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Minivans: New 2011 Honda Odyssey Test Drive

Can a minivan rock? Honda seems to think so, and has recruited Judas Priest to hawk the 2011 Odyssey. While the metal band plays, strobe lights flash, and young "rock'n'roll dads" are apparently supposed to conclude that the Odyssey is cool. I'm not sure how that will work out. But I can report after a test drive that the new Odyssey should continue to top the charts for Dads and Moms who care about power, handling and gas mileage in their minivans.

In highway driving, Honda's 248-horsepower V-6 gives you plenty of surge to pass for a lane change or merge exiting an off-ramp. But mileage-boosting technology upgrades give the new Odyssey a 10 percent gain over the 2010 version. On winding back roads, Odyssey suspension is tuned to handle the curves as though it were a much smaller vehicle.
But if the Odyssey is playing your song, you're going to pay for the privilege. Honda has set prices above its major competitor, the also-new and well-received Toyota Sienna. (See New Cars 2011: What to Watch for in Minivans). The 2011 base LX model starts at $27, 800 (vs. $24,460 for the starter Sienna) all the way up to $43,250 for the Touring Elite model -- a price moving into luxury vehicle territory, and well above the top price $39,970 for a Sienna.
Here's more detail on the 2011 Odyssey outside, inside and under the hood.
Styling Honda says its new styling improves aerodynamics and gives a distinctive, sporty look with a zig-zag "lightning bolt" beltline that runs under the windows. It is definitely distinctive (by minivan standards) and does improve third-row visibility, but the belt line above the rear wheel looks pasted on from some angles.
Performance and mileage The 2011 version of the V-6 engine has bumped up torque-the immediate power you get when you put down the gas-by 5 percent. That helps give you the satisfying takeoff from a dead stop or a boost passing on the highway. And when it comes to passing up gas stations, the so-called variable cylinder management that lets the Odyssey run on only three or four of it six cylinders boosts the mileage. That, plus the improved aerodynamic and other technological tweaks, gives the Odyssey minivan-best 19 mpg city, 28 highway expected ratings when paired with the six-speed automatic transmission on the Touring ($40,755) and Touring Elite ($43,250) versions. The five-speed automatic on the LX ($27,800) and EX (starting at $30,950) versions produces a slightly lower 18 mpg city, 27 highway rating.

Ride and Comfort The Odyssey suspension, tuned to power through curves without body roll, produces a comfortable but not ultra-smooth highway ride. Despite new sound-dampening materials in the 2011 version, highway speeds produced some wind noise.
Seating and storage The seating for eight in all models above the base LX (which seats seven) comes in three rows. In the rear two rows, the back of the middle seat -- suitable for a child -- folds down when empty to provide a tray and cup holders between the two adult seats. (The Odyssey has 15 total cup and bottle holders and a cool box storage bin for drinks). The third row -- once you make it back there -- has sufficient leg room for adults and extra shoulder room compared with older models. If you need more space for hauling luggage or other stuff, the third row seats fold flat easily. For extra space on those trips to Home Depot, you can take out the second-row seats as well.
Entertainment The Odyssey incorporates a hard drive to store up to 18 CDs. For the kids, a rear entertainment system will play DVDs on a screen in the second row. The top-level Touring Elite comes with an extra-wide screen that can show two different things at once-say a movie and a video game.

Safety Safety tends to be a major issue for minivan buyers, and the Odyssey has electronic stability and traction control to help prevent rollovers, and side curtain airbags to help protect occupants in side-impact crashes. Odyssey has not yet been crash-tested, but Honda believes it will retain its top five-star rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

After a trip along the parkways and winding back roads of Westchester County north of New York city, the Odyssey holds on to its title as the best-driving minivan for this reviewer. It should be on the short list for minivan shoppers. For value-seeking buyers, the Toyota Sienna probably offers better value in the low-end models. For those with a taste for luxe minivans, though, you can definitely find what you want in the Odyssey if you are braced for the $40,000-plus price tag.

Photos courtesy of Honda

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