Honda Odyssey sets standard in upper-echelon minivan market

I don’t know why minivans have fallen off the radar screen so quickly with the buying public.

  • Feb. 17, 2011 12:00 p.m.

Honda has raised the minivan bar once again with the fourth-generation 2011 Odyssey (Touring model shown). It is North American engineered

I don’t know why minivans have fallen off the radar screen so quickly with the buying public.

Perhaps it’s their boxy shape and the fact that many people are now willing to sacrifice a bit practicality to get a better handling, more stylish vehicle like the current crossovers on the market.

Nevertheless, the venerable old minivan still remains the favoured mode of transportation for many families who want a vehicle with lots of space inside to haul up to eight people, plus some cargo to boot.

Many manufacturers have exited the minivan market altogether, leaving Honda, Toyota, Nissan and Chrysler to battle it out for the lion’s share of the business, which has shrunk to about half the levels of a few years ago. This year, minivan sales are expected to be in the range of 70,000 units in Canada.

Honda has set its sights on taking a bigger share of the minivan pie with the introduction of the fourth generation of its popular Odyssey for 2011. There are no radical changes this time around; the goal was to refine rather than re-define the Odyssey and Honda seems to have achieved that goal.

Honda Canada executive vice-president Jerry Chenkin said the company feels there is still a market for minivans, even though other manufacturers have abandoned the segment altogether.

“We felt it was very important to satisfy the Honda customer that really appreciates the Odyssey,” said Chenkin, at the launch of the new Odyssey last fall.

For 2011, the Odyssey has a new look inside and out.

As with any minivan, the Odyssey still basically resembles a box on wheels, but Honda has added an interesting “lightning-bolt” chrome styling element along the beltline to make it stand out from the competition, which includes the re-styled 2011 Toyota Sienna and the Dodge Grand Caravan/Chrysler Town & Country.

The major minivan market for Honda is North America and for that reason, the 2011 Odyssey was designed and engineered here and is being built in the United. This fourth-generation model has 50 new standard or available features, part of the refinement of the model that we mentioned earlier to enhance both comfort and convenience.

My tester was a top-of-the-line Touring model, priced at $46,900. The base LX starts at $29,990, $1,700 below the starting price for the comparable model last year, but with a significant upgrade in content. The Touring is $2,700 less than last year’s price.

The Odyssey has always been at the upper end of the minivan price scale, a market that Honda says is still a sizable one. Its goal was to make the new Odyssey “the ultimate in family transportation” aimed at Generation X and Generation Y couples that are now having children of their own.

They grew up themselves in minivans and the hope is that these style-conscious families will look at the Odyssey from an “emotional” purchase decision as much as a “practical” one.

I used the Odyssey for a trip north of the city to cottage country for a mid-winter old-timers hockey tournament. With two buddies on board along with four hockey bags and luggage for the weekend, it was easy to see why so many families couldn’t do without their minivan.

The power rear tailgate and power side doors made easy access to the cavernous storage space in back. Lugging the four heavy hockey bags in and out of a vehicle is not always easy, but it is with the Odyssey, a fact not lost on families who have children (or are themselves) involved in sporting activities.

Even with several passengers on board, power from the 3.5-litre 24-valve SOHC V6 engine is more than adequate. This is the only engine choice and it generates 248 hp (up four hp) and 250 lb/ft of torque (up five lb/ft).

My tester had the six-speed automatic transmission, while a five-speed is standard on all trim levels except the Touring.

With a weight reduction of 43 kg (103 lb) over the previous model, Honda says the Odyssey will accelerate from 0 to 100 km/h in 8.8 seconds, which is pretty decent for a minivan. That means there is plenty of power for passing or merging into high-speed traffic.

At the same time there is a one litre per 100/km drop in fuel consumption. This is achieved in part by Variable Cylinder Management (VCM), which helps conserve fuel as it works on the principle that the vehicle only requires a fraction of its available power at cruising speeds, so it runs on three, four or six cylinders depending upon power required.

All models get 17-inch wheels, except the Touring which is equipped with 18-inchers. Overall body rigidity has been improved by 22 per cent, according to Honda, resulting in a quieter cabin. With the audio system off, the well-insulated cabin is quiet, with little wind or road noise intruding.

The Odyssey shines on the safety front, recently earning a Five Star Safety Rating in the U.S.

More high-strength steel has been used in the Odyssey than ever before, while standard safety features include electronic stability control, anti-lock brakes with electronic brake force distribution, three-row side curtain airbags with rollover sensor, driver and front passenger side airbags, dual stage front airbags and active front head restraints.

This Odyssey is wider and longer than the previous one, meaning that there is more interior space than ever before. And that is where most of the advances have been made on this new model.

There are three rows of seating and a seemingly endless combination of passenger and cargo combinations. The LX seats seven passengers, all others will accommodate eight.

The second row, for example on the EX and above trim, has what Honda calls a Wide-Mode as the two outside seats can adjust sideways 38 mm (1.5 in) each.

The primary benefit of that is the ability to install up to three child seats side by side.

The centre seat in the second row is also considerably wider (99 mm or 3.9 inches) and it also moves forward to allow for a child seat closer to mom and dad up front.

In total, the Odyssey can handle up to five child seats, depending on the trim level.

When only two passengers are in the second row, a fold-down armrest provides three beverage holders and a tray.

If needed, all second row seats can be removed totally to produce a flat floor that might be needed if you’re carrying a 4×8 sheet of plywood or drywall that yes, does fit! No need to borrow a pick up to bring that building material home from the lumber store.

Legroom in the third row Magic Seat is 28 mm (1.1 in) more roomy this time around, making it more adult friendly. I sat back there to test it out myself and I’m close to 6-foot and had no problem with legroom. This is again where a minivan has a huge leg up (excuse the pun) on three row SUVs where third-row legroom is suitable for children only.

The Odyssey has a 60/40 split folding third-row seats that can be easily pulled down into the floor with the tug of strap— no need even to take off the headrests.

Convenience features abound, including a total of 15 beverage holders (10 in the LX model) and a Cool Box beverage cooler at the base of the centre stack (on EX trim levels and above). The cooler will hold up to four bottles of water and keep them chilled.

For those long road trips with the family, there is a 412 mm (16.2-inch) ultra-wide video screen for the on-board entertainment system, standard in the Touring edition. It is possible to watch two different sources at the same time on the screen.

The top-line model also features leather seats (heated in front) and a multi-view rear back-up camera that is handy in tight parking spots.

However, in poor weather conditions, the picture quality can become very fuzzy when the lens gets fogged or smeared with slush.

The 650-watt AM/FM/CD audio system is also top shelf, featuring 12 speakers and surround sound. Other features on the Touring edition include auto-leveling headlights, third row integrated sunshades and ambient foot well lighting.

Whether you want a basic minivan or a more luxurious one, the Odyssey has something for everyone.

So while minivan sales may be declining, they certainly aren’t dead yet, and the 2011 Odyssey is a great example of why the minivan still makes such great sense for many families.

At a glance

BODY STYLE: five door, seven or eight-seat minivan.

DRIVE METHOD: front engine, front wheel drive.

ENGINE: 3.5-litre SOHC V6 (248 hp, 250 lb/ft of torque) with five- or six-speed automatic transmission.

FUEL ECONOMY: six-speed automatic (Touring model) 7.1L/100 km highway, 10.9L/100 km city. Five-speed automatic (LX, EX models) 7.2L/100 km highway, 11.7L/100 km city.

PRICE: $29,990 to $46,990.

WEB SITE: www.honda.ca

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