Reviews

2011 Honda Odyssey Driving Impressions


The Odyssey is frequently listed among the best in vans or given the benchmark label, and while vans are primarily about function the road manners also play a part. We find the Odyssey the most refined of its kind.

Although it is bigger, the 2011 Odyssey is also a bit lighter than its predecessor and has a very minor increase in power from the 3.5-liter V6 with active cylinder management that runs on 3, 4 or 6 cylinders as needed. It's competitive in any school day grand prix, smooth and quite efficient.

Performance is close to the strongest 4-liter offered in Chrysler (and VW Routan) vans but gas mileage from the Honda is better, even though the Chryslers have a 6-speed automatic and most Odysseys are 5-speeds. Toyota's Sienna offers a four-cylinder version that gets the same EPA Combined rating as Odyssey's V6; the Sienna V6 rates 18/24 mpg versus the Odyssey's 18/27 mpg. The Sienna V6 has a power advantage on the Odyssey and feels livelier but isn't as refined or economical.

Odyssey Touring models come with a 6-speed automatic transmission to match other vans. With four gears to get going rather than three in the LX through EX-L models, the heaviest Touring models (more than 200 pounds more than an LX) accelerate the best, don't require as many downshifts on varying conditions and roads, and bump the EPA City rating to 19 mpg (same as the four-cylinder Sienna); the Highway rating is also up one to 28 mpg, but credit also goes to the Touring aerodynamic upgrades.

No Odyssey offers a sport mode for the transmission and we found one is rarely needed or desired. A compact shifter is adjacent the driver's right hand but it limits driver control of the transmission. If you press the button on the side it drops down two gears from top gear, where on long grades (up or down) you may want only one gear down. If you select L it downshifts gears as it slows on its programmed schedule; you don't always know when that will happen. This sometimes brings an unwelcome shove forward, puts more weight on the front wheels in the middle of a corner, or may make the front tires slide a bit on slippery descents like snowy driveways.

Steering feel is light on center and weights up nicely with cornering effort. It's direct without being too quick to respond, gives the driver a feel for what the front tires are doing, and executes a U-turn in a commendable 36.7 feet. Brakes have equally good feel and transmit no jerkiness to passengers, and seem more than adequate; a couple of downhill charges in 100-degree weather didn't faze them at all. That said, we'd want to have brakes on any trailer more than 750 pounds, less if the van is fully loaded.

Van drivers rarely consider them sporty but there is a reason driving schools use minivans rather than SUVs for teaching laps on racetracks: more of the weight is closer to the ground in a van than in an SUV, and that makes the vans inherently more stable. Most vans handle better than anyone expects, and the Odyssey is no exception.

No van is tuned for sports-car handling but that didn't stop us from trying sports car roads and parking-lot autocross courses where the Odyssey handles like a heavy, front-wheel drive sedan: stable, predictable, secure and all those other adjectives new parents love. The electronic stability system is very well tuned and not invasive; on the one occasion we managed to reach the limit it gently and quietly put things back on the ideal course.

Odyssey rides much like a big car too, soaking up bumps admirably whether we had two occupants or six adults spread across three rows. In back-to-back drives, the Sienna felt like it was stiffer but had a lot more rubber in suspension attachment points, leaving the driver feeling a bit less connected and the passengers moving about a bit more. It's not a substantial difference, but if there's a more refined van than the Odyssey Touring we don't know about it.

The Odyssey does not offer all-wheel drive like some minivans but we consider that a non-issue in any but mountainous areas with lots of snow. We'd rather spend a percentage of the price premium on a set of dedicated winter tires.

Vibration and noise play a big part in refinement, and fatigue for occupants, so all Odysseys come with active noise cancellation and active engine mounts to minimize both. The Odyssey Touring uses a laminated windshield to quell noise, so we found it interesting that with the radio off at interstate speeds front seat passengers heard wind noise from the area around the wiper blades. In the middle row any noise comes from the leading edge of the sliding door, and in the third row it comes from the rear tires. We found it is easy to carry on a conversation at normal levels and any radio, video, or chatter will drown out the wind or road noise.

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