2011 Honda Odyssey Touring Elite Road Test

Honda Rethinks Minivan Stereotype, but is it a Winner?

What It Is/Who It's For

Honda's minivan no longer relegated to "Soccer Mom" status.

Best Thing

28 mpg highway and capable of holding five LATCH booster seats.

Worst Thing

$44,000 for a minivan?!

Snap Judgment

Best in class van is better than ever, and even kind of cool.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

Introduction

There wasn't much wrong with 2010's class-leading Honda Odyssey, but automotive designs age quickly these days, and to stay at the top, you have to think beyond the present. So, how did Honda transform the best vehicle in its lineup into a cooler version of itself?

The first thing that stands out on the 2011 Honda Odyssey -- for better or worse -- is the lightning bolt styling. Honda dropped the watered-down cliched box look by altering the shape of the windows and rounding out the rear with its signature new "bolt." It looks sleeker and sportier as a result, and is the freshest in-segment design change to visually impact the minivan scene since the Toyota Previa. Under the shiny, new sheet metal, Honda added to its list of safety features, including a world-beating five LATCH system hooks. Add to that an already impressive list of amenities and options, as well as its Honda reliability, and it's hard to argue against the incumbent.

Our 2011 Honda Odyssey test vehicle was an every-box-checked Touring Elite, complete with the standard 248-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 and six-speed automatic transmission. But at a staggering $44,335, is Touring Elite a better bet practically than the competition, or even a lesser trim model?

Safety and Technology

In Greek, Odyssey means peace of mind. Well, not really, but it should, since the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration and the Institute for Highway Safety each ranked the 2011 Honda Odyssey with its highest possible safety ratings. It's the first and only van with that accomplishment, and for good reason. It's got front, dual-stage airbags, front side airbags, and side curtain airbags that wrap around even the third row. But wait, there's more! If you ignore the Blindspot Information System warnings and nearly run into another car, the Vehicle Stability Assist and electronic stability control will keep you on the road, and if you unskillfully overcompensate with the steering wheel, Electronic Brake Distribution will apply appropriate brake pressure to compensate. With the available ultra-wide 16.2-inch DVD rear entertainment system with Dolby surround sound, little Sally and Johnny in the second row will never notice your lane-keeping inadequacies, rumble strips and all.

Of course, the feature that sets the Odyssey a part from the crowd of worthy followers is that it can seat five infant and booster seats via the LATCH system, including three wide in the second row. Best of all, this feature is standard across the entire Odyssey range, so if you have triplets, or quintuplets, then you're good, and safe. Sorry, Octomom, you'll still have to get a Sprinter.

The Commute

When you first climb into the Odyssey, you'll marvel at how big it feels compared to how slim and toned-down the sporty exterior looks. Behind the wheel, with an expansive front view, it's like controlling the Starship Enterprise, not a road-going, kid hauler. But after settling into the couch-like leather interior and familiarizing yourself with the controls, the Odyssey calmly glides down the highway without effort.

And glide it does, to the tune of 28 mpg highway with the Touring Elite's six-speed automatic transmission. At freeway speed, engine noise is relatively low with the six-speed's extra gear, which keeps the engine revs to a fuel-sipping low. Punch the throttle to pass, though, and the engine jumps to life -- even with seven grown men occupying 99-percent of available seat space, like we did on the way to lunch one afternoon.

Up front, the couch-like interior was plush, though marginally supportive to those of us with slighter frame. Steering wheel controls were predictably placed, though it took a full arm's length to reach the center stack. Clearly, Honda's designers prefer your companion(s) to control the dash, so the Odyssey may not be the best to operate solo.

On a full tank, with mixed driving and perhaps too-heavy a right foot, our Odyssey Touring Elite returned 410 miles when the fuel light turned on, with an observed 21.98 miles per gallon, pretty much to the letter as advertised.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

The Grocery Run

For the grocery run, or the IKEA run, or Dad's solo trip to BevMo, the Odyssey's multi-configurable interior has ample storage and cargo space. Up front, there's a cooled cooler under the center stack. Place a Gatorade or Aquafina bottle in the cubby, turn on the AC, and your beverage stays cold. Lose a quarter in the center armrest and you'll go through nine circles of storage hell trying to find it. This is a good problem to have if you own a purse. And a scarf. And a jacket. And an iPod. And one hundred other little superfluous things that would also probably fit in the glove box. At the same time.

