Monday, May 16, 2011

Globe and Mail: The gold standard for minivans, from the inside out

Globe and Mail Update

First, a few words about the flip-up trash ring. It is ingenious and yet so simple: a small ring attached to the centre stack, it pops into a hoop perfect for fitting a typical plastic grocery bag.

You’ll find it in the 2011 Honda Odyssey minivan. Minivans, of course, are for family road trips where trash collects like dust balls under your sofa. In the Odyssey, it collects in the hanging trash bag, rather than all over everywhere. Why didn’t some other auto maker think of this?
Honda did, and it also thought about loading up the Odyssey’s cabin with cubbies for organizing all the junk minivan users collect. Over there you’ll find little slots, over here useful crannies and big drop-down holders litter the insides.

As you might expect, we’re going to focus this discussion about the new Odyssey from the inside out. Yes, the Odyssey delivers a fantastic ride, passes every safety crash test with flying colours, provides an excellent resale value, has a smooth engine with lots of power and even is relatively fuel-efficient.

But none of that matters if the minivan fundamentals are lacking. By that I mean, a minivan is first and foremost a kind of garage/family room/kitchen on wheels. A great minivan is durable and reliable – expect to find those qualities in the Odyssey – while also practical and useful for active families who need a kind of Swiss Army knife of a ride.

So even though I find the exterior design of the 2011 Odyssey bizarre in the extreme, I love everything else about it. The exterior styling is weird, for sure, but the Odyssey still is the gold standard of minivans. And with the pricing starting at $29,990, it is not obscenely out of reach for most families – unless you want the $46,990 Touring version.

But I digress.

Let’s put the spotlight on the seats. Fantastic. The fronts are thickly and firmly padded and if you can’t find a comfortable position you either have oddball dimensions or you haven’t tried hard enough. After hours and hours on the road you should arrive relaxed, with no complaints from your legs and back.

The passengers in back should have no complaints, either. The second and third rows are nearly as comfortable as the fronts. They provide lots of leg room for adults or kids.

Speaking of kids, if you have an infant in a baby seat, the second row allows you to pull the centre section forward to within easy reach. Moms and dads can tend to little ones without unbuckling. How clever is that?

At the very back, the fold-flat third row opens up cargo space for luggage or other stuff. Yes, you can fold up the second row if you need a panel truck for hauling home stuff from the building supply store.

Alas, all is not perfect. For such a clever company, Honda has trouble creating simple navigation systems. The Odyssey’s is overly complicated, in fact. Why, for instance, are points of interest listed by distance, instead of placing an icon on the map?

And another thing: why is the 110-volt outlet in the third row? Who at Honda thinks it’s a good idea to stretch power cords across the minivan if someone further forward wants to plug in a computer? Moreover, if you have a grounded plug, bring your adapter; the outlet is a two-pronged design.

I’d like to say that driving the Odyssey makes up for the missing ground plug and the not entirely simple navi. So I will. Minivans do not get any better than this. The ride is quiet and comfortable and the 248-horsepower V-6 has lots of muscle.

Not to be overlooked is Honda’s variable cylinder management system. It saves fuel by turning off two or three cylinders when they are not needed. I defy you to identify when these transitions are occurring. Honda’s engineers are so, so clever.

The top-of-the-line Touring model, with the six-speed automatic transmission (versus five-speed in lesser versions) is rated at 10.9 litres/100 km in the city, 7.1 highway, using regular gas. Not bad, given it weighs a portly 2,070 km.

It really is a shame that such a well-packaged, powerful, handy-to-drive van looks like this. Who exactly came up with this lightning bolt beltline? And exactly why did Honda drop the third-row window? Frankly, this minivan looks like it was styled by engineers rather than artists.

The good news is that the Odyssey is wide and lower and long and thus it is roomy and comfortable. This minivan is so good in so many thoroughly practical ways, it’s easy to overlook the grafted-on look of the side doors and that lightning bolt thing.

If you want a minivan that is durable, reliable, safe and as entertaining to drive as a minivan can be, if you want a van with the best acceleration in its class and shortest stopping distance, then that’s the Odyssey.

And did I mention the flip-up trash thing? Brilliant.

Tech specs
2011 Honda Odyssey Touring
Type: Minivan
Price: $46,990 ($1,590 freight)
Engine: 3.5-litre V-6
Horsepower/torque: 248 hp/250 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Drive: Front-wheel
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 10.9 city/7.1 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Nissan Quest, Toyota Sienna, Dodge Grand Caravan, Chrysler Town & Country, Mazda5, Kia Sedona, Volkswagen Routan


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