This encounter feels a bit like LeBron James meeting the australopithecus called Lucy. Science tells us that Miami's "King James" is likely descended (as we all are) from Lucy and her 3.2-million-years-ago bipedal peers, but, good heavens, look how much bigger he is! The earliest known example of Honda's people-carrier dates to Minivandom's Pliocene era, circa 1995-1998, when the overarching design dictum was that it fit through the machinery that built the (then much smaller) Accord. Sure, it was smaller than most minivans of the day and offered only a 140-150-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder, but it was lithe, maneuverable, and highly flexible. (Today's de rigueur disappearing third-row seat originated in the Odyssey.)

The well-loved 1997 example pictured here has covered a quarter-million miles as my sister's mount for the past decade. Laura bought it used when the original owner's teenagers outgrew it. Around that same time, the Odyssey experienced a growth spurt of its own. It ditched its Accord underwear and grew 13.6 inches longer, 5.0 inches wider, and 800 pounds heavier to better accommodate the next generation of basketball hopefuls. Sales more than tripled.

Honda R&D has remained on the American Plan ever since, with the shell of each successive Odyssey expanding as if to form a set of Russian matryoshka nesting dolls, though the third and fourth generation skins fit way more snugly over their predecessors. This latest van adds just 0.8 inch in length and 2.1 inches in girth while dropping 0.4 inch in height and 50-100 pounds in weight (hallelujah!).

In pursuit of benchmark fuel-economy figures, the slippery new skin boasts a far more rakish windshield, reviving the first-gen's triangular peepholes ahead of the front doors. That angle is echoed at the rear by a similarly swooping window line at the D-pillar. Along with deleting the luggage rack (it's now a dealer accessory), the drag coefficient reportedly drops by 5.5 percent, with overall aerodynamics of the wider, lower van improving by 3.9 percent. That "lightning bolt" window line is meant to improve third-row visibility and make Odysseys easier to spot in the soccer-field parking lot. Why not tuck those unsightly sliding-door tracks up under that lowered window line? The structure behind those tracks would have eaten up a reported 4 inches of crucial rear-seat shoulder room, and let's face it: Minivans are more about inner space than outer face.

Interior innovations like the original Magic Seat are the holy grail of minivan design, and Honda's latest is "wide-mode" middle-row seating. All but the base Odyssey LX are eight-seaters, and to better accommodate three sets of adult shoulders (or three full-size child seats), the outboard seats can be repositioned 1.6 inches outboard. Wide-mode also accommodates two child seats while allowing an outboard seat to fold and slide forward for third-row access. As for mounting safety seats, tether hooks are provided for all rear seats, and all but the middle-center one get LATCH hooks as well. Disappearing the third-row seats is now accomplished by a sharp tug on a single strap, negating the need for motorization.

Other noteworthy interior upgrades include moving the spare from the left rear wall, where it intruded on third-row shoulder space, to a well beneath the left middle-row occupant's feet; moving the ceiling air ducting outboard to free up some headroom (the swoopy lowered roof still trims noggin space by about an inch in front and a half-inch in back); plus adding a drink cooler box (EX-L and above) and a removable console bin between the front seats (all but LX) with a flip-out ring that holds a typical plastic grocery sack as a litter bag.

Back in my day (and in my sister's Odyssey) kids looked out the damn windows! But in the range-topping Odyssey Touring Elite package they can gaze at a 16.2-inch screen playing one giant movie (complete with 650 watts of 5.1 surround sound) or two smaller ones side by side, sourced from the dash-mounted DVD player, a set of RCA input jacks, or (world-first alert!) a high-def HDMI jack. To help parents quantify their response to that timeless question, "Are we there yet?" navigation-equipped Odysseys come standard with lifetime live traffic updating, via digital FM-radio RDS sidebands.