The rear is no different. Fold down the second and third row seats and you have a large, wide, flat space. Enough for a MALM 4-drawer chest, MALM bed frame and mattress, a trip to Target, and according to one editor, plenty of room for an extra macho taco. But that's not all. For me, the Odyssey's interior became a playground jungle gym, picnic site, and partitioned dog bed. Thanks to the multi-configurable second row, you can fit three booster seats in all three positions, opening up the rear area for nothing but cargo, if need be. And during the right season, we would have tested the third-row tail-gate seats and HDMI interface. If that doesn't speak for the Odyssey's utility and recreational value, then what else is there?

Well, our "tall Accord" traversed inches of standing water, got its shoes dirty off the beaten path, and dodged runaway Costco shopping carts like Luke Skywalker's X-Wing with little more than two-thumbed effort. It's useful, sure, but so is every other minivan. What sets it apart, though, is how fun it is.

The Weekend Fun

Americans don't normally associate minivans with fun. After all, the segment represents the antithesis of automotive awesome: tall, heavy, ugly, and slow. But with the latest Odyssey, Honda managed to build a van that, while still tall and heavy, offers less of a compromise in the cool department.

Much of the Odyssey's cool starts with the 248-hp, 3.5-liter V-6. It's a detuned and reworked variant of the V-6 found in the understated and surprisingly quick Accord. Like the Accord, the Odyssey's intake tune rumbles like a bear struck by lightning, a terrifying but wholly pleasing arrangement that begs you never to let off the gas. Minivans are not supposed to sound this pleasing.

At 4560 pounds, the Odyssey is heavier and less powerful than similarly equipped competition from Toyota, yet with a better six-speed automatic transmission than the Sienna, the Odyssey is as quick and more efficient. For the numbers people, that means a sprint to freeway speeds in about 8.0 seconds, and it demonstrates more than enough power to chirp the wheels in first gear. Because there's nothing cooler than doing a burnout in a minivan, right?

By only the second morning with the van, with kids and dogs in tow, it felt like I had been driving the Odyssey for years. On the way to Joshua Tree National Park, I weaved in and out of traffic, punching the gas as necessary to pass slower traffic. On a windy two-lane road through the mountains into the high desert, the Odyssey felt big, but as predictable and controlled as an Accord. By not having to worry about laboring through traffic, I was more able to enjoy the scenery and the company of my family. Of course, the widescreen DVD system and headphones helped hush the kids in the back while the Missus and I enjoyed a separate audio source up front.

On mountain roads, the Odyssey required little effort or attention. Lithe may not be the right word, but the brakes and the suspension ensured easy and satisfying control in turns at the posted speed limit. I've driven cars with less feel for the road, and it's a remarkable accomplishment that Honda's Big Friendly Giant is as comfortable and engaging as a sporty family sedan.

Summary

It's hard not to like the 2011 Honda Odyssey Touring Elite. Unless subjectively, that is, you're not into the new "lightning bolt." But with five LATCH points, the Odyssey is the King of the Carpool and best small-kid hauler on the market, gets 3 mpg better highway mileage than any comparably equipped competitor, is the only minivan to max out crash tests from NHTSA and IIHS, and, well, it's loads of fun to drive, too. So, is all of that worth $44,000?

Here's the definitive non-answer: Maybe. If you're the kind of driver who's constantly changing vehicles every few years, then you'll fail to see the value of spending that much money on what we feel is the best van in the segment. With our money, however, we'd save $10,000, instead opting for the Odyssey EX-L, foregoing the NAV/DVD combo and six-speed transmission.

Spec Box

$44,335
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 19 mpg
EPA Highway: 28 mpg
EPA Combined: 22 mpg
Estimated Combined Range: 588 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Average

Notebook Quotes

"The same engineers who tuned the Accord V-6 saw it fit to bestow the Odyssey with the same motivation." - Blake Rong
"Tall Accord, and that's a good thing." - Jason Davis
"Honda's 'lightning bolt' side window kickdown is intended to improve visibility for third row passengers, but it doesn't help the driver to see what's to the rear of the van." - Keith Buglewicz

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