Review: 2011 Honda Odyssey Touring Elite
By Chris Haak
When my wife and I decided almost four years ago that we had outgrown our midsize SUV and needed to get a bigger family hauler, I didn’t really know where to start looking. At the time, I was somewhat against the image of a minivan; having borrowed older ones from time to time, it seemed that I’d never been cut off by other motorists as often as on those occasions behind the wheel of an old Town & Country. To solve the problem, I embarked on a series of “family hauler” reviews, published on Full Metal Autos, where I laid out my thoughts on three of the four contenders.
Eventually, we settled on a minivan, and got a loaded 2008 Sienna Limited AWD. The van has been great for us (my wife absolutely loves it and would be willing to drive it until the wheels fell off of it), but I actually preferred the Odyssey because of its better interior quality and superior driving experience. However, only Toyota offered all wheel drive. We sometimes talk about the foolishness of buying a fully-loaded minivan, considering the rough life they lead (there is a small pile of sand on the front passenger floormat as I write this, and the second-row floormats under the kids’ seats are stained beyond recognition). I like the luxury and technology features, though, and heck – it’s almost paid off.
So now it’s four years later and Toyota, Nissan, and Honda all have brand new minivans for the 2011 model year. In addition, Chrysler has extensively revised its Town & Country and Grand Caravan for 2011 with new dashboards, some styling tweaks, and new engines. Though we’ve yet to sample the also-ran (in terms of sales) Nissan Quest, my family has put the other three contenders to the test over the past year. Overall, we remain convinced that there is NO better way to move small children and their things in comfort and silence than in a minivan.
Even though I just said that it probably didn’t make sense to buy a luxury minivan to use with small children, that’s exactly what Honda gave me for a week. The Odyssey lineup consists of LX, EX, EX-L, Touring, and Touring Elite. I got a Touring Elite, which allows Honda to put its best foot forward for review, but based on its high price ($44,335 including destination) and just my own observations over the years, there are far more Odyssey LXs on the road than EXs, or even Tourings. (The same goes for the ubiquity of Sienna LEs versus XLEs and Limiteds).
Go with an Odyssey LX (which starts at $28,885 including destination), and you get manual tri-zone climate control, dual sliding doors, rear privacy glass, cruise control, five speed automatic, 229-watt five-speaker stereo, cloth seats, and plenty of family-friendly features. The EX adds automatic tri-zone climate control, power sliding doors, alloy wheels, two more speakers in the stereo, and several other convenience items for $32,025 including destination. The EX-L model adds a power rear hatch, power moonroof, and leather seats for a total MSRP of $35,535.
Thirty six grand is still a decent chunk of change for a van, but what in the world could possibly bring the price of a van up to $44,335? For $1,600 on top of the EX-L, you can get a rear seat DVD entertainment system (not available with lower trim levels). Though this is obviously many times more expensive than a handheld (or even seatback mounted, strap-on DVD player), it’s also nicely integrated with the vehicle’s audio system. For $2,000 on top of the price of an EX-L, you can get Honda’s satellite navigation system (but no DVD entertainment system), for $37,535 out the door. The Odyssey Touring gives both navigation and entertainment, as well as Honda’s new six-speed automatic transaxle (a first for the Odyssey), memory seats, 110-volt power outlet, integrated sunshades (a really great, kid-friendly feature), acoustic windshield, and more that the EX-L doesn’t have, for $41,840 out the door. Then finally, we have the Touring Elite that we tested here. The Elite model adds HID headlamps, blind spot warning system, ultra-wide DVD entertainment system with HDMI input, and a 650-watt audio system with 12 speakers and surround sound. It also costs $2,595 more than a “regular” Touring for those few additional features.
Our friends at TrueDelta.com, a site containing pricing and reliability data on hundreds of vehicles new and used, show the price differential between a loaded Odyssey Touring Elite and Toyota Sienna Limited FWD to be just $381 at invoice price when normalizing equipment between the vans. According to TrueDelta, the Sienna gets the nod for the best value between the two, despite costing more than the Odyssey in terms of MSRP.
I’m not going to pretend that owning and driving a minivan is cool, or makes you cool, but if you are someone who needs a vehicle to determine your standing in life one way or another, you have other issues. Personally, I had a similar mental block against minivans just before the birth of our first child, but as you can guess, I got over that pretty quickly when baby number two was on his way. A minivan is, however, perhaps one of the most efficient and cost-effective ways to transport seven (and eight in a pinch) people and their possessions in comfort. Think about it this way; a $30,000 Odyssey’s seats are basically all reasonably comfortable, yet a $15,000 subcompact’s seats are less padded and have less space – and aside from theoretical capacity, there’s only really room in there for four, and only if the passengers aren’t overly tall and/or willing to sacrifice some of their own space for the good of the group.
Continuing the theme of maximum passenger space inside, the Odyssey not only is taller than a car, but it also sits fairly close to the ground. In fact, its step-in height at the sliding doors was several inches below that of my family’s 2008 AWD Sienna. Whether that is a function of the Odyssey’s design versus the Sienna’s, or of just the fact that our family Sienna is an all wheel drive model, I’m not sure, but the Odyssey seems to hug the ground more closely than its competitors. This makes it easier for little ones with short legs to climb into the van from parking lot height.
