical briefing on the van's changes (and yes, Honda people, I paid attention—the new brake booster reduces pedal travel and the second-row seats are now easier to remove—see?), Honda had a Cheerio-chucking contest to demonstrate the built-in Shop Vac, probably my favorite of the Odyssey's features.

For this little demo, Cole was given a container of Cheerios and told to hurl them all over himself and the back of the Odyssey. This blew his little overactive almost-five-year-old mind, as it rose counter to everything he'd been told (generally at full volume) for the past fifty-nine months, and it turned out to be the only messy and destructive activity to give him pause that evening. He exhausted his supply of Cheerios before really getting into the spirit of the thing, but that was okay, because he seemed to enjoy cleaning up the Cheerios with the vacuum even more. From the look on his face, he'd found the pinnacle of pre-pubescent bliss. Great—maybe he'll pursue a career as a housecleaner rather than a freelance demolition expert, as I have been predicting.

The Odyssey as a Mobile Jungle Gym

As the movie started, Tyler flipped the Odyssey's back seat backwards into tailgate mode, thinking Cole would rather enjoy this unique vantagepoint. (Tyler's going to make a brilliant parent some day.) Turns out Cole, who by now was riding a Red Vines-fueled sugar high, had already seen The Lion King some sixteen or seventeen thousand times, and he thought it would be a much better idea to use the reconfigured Honda as his own private jungle gym. I thought for sure we'd bend a back-seat headrest, which Cole was using as a sort of boatswain's chair, but all of the Odyssey's internal fittings seemed up to the worst an overactive almost-five-year-old could dish out. My guess is that no one on the Odyssey engineering team is childless.

When the movie ended, we snuck the uneaten candy into the deep well of the Odyssey's cargo bay and saddled up. My mother-in-law, despite criticizing the difficult climb in, seemed determined to occupy that same middle seat again. I made it a point to leave Cabin Watch switched off.

Our departure into the confusing tangle of streets surrounding the Rose Bowl led to a heated family-wide discussion about the accuracy of my sense of direction. My niece predicted we would get hopelessly lost and die, and I used the Voice of God to explain that no one dies of exposure in South Pasadena. "There are a thousand freeways in the greater Los Angeles area," I said. "If we make enough random turns, we're bound to run into one of them." It was pointed out to me that the top-of-the-line Elite trim we were driving has a navigation system. I replied that directions are for the weak. My niece is extraordinarily bright, but she lacks the life experience to know about the emasculating effects of GPS nav.

Once I realized that my wife really was correct in her suppositions about which way was actually north, I found the Ventura Freeway and sailed right back past the Rose Bowl, which we had apparently ventured much further away from than I realized. Twenty minutes later we were home, and Cole, contrary to my predictions, was wide-a-friggin'-wake. No matter; it was my sister-in-law's problem to get him home.

2021 Honda Odyssey Gets the Family Stamp of Approval

Criticisms of the Odyssey from the family were few. My niece said the proximity of her ex-boyfriend and resulting skin-to-skin contact was a bit uncomfortable, much to Tyler's chagrin. In slow traffic, the air conditioner had some trouble keeping up, but these were extreme conditions (seven passengers and a Southern California heat wave). And the styling changes for 2021—new grille, new LED headlights, new chrome garnish between the taillights—might not be enough for Odyssey owners looking for change.

But overall, I came away very impressed by the new Odyssey. I can think of a lot of vehicles that are sexier, but few that are better thought-out or more suited to purpose. We put every family-oriented feature Honda has to the test, and the Odyssey passed with flying colors.

Now if only my mother-in-law will stop calling, I can relax.

2021 Honda Odyssey Highlights

  • Revised front and rear styling
  • New electric brake booster
  • Enhanced active safety hardware now standard across the board

2021 Honda Odyssey Pros:

  • Heaps of family-friendly features
  • Much more comfortable for a big family than an SUV
  • Decent enough to drive

2021 Honda Odyssey Cons:

  • Nothing really springs to mind
2021 Honda Odyssey

 

2021 Honda Odyssey Elite Specifications

ON SALE Now
PRICE $32,910 (base) / $48,940 (as-tested)
ENGINE 3.5L SOHC 24-valve V-6/280 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 262 lb-ft @ 4,700 rpm
TRANSMISSION 10-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 7-8-passenger, front-engine, FWD minivan
EPA MILEAGE 18/28 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 205.2 x 78.5 x 69.6 in
WHEELBASE 118.1 in
WEIGHT 4,603 lb
0-60 MPH 6.7 sec