With the sound of tires squealing and the aroma of freshly cooked rubber and brake linings hanging in the air, I quickly realize that no minivan should ever be driven this way. Ever.
Where's Honda's logic in setting up an impromptu parking-lot race track to drive the wheels off . . . a minivan?
At this very moment, the PR types supervising this most unusual of scenarios are likely wondering if flinging the new Odyssey through the cones course seemed like a good idea at the time. As it turns out, though, the point is that a minivan can actually drive like a European touring sedan and not just in a straight line on gridded city streets.
It's a good distinction from stereotypical minivans, especially when stereotypical minivans aren't really selling.
Minivan sales in North America peaked a few years ago before taking a bit of a dive. They have remained fairly stagnant of late, causing some automakers, notably General Motors and Ford, to abandon the category. Of those remaining, however, Toyota and Nissan appear to be taking radical styling departures in what has traditionally been a category of bread-and-butter toaster-shaped vehicles. So is Honda.
Both the new and old Odyssey are differentiated by an unusual hitch in the bodywork behind the sliding side doors. Honda calls it a "lightning bolt" effect that's supposed to increase third-row passenger visibility. That might be true, but from certain angles it's as if the rear third of the Odyssey's body is misaligned with the front two-thirds. Fortunately the sharp-looking grille, the neatly tapered rear roof pillar and the more pronounced front fenders help make the Odyssey's wider (by 3.5 centimetres) stance look planted and even aggressive.
The distance between the front and rear wheels remains unaltered from the 2010 model, but overall length has been modestly increased and the ride height is a bit lower.
Significant care and attention has been expended in upgrading Odyssey's interior. The floor console can be removed, the second-row high-back bucket seats (or available three-person bench) can be either folded or removed and the third-row seat can be collapsed into the load floor more easily to maximize cargo room.
The Odyssey's 3.5-litre V6 is mostly a carryover piece but, as a result of numerous small improvements, it has gained four more horsepower (now 248) and a touch more torque. The engine's standard variable cylinder management program seamlessly cuts out two or three of the cylinders (depending on load conditions) and helps contribute to significant fuel-economy gains. LX, EX Odysseys equipped with five-speed automatic transmission are now rated at 11.7 l/100 km in the city and 7.2 on the highway (previously 13.3 and 8.5). The Touring edition's six-speed automatic helps improve those numbers to 10.9/7.1.
Fuel-economy gains aside, the Odyssey drives flatter and truer than the outgoing version with much reduced body roll in the turns. Odyssey's engineers stayed with belt-driven hydraulic power steering and not electric, which the say generally tends to feel a bit numb and slow to react in some driving situations.
Base models that ring in at $31,600 carry all of the essentials plus a power driver's seat, keyless entry and cruise control. From that point, the sky is the limit, culminating with the $48,600 Touring with its self-leveling headlights, giant (in car terms, anyway) 16.2-inch (41-centimetre) rear-video screen and a 650-watt 12-speaker surround sound system.
No matter the Odyssey you pick, this minivan is bound to deliver the goods as well as a nearly unbeatable minivan driving experience that's definitely better than par for the (race) course.
What you should know
2011 Honda Odyssey
- Type: Four-door, front-wheel-drive minivan
- Engine (hp): 3.5-litre SOHC V6 (248)
- Transmission: Five-speed automatic; six-speed automatic (opt.)
- Market position: Thought to be dying, the once moribund minivan segment is suddenly heating up. The latest Odyssey appears to have arrived just at the right time to capture what is predicted to be an upcoming sales bump.
- Points: Styling on fourth-generation model a mix of mostly good, some iffy traits; Interior an ergonomic delight, save for non-flat-folding front passenger seat; Exceptionally smooth and quiet powertrain; Geez, this rig is big!; Amazing that a minivan can handle and ride this well; Competing minivan makers need to go to school on the Odyssey.
- Safety: Front airbags; side-impact airbags; side-curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes; traction control; stability control.
- Mileage: L/100 km (city/hwy) 10.9/7.1 (6AT)
- Base price (incl. destination): $31,600