Inside, you’ll find numerous family-friendly features that show that Honda’s US-based Odyssey engineering team knows what parents – and children – are looking for in their family haulers. For instance, without exaggerating much, there are nearly twice as many drink holders as there are seats in the van [you’ll notice one in the door and three in the folded down armrest just in this photo of the second row]. Storage cubbies abound, and the fact that parents control insertion and playback of DVDs from the center stack makes much more sense than the all-in player/controls/screen combination found in older vans. (Toyota has moved to a similar setup in its 2011 Sienna as well.)
In an attempt to shed the stodgy reputation that minivans have with buyers (and perhaps the reason buyers have been leaving the segment for sexier, more rugged-looking (if less practical) crossover), Honda has infused the 2011 Odyssey with quite a bit more design flair than it had before. Gone are the conservatively handsome flanks of the 2010 model, and say hello to sharply-defined character lines in the doors, and obviously the controversial “lightning bolt” shape that defines the Odyssey’s beltline.
The van would still have plenty of visual interest without the jagged shape of the beltline, but it’s there, and the Odyssey is stuck with it for at least another half decade. Aside from the bolt, my only other gripe about the Odyssey’s exterior design is the prominent sliding door track. Toyota manages to do an excellent job of hiding the Sienna’s track at the bottom of the rear windows, but Honda almost features its track as a design element – albeit one that is incongruent with the rest of the van’s profile, aside from its alignment with the top edge of the wraparound taillamp.
I do like what Honda’s done with the front and back of the Odyssey. Its new narrower headlamps frame a more subdued version of Honda’s now-prevalent trapezoidal grille, and the Touring Elite model that we tested has HID headlamps that improve the van’s nighttime appearance a bit as well.
The Odyssey really shines inside. Aside from class-leading interior space (it tops the rival Sienna in both cargo volume and in several key passenger-space dimensions), the hard plastic used inside has a high-quality, solid feel, the seats are comfortable even for longer trips, and gauges are large and extremely easy to read. The Touring Elite model has extra buttons and knobs on its center stack to control audio, climate, and the entertainment system, but operation is reasonably intuitive.
Special mention goes to the so-called “Magic Seat” in the third row. Honda’s hyperbole aside, it really is quite easy to use. The Odyssey isn’t the only game in town as far as seats folding completely flat into a rear cargo well (Chrysler/Dodge and Toyota do as well), but aside from the power-folding third row available in the Town & Country Limited, the Honda’s one-pull mechanism is about as easy as it gets. Just pull the strap while kind of guiding the seat into the cargo well, and it’s stowed and gives you a flat load floor. The second row folds in a number of ways as well, however it will not fold completely flat into underfloor wells the way Chrysler’s comfort-compromised Stow-N-Go seats will. The second row seats also adjust fore-and-aft to allocate second- and third-row passenger space (and maximum cargo space, if necessary). The tradeoff for the fold-flat third row is that the cavernous cargo well is completely filled with a seat when the third row is stowed, so in my family’s experience, sometimes it’s easier to just keep the third row upright and put things on top of and beneath the third row seat so that the well is still usable.
Honda applied some minor tweaks to the Odyssey’s engine and transaxle for 2011, but the biggest news is the addition of an available six-speed automatic in the Touring models. The new transaxle is shared with several Acura models as well, and boasts a wide enough range of ratios so that off-the-line performance and highway fuel economy are both improved versus the five speed unit found in lesser Odysseys. Coupled with cylinder deactivation, the Odyssey Touring is rated at 19 MPG in the EPA city cycle and an impressive 28 MPG in the EPA highway cycle. These are outstanding numbers, and they’re also possible to achieve in the real world. During a day trip to New Jersey on pure highway miles, I saw over 30 MPG during the first 25 miles while we kept the speed at 65 MPH and below. Once on the faster expressway where we could go 75 MPH, the economy dropped into the mid-twenties. But 30 MPGs is quite impressive for a large, comfortable vehicle that eschews the complexity and cost of a hybrid drivetrain. I also found it fascinating that the Odyssey was able to cruise in three or four cylinder mode (as indicated by the “ECO” light in the instrument panel) much more often than a full size GM SUV is able to cruise in four cylinder mode. The latter seems to run on “V4” mode only when going downhill with no pressure on the accelerator.
You’ll never go racing in an Odyssey, and its suspension seemed to be tuned more for comfort and compliance than for handling and sport. However, the van did hold its own better than expected during a back road jaunt or two (all in the name of science, of course) with minimal body roll. When I drove a previous-generation Odyssey years ago, I remember thinking that it felt like I was driving a larger, heavier car; that sensation is very much intact with the new Odyssey. The steering is reasonably accurate (though does not benefit from a quick ratio). The brakes are somewhat on the small side, which is more or less fine for normal driving.
This isn’t a comparison test, but it’s difficult to discuss the Odyssey without mentioning its arch-rival. As was the case when I made the Odyssey vs. Sienna decision four years ago, you really can’t go wrong with either van. Both vans are comfortable, capable, reasonably efficient, spacious, and reliable. The Honda costs a little more (when normalizing equipment) and offers a better driving experience for the mom or dad behind the wheel. The Toyota offers slight better value for the money at top trim levels, more horsepower, and importantly (for some), optional all wheel drive. Then of course there’s the Chrysler Town & Country [review coming soon] that offers more power than either the Honda or Toyota and a very good on-road experience, a better value ($2,500 less at invoice per TrueDelta.com) but slightly less refinement and perceived quality. Happy test driving.
Honda provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.