Over the last decade sales of the once-popular minivan have dropped dramatically from their peak in the mid-1990s and many automakers have quit the segment altogether including both Ford and General Motors. Despite the slowdown, it still remains a very substantial and profitable market and Honda intends to stick with it.
This month Honda is introducing the fourth generation of it popular Odyssey minivan with an all-new look and some very family-friendly design details. Honda got off to a slow start with minivans with the original Odyssey actually being somewhat ahead of its time. That Japanese designed model was smaller than the class-leading Chrysler vans and only came with four-cylinder engines.
Subsequent generations of the American market Odyssey have been developed almost entirely by Honda R&D in the United States and built at Honda's Lincoln Alabama factory. With a focus on American consumers, the post-1999 models were larger and powered by V6 engines. That holds true with the newest edition which is about two inches wider, three-quarters of an inch longer but three-eighths of an inch lower.
The minivan segment is generally pretty staid from a design standpoint, but as people movers go, the new Odyssey is a bit more bold than prior editions. The goal was to create a "100-meter design" that was instantly recognizable. The Honda designers produced what they describe as a" dynamic mono-volume." The most unique aspect is the side glass shape with its lightning bolt beltline.
The aim was give the vehicle a rising beltline that helps impart a feeling of motion and aggressiveness. The problem is that having a line with such a slope over the length of a van would leave very narrow rear windows with poor visibility. The solution was the kink just behind the C-pillar that gives the Odyssey a distinctive look while retaining the wedge and providing third row passengers with an airy outward view.
The weakest aspect of the Odyssey's styling is the prominent cut-lines on the side bodywork, especially the track for the sliding doors. Unlike the Chryslers and the Toyota Sienna which hide the track under the lower edge of the glass, the Honda groove is in the middle of the sheet-metal between the glass and wheel arch. Honda explains that this was done so that the track mechanism and motors are mounted lower in the body. The result is five inches more shoulder room in the third row seat.
The same rationale was true on the last two generations, but character lines in the bodywork were inline with the groove and helped to visually camouflage it. On the 2011 model, the sheet-metal ahead of the slot is flat causing it to appear much more prominent. Thankfully the the whole effect is reduced dramatically when the Odyssey is painted in one of the darker color options.
Power for the Odyssey comes from an updated version of the 3.5-liter V6 used on the previous edition. The V6 now produces an extra four horsepower for a total of 248 hp and five more pound feet of torque bringing the peak to the 250. More importantly the new calibrations improve the mid-range torque response by five percent for improved drivability. The Odyssey Touring is the first Honda badged model to adopt the six-speed automatic transmission that debuted in the Acura MDX and ZDX. The LX, EX and EX-L models retain the older five-speed automatic for 2011.
While the basic specifications of the V6 are carried over, Honda engineers have spent a lot time tweaking the internals to reduce friction and improve combustion efficiency. A new dual finite electrode spark plug and cold-air intake system work with molybdenum coated pistons and cylinder deactivation to increase the overall efficiency of the engine by 11 percent.
Honda has also increased the use of high-strength steels which now comprise 59 percent of the Odyssey's structure. The roof is now more than twice as strong and the sides as nearly four times as resistant to intrusions. Despite the extra beefiness, the 2011 model is 103 pounds lighter than its predecessor. The top Touring Elite model is now rated by the EPA at 19 mpg in the city and 28 mpg on the highway, improvements of 2 and 3 mpg respectively.
Inside the Odyssey has an attractive and functional control layout. The center stack buttons have now been reconfigured to group all of the climate controls at together at the top, the entertainment system in the middle and navigation controls at the bottom. Below the controls, Honda has added a "media drawer" for storing phones and other electronic devices with charging ports right beside the drawer. In the bottom of the stack is a storage bin with chilled air passing through it to keep drinks cool.
The extra two inches of width have been put to good use in the second row where the two outboard seats can now be moved outward away from the center position by four inches (two inches on each side). With the seats in wide-mode, three child safety seats can be installed across the second row. In addition two more child seats can be installed in the third row bringing the total to five. The second row middle seat can also slide forward by 5.5 inches independently of the outboard chairs allowing a parent in the front seats to more easily attend to a child.
Even without the child seats the wide mode provides extra shoulder room for three adults to sit in the second row. Even the third row can accommodate three with plenty of leg room although it's a bit tight laterally for adults. Both the floor console between the front seats and the second row center seat are removable for easy walk through to the back. With the third row folded flat into the rear floor, the Odyssey can swallow 10 foot long items between the seats with the tailgate closed.
On the road, the 2011 Odyssey is surprisingly pleasant to drive even for an enthusiast. The V6 engine offers plenty of power and torque for its intended purpose and the new transmission shifts seamlessly. Brake rotors have been increased in diameter at both ends of the Odyssey and the system has been re-tuned to provide a more linear feel. The results were obvious on the road where vehicle deceleration was more proportional to how hard the brake pedal was applied.
The all-independent suspension system gives a very good compromise between ride and handling. Even over the broken pavement that covers much of southeast Michigan the Odyssey absorbed the bumps and pot-holes without much upset and the body-roll was surprisingly restrained. The steering was linear in its responses with no noticeable dead spots around the on-center position. For our tastes which generally run to the more sporting extreme, the effort was a bit on the light side, but most people inclined to buy a van will probably appreciate it when maneuvering in tight parking lots.
The Odyssey is an excellent example of a modern minivan optimized to the needs of moving people. It's comfortable, roomy and in darker colors, quite stylish. It has plenty of amenities and it seems well put together. Honda dealers will start selling the 2011 Odyssey on September 30, starting at $28,580 (including destination for the base EX model. The top end Touring Elite will run $44,030 delivered.