In the supermarket of automobiles, minivans occupy the fruit and vegetable section. Their vehicular nutrition comes from gobs of practicality, with healthy doses of economics and safety mixed in.
But just because they're good for you doesn't make them cool. Trust me, I was the kid with baby carrots at snack time.
Honda's 2011 Odyssey aims to change that. All the usual nutrients that ease parents' minds are there. But Honda has dialed up the cool factor, hoping to draw those parents who know just as much about PlayStations as they do play dates.
The biggest change comes in the van's aesthetics. Most minivans on the road today, and indeed the previous Odyssey, have the upright posture of a high and tight haircut. Honda finessed this shape a bit by shearing off some of the previous model's height and the roof rails. It now rides lower, wider and longer.
This sleek profile is complemented by a crisp, modern treatment at the front and rear of the Odyssey. Premium trims, such as the $44,030 Touring Elite model I tested, get bits of chrome in the grill, door handles and window moldings.
This tasteful presentation falters only on the sides of the Odyssey, where the level of the windows drops suddenly two-thirds of the way down the van's sides. Honda says this "lightning bolt" design gives third-row passengers more outward visibility.
The automaker also contends it enables drivers to more easily differentiate their Odyssey from other minivans in the parking lot. (If you want to find your car in the parking lot, do what I do and just set off the alarm.) All intentions aside, the design makes the Odyssey look as if the caboose of one van has been grafted to the front two-thirds of another.
The Odyssey's interior also features some questionable aesthetics. The layout of this Honda's center console, where you find controls for the ventilation and stereo, has all the charm and refinement of a common houseplant. On all trim lines, flat grey plastic dominates everything and the sleek sense of style that highlights the exterior is lost inside.
Higher-end models see additional controls for the navigation system and DVD player thrown into the mix. This causes what little intuitiveness the basic setup had to disappear in a maze of buttons and dials.
Yet this is the only flaw in an otherwise excellent cabin that is thoughtfully laid out and assembled well. Doors, seats and knobs all have a solid heft to them that indicate they will withstand years of torture from your pint-size charges.
Given that the battle for seating configurations has turned into a veritable arms race among minivan producers, it should come as no surprise that the Odyssey's interior is as malleable as your car pool's seating chart requires.
An abundance of legroom and headroom means that any of the eight seats in the house is a comfortable one. This includes the middle seat in the second row, generally considered the last place you'd want to sit in a minivan. (The base Odyssey LX seats seven by omitting this chair.)
The second-row seats — chairs really — can each slide 5.5 inches fore and aft, and new for this Odyssey is the ability to move the two outboard seats in the second row 1.5 inches from side to side. This gives the middle passenger greater hip room and makes cross-row noogies harder.
The seats in the second row are also removable. Although this is handy, my back and my garage are waiting for all automakers to give in and just license the Stow 'n Go system seen in Chrysler/Dodge minivans. Flipping and folding a seat into the floor is vastly better than dragging it out of the vehicle.
Third-row seats split 60/40 and each folds flat into the Odyssey's trunk with the pull of a single strap.
Creature comforts vary depending on trim line. The base Odyssey LX starts at $28,580 (including destination charge) and features a great stereo, captain's chairs in the second row and front and rear air conditioning.
The $31,730 EX adds items including power sliding doors, tri-zone climate control and alloy wheels. Step up to the $35,230 EX-L and you get things such as leather seats, a moon roof and a power tailgate.
Options such as a navigation system and rear-seat entertainment system are available on the EX-L, which Honda says is its most popular trim line. If you want both features, you have to move up to the $41,535 Touring or $44,030 Touring Elite model.
All Odysseys are powered by the same 3.5-liter V-6 that puts out 248 horsepower at 250 pound-feet of torque to the front wheels. (No all-wheel-drive model is offered.) This power is routed through a five-speed automatic transmission on the LX and EX lines, while the Touring models get a six-speed automatic.
One noteworthy element to the design of this engine is that it can run using three, four or all six cylinders to save on fuel. Because the Odyssey has this feature, Honda says, it doesn't need to make a six-speed automatic standard on all trim lines, as most of its competitors do.
Gas mileage with the six-speed on the Touring Elite I tested is rated at 19 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg on the highway. In my 300 miles of testing, I averaged 19 mpg. (Remember, this is a 4,500 pound vehicle.) The five-speed transmissions are rated at 18/27 city/highway.
Those 300 miles revealed that the Odyssey was a capable handler that lived up to its sporty visage. Its lithe demeanor dancing around tight turns was a welcome surprise, aided no doubt by the firm suspension. The van always held its composure regardless of speed in any driving condition.
Aiding drivers' confidence is a well-rounded list of safety features. Standard on all Odysseys are front air bags, front side air bags, and side curtain air bags, ABS and traction control. The Odyssey also garnered a five-star safety rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
So there's a lot to like in this automotive health snack.
Similar to how you will probably never successfully sneak a Brussels sprout into your kids' mouths undetected, so too will you never mistake a minivan for anything other than a minivan. But if you're like Honda, you'll find some tricks up your sleeve to disguise it just enough to make it eminently palatable.
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