By Mark Kleis
Friday, Sep 10th, 2010 @ 12:00 pm
 
Ah, the minivan. Once a raging sensation for soccer moms across America, the mere word is now considered little more than a punch line to most would-be owners. As sales have dramatically dropped off for minivans in recent years, some automakers have exited the segment entirely.

The folks at Honda are confident that their new Odyssey will help to fuel a rebirth of the segment and begin to bring sales back to and upward trend - but does this Honda have what it takes to help reverse the near-death of the minivan and all that once was glorious about these practical people movers? The outgoing Odyssey was the segment's sales darling, but its 2005 model year introduction marked it a little long in the tooth.

Let's find out if the 2011 has what it takes.

Fourth-generation Odyssey aims to be the best yet
Although many attribute the birth of the American minivan General Motors' Harley J. Earl back in 1955 with the L'Universelle "Dream Truck," Honda is certainly no stranger to the minivan segment, having entered it back in 1995 with its quirky first-generation Odyssey minivan. Fast-forward 16 years and four generations later of the popular minivan and you have the most uniquely styled Honda minivan to date.

In order to best plead its case as the most practical family vehicle for American consumers, Honda made the latest Odyssey wider, longer, quieter, more powerful and more fuel efficient than the previous model. In the process it also added a slew of new features, a more stylized exterior design and a surprisingly sporty feel behind the wheel. At first glance, it sounds like a recipe for success - but let's delve into more detail.

Dare we say entertaining to drive
If we were to pick a single attribute of the Odyssey that most impressed us, we would have to go with how little the Odyssey drove like a traditional minivan of yesteryear. A quick spin won't make you forget that there's a huge people-and-junk-hauling cabin behind you, but the Odyssey's agility is remarkable.

Honda says they put considerable time and effort into making the Odyssey a "driver's minivan," so much so in fact they decided to provide us with a "capabilities course" to truly test out what this minivan could do. It might not feel natural to toss a minivan around on an autocross course, but we obliged and quickly buried our right foot on the "get up and go" pedal.

Naught to 60 sprints come in at 8.8 seconds, just beating the 2011 Toyota Sienna's 9-second flat time. This acceleration is achieved by a slightly improved 248 horsepower and 250 lb-ft. of torque rating coming from the exclusively available 3.5-liter V6. Our track model was the range-topping Touring model, which comes with a six-speed automatic transmission (some lesser models still feature a five-speed automatic).

We found the engine and transmission to be well matched for the vehicle, with our only real complaint being the sometimes disappointing delays in downshifting when more power was needed.

Of course, once you get up and go, you also need to be able to slow. For that, Honda provided the 2011 Odyssey with confident braking, which the automaker says is best-in-class (although the total spread in the segment from best to worst is just a few feet, wet or dry).

It's what is on the inside that counts, right?
Let's be honest: We aren't exactly the target customer that Honda has in mind with their minivan. We have no kids to haul, no soccer practice to get to and rarely make a Costco run large enough to warrant more than a hatchback or large trunk.

No problem, we say, a little role playing can be fun from time to time - and this isn't Leftlane's first minivan rodeo, anyway.

Once we left the parking lot we immediately began to test out the most important part of the minivan - the rear cabin. We climbed from seat to seat, checking for ride comfort, visibility, access to cupholders and HVAC controls, and of course the practically required infotainment system. While the rear of the Odyssey will be mostly familiar to anyone that has ever spent time in rear three-quarters of a minivan, there are some interesting observations and innovations worth discussing.

For one, Honda has developed a unique seat management system that allows the middle row to be slightly stretched, providing for an additional four inches of width, enough to allow for three child safety seats to fit in the second row. The system works by unlatching, lifting, and sliding the side seats outward - leaving small gaps between the single middle seat and the outside seats on either side.

While it is a nice feature to have available, the downside is that it requires a moderate amount of physical effort and the vehicle needs to be parked to safely make the changes.

We also noticed that when sitting in either side seat in the second row, forward-facing vision was absolutely non-existent. For those who need to at least have a partial view of what is ahead in order to avoid motion sickness, this isn't the row for you - unless you are a child, in which case the middle seat is just what the doctor ordered.

For the adults forced to sit anywhere but the first row seating, Honda has counter-intuitively created a third row that is more comfortable and features better forward vision than the second row. Weird, huh? But it works. Not only is the vision sufficient, but so is the leg room - a substantial five inches longer than the next closest competitor.

Redefining "innovation"
In addition to the Odyssey's flexible seating which allows for seating arrangements ranging from two to eight passengers - which in two-seater configuration even allows for the transport of full-sized sheets of plywood or drywall - the Odyssey has a few more unique features worth discussing as well.

For one, Honda introduced an ultra-wide 16.2-inch LCD display for the rear passengers, capable of displaying two different sources side-by-side at the same time. The Odyssey is also the first minivan to offer HDMI connectivity for those looking to utilize the latest electronics, such as Blu-ray players or PS3 gaming consoles. Opt for the range-topping Touring Elite model, and enjoy 650 watts of power through 12 speakers in 5.1 channel surround sound. Won't The Wiggles sound great?

Among the good, there is also some bad. Honda created what they rather appropriately deemed a Cool Box - not a cold box - to the center console. The Cool Box is essentially a glove box designed to house drinks while utilizing chilled air from the vehicle's standard air conditioning system to cool the drinks. Despite the intentions of the feature, we found that even after an hour-plus drive, the drinks (up to six 12-ounce soda cans, or four 20-ounce plastic bottles) were only only moderately cooled. Honda says that this design is superior to other "cool boxes" on the market, but although interesting, this device falls short of delivering worthwhile results given the wasted space (and cold air).

Well, you can't have everything.

Leftlane's bottom line
Honda has lofty goals for its all-new fourth-generation Odyssey minivan as it aims to compete with fresh offerings across the industry - namely competition from a plethora of often cross-shopped crossovers. Yet, after our initial time in the Odyssey, we feel confident that this minivan will find a place at or very near the top of the segment due to its strong driver appeal and thoughtful interior - not to mention the automaker's rock-solid reputation backing it.

Words and photos by Mark Kleis.