Editor's note: This review was written in September 2010 about the 2011 Honda Odyssey. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2012, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
Honda's Odyssey is about as thrilling a vehicle as a minivan can be — which is not all that exhilarating. To woo parents, the redesigned 2011 model is relying on features like an expandable second row that fits three child-safety seats, a built-in trash bag holder, and enough cupholders for 15 cans, bottles and juice boxes. The somewhat odd profile design will likely be the last thing Odyssey shoppers notice.
For parents willing to pay up for the top-of-the-line $43,250 Odyssey, their little ones will literally be sitting in a surround-sound mobile movie theater that sounds better than any home theater I've set up.
Yes, the Honda Odyssey is nirvana for suburban parents — but that nirvana doesn't come cheap.
Parent Friendly, Kid Comfort
There are a lot of nuts and bolts to like about the Odyssey; it drives well and has lots of room. While the most notable additions for 2011 may seem gimmicky on the surface, they could be considered genius for those of us who transport little ones routinely. To see each trim level's features and pricing, check out our breakdown of all seven trims here.
The one feature that might entice more buyers than any other is the expandable second row of seats. In trim levels EX and above — which includes all but the base LX — you get an adjustable second row with full-size outboard seats and a smaller center seat. The three segments slide forward and back, and the two outboard seats can slide 1.5 inches sideways, adding 3 inches of width. This allows three large child-safety seats to fit across the row.
The Odyssey EX, EX-L and Touring trims have five sets of Latch anchors, two in the third row and the three in the second. Learning to move the seats sideways isn't exactly intuitive — given I've never seen another vehicle with the feature — but the effort it requires is minimal; even an older child may be able to handle it.
I tested my Britax Marathon child seat in the Odyssey, expanding the two outboard seats and latching the Britax in the center. The connectors are covered by sturdy plastic pieces that are easy to remove. Once it was in place, I could sit in the outboard seat comfortably. This added space is a godsend for families with three or more children.
Even if you have just one child requiring a safety seat, the middle seat is the safest in any vehicle. A pair of grandparents can flank the littlest in the safety seat in the second row, with three more children in the third row, and all will be comfortable.
The center seat can also slide forward more than the outboard seats, bringing it closer to the driver. In theory, this is so the driver has better access to a young child — though child-safety seats are recommended to face rearward until children are at least 1 year old, and some are now saying 2. The tradeoff for better access to a front-facing safety seat will be little feet kicking between the driver and front passenger. That might be a tough decision to make.
The third row is easier to get into than it was before, with a single lever to slide either second-row side seat forward. Once back there, an adult — say, one who is 5 feet 10 inches tall, like myself — actually has extra space for his knees and feet, even with the adjustable second row slid all the way back.
All the seats are comfortable when compared with the competition. The driver's seat sits upright a bit, like in most minivans. The second-row seats are nice and wide, so adults will be comfortable on road trips, and the third row has plenty of room for angst-ridden teens who want to be as far from the parental units as possible. The leather in the EX-L and Touring trim levels is quite nice, but it doesn't seem as rich as the previous generation, which was on par with the Acura luxury brand. The cloth upholstery in the LX and EX is a bit too nappy and thick for a modern car interior; it reminded me of a minivan from my own youth, in the 1980s. But the cloth seats themselves were comfortable.
Performance on the Road
No matter how comfortable the kids are in back, Mom and Dad still have to drive — at least until little Bobby or Sue hits 16 and the gray hairs start coming in. The same V-6 engine from last year's Touring trim is found in all trims for 2011.
The V-6 moves the van — which has dropped 100 pounds from last year — with pep. The six-speed transmission is smooth, but even the five-speed does the job superbly. I recommend against making a trim-level decision based on the transmissions; there simply isn't a big enough improvement when moving up to the six-speed. If you opt for the Touring, it should be because of all its added gizmos and features.
The V-6 is the only engine offered and adds four horsepower, now rated at 248 horsepower but all have cylinder deactivation that leads to exceptional mileage: 18/27 mpg city/highway when teamed with a five-speed automatic. The Touring and Touring Elite models get a six-speed automatic and some aerodynamic tweaks to achieve 19/28 mpg. Both figures are tops in the class, even against the four-cylinder 2011 Toyota Sienna, which gets 19/24 mpg.
Most minivan driving is likely to be on suburban roads, which usually translates to city mileage. In two 35-mile routes of mixed roads, while pushing the V-6 pretty hard, the trip computer in the Touring I tested returned 23 and 21 mpg.
The power steering is designed so that it takes less effort to maneuver at low speeds in parking lots, while being firmer at high speeds. That theory proved true during my test drive, but at speeds around 35 mph the steering seemed a bit sloppy for a Honda. I took an EX-L trim for a shorter trip, and the steering seemed better-tuned. Perhaps it was an anomaly of the preproduction unit I was driving.
Braking was solid, but not as grippy as most Hondas, including the past-generation Odyssey. It has good linear feel, and the instant you start depressing the brake pedal the large van starts to slow noticeably. Minivans from Chrysler and Dodge take more effort to slow down, and we noticed the response is also somewhat delayed in the new Toyota Sienna.
Perhaps the most important driving characteristic for a minivan, however, is its ride. The Odyssey does an excellent job of muting rough roads (of which I traveled many during my test) and even severe disruptions like railroad tracks (of which I hit at least three).
The Odyssey has a slightly shorter wheelbase than its competition while being longer overall. It was hard to notice any type of flex in the large body during my time in it, which really is a tribute to its engineering.
While there was some road noise in the Touring trim with its 18-inch wheels and low-rolling-resistance tires, the 17-inch models were quieter, and overall neither road nor wind noise was overly intrusive.
Interior & Cargo
A winged dashboard layout keeps things as simple as possible in a minivan loaded with gizmos. The center stack of controls is broken up into a number of zones: climate controls on top, then audio settings, DVD (if equipped) and a center control knob at the bottom that's the easiest to reach of them all.
The materials quality is typical for Honda, which is to say excellent. It seems richer than an Accord and certainly more so than a Pilot SUV. With leather seating, the higher trims seem too opulent to accommodate a busy family, which generally equals a messy family.
To me, what separates Honda from other automakers can be exemplified in the small drawer below the center controls. It's sized to fit a few small items, like a smartphone and wallet, and the drawer itself is constructed of high-quality plastic that slides out smoothly. In Chrysler minivans, these types of drawers stutter out in harsh jolts and are made of rough plastic. This high level of quality is evident in all the Odyssey's cubbies and seat-adjustment levers, as well as the glove box, and it really is a hallmark of this brand.
Cargo space behind the third row is unchanged for 2011, at 38.4 cubic feet. That's slightly smaller than the Toyota Sienna's. With the third row folded flat, cargo space expands to 93.1 cubic feet, which is more than the Sienna's 87.1 cubic feet. With the second row removed, the Odyssey has a total of 148.5 cubic feet, just behind the Sienna's 150 cubic feet. Both outdo the Chrysler minivans.
The third row folds easily into the rear cargo compartment using a single strap and one fluid motion that requires little effort. A power liftgate is standard on EX-L and Touring trims, but there is no optional powered third row.
Features & Gadgets
Among the many dizzying differences between trims are the electronic gadgets that come with each. You can't add a bigger or better stereo to a given trim as an option, you have to buy whatever trim comes equipped with that stereo, navigation system or rear entertainment system.
When you move up to the EX-L, the stereo system features an 8-inch color display and USB port. All your iPod songs are displayed with artwork, which looks pretty snazzy.
An all-new navigation system is offered on the EX-L Navigation and both Touring trims. This has a higher-resolution 8-inch screen and a number of high-tech features that we detail in depth here.
If you want rear entertainment options, there are only two trim levels to choose from. The EX-L with Rear Entertainment System (RES) features a 9-inch LCD screen with two wireless headphones and an RCA input — the norm for the minivan class.
But it's the top-of-the-line Touring Elite that will blow your little kids' minds. It comes packed with a 16.2-inch widescreen display and 650-watt surround-sound system with 12 speakers. Yes, kids can listen to a movie (or two if you split the screen to show two different sources) with wireless headphones, but the surround-sound system is stunning. Parents can shift the sound to the rear two rows so nothing comes out the front speakers. You can still hear the movie up front, but it isn't completely distracting. I tested the system with the animated movie "Cars" playing quite loudly, enveloping me in racecar sound effects, but up front it sounded like background noise. The system also comes with an HDMI input for digital accessories.
Other nice touches include integrated sunshades for the power-sliding doors and a pop-up trash bag ring that can fit a plastic shopping bag to collect all the trash that kids seem to generate out of thin air. Rear passengers can also control their temperature and fan speed in EX trims and above.
The Odyssey features a standard slate of airbags, including seat-mounted side airbags for front passengers and side curtain airbags for all three rows. As mentioned above, there are Latch anchors for five child-safety seats. No safety ratings from the government or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety have yet been released. The previous Odyssey was an IIHS Top Safety Pick.
Odyssey in the Market
If you have more kids than you can fit in a sedan, it's likely you're considering a minivan or a three-row crossover. If you're not turned off by the minivan stigma, the Odyssey should be your first stop when shopping. I recommend leaving the kids at home, though, because once they hear that surround-sound system in the Touring Elite, they will not let you buy a lesser trim.
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