Back to that benchmark fuel-economy claim: Cylinder deactivation now comes on all grades, along with lower internal friction, reduced accessory drive loading, and a new dual-stage intake manifold that broadens the torque curve and boosts power by 4 horses and torque by 5 pound-feet (bringing the totals to 248 horses and 250 pound-feet). In LX, EX, and EX-L models, drive flows through Honda's five-speed automatic, upgraded with a taller sixth gear. Tourings get the new six-speed two-shaft non-planetary automatic from the ZDX and MDX. Tire rolling resistance improves by 8 percent for both 17- and 18-inch (Touring) tires. EPA city/highway figures jump from 16-17/23-25 to 18-19/27-28, topping even Toyota's four-banger Sienna as the most miserly mainstream minivan. That's even better than sister Laura's 3500-pound, 140-horse Odyssey could manage. (At 18/24 mpg on today's scale, it also set the efficiency benchmark in its day.)

Performance and handling may rank pretty far down on the list of mommymobile priorities, but Honda strove to improve these areas, too. Acceleration feels considerably brisker with the six-speed, and stopping distances are improved by upsizing the rotors an inch all around. The aforementioned weight loss is attributable to a body structure now composed of 59-percent high-strength steel, which pays the added dividend of a 22-percent improvement in body rigidity. Of greater importance are the strengthened subframe mounts that allowed many of the suspension bushings to be softened for improved ride quality and lower noise. Finally, a new variable-displacement power-steering pump provides variable effort with much of the fuel-economy benefit of electric assist at a fraction of the price.

So how does it all work, and, more important, would I recommend this Honda to replace Sis's '97? It makes an indisputably spectacular vacationmobile. I feel completely comfortable in every seat, save the wider but slightly too-firm middle-row center. In the third row, I'd wish for more thigh support, but the added 1.1 inch of legroom and the more open shoulder environment are welcome. (I have to move the middle-seat forward to sit in the rear of the Sienna.) The ceiling air vents are too close to my face in the outboard seats (especially with the middle in wide-mode), so dried-out eyes are a concern. The way the seats flip, fold, and slide seems top-notch, though muscling the 49-pound middle seats out to carry drywall could be taxing. Commuting between rows on disciplinary missions now requires leaving parts home in the garage, but with all that entertainment onboard, maybe siblings will no longer rival. Honda doesn't offer the Sienna's Barcalounger footrests, and I prefer the interior ambiance of the top Toyota's wood and chrome to Odyssey Touring Elite's soft-touch tech plastics.

From behind the wheel, the news is mostly good. Steering feels overly weighty at low speeds, making the van seem heavier than it is, but at speed it's just right. Touring models accelerate as briskly as the rival Toyota on hand for comparison. (The five-speed Odysseys feel noticeably slower, but by no means lethargic.) The brakes apply with a reassuring firmness, and the van corners with less roll than the Sienna or the 2010 predecessor and with surprisingly little fuss from its eco-friendly tires. As befits a minivan, no manner of Finnish-flicking or high-school horsing around with VSA off would provoke anything approaching a drift. She's a resolute understeerer. Its single greatest flaw: Neither transmission allows you to select gears manually. A button allows you to request D4 in the six-speed (D3 in the five-speed), and both have an L position that will suddenly and unexpectedly grab the next lowest gear with a lurch when the speed falls within range. Honda, as we've reportedly told Ford: This is unacceptable.

So could I recommend the Odyssey to my sister? Absolutely. Will she buy it? Nope. It's way bigger than her nuclear family needs; they're look-out-the-window people; the anticipated $28,000-$42,000 price is too rich. Besides, there's still tons of life left in their beloved '97. Of course, if someone totals it in three years...

The Little Van That Could
The only new car my sister has ever owned (a '95 Neon) was totaled in a rain-induced Southern California chain-reaction wreck in 2000. Her second call was to me. "What should I buy?" she asked. I prescribed the Honda Odyssey/Isuzu Oasis for its then-unique blend of tidy packaging (my nephews were ages 2 and 4), versatile people/cargo hauling, economy, and astonishing reliability. "Shoot for one with less than 100,000 miles," I suggested.

In 1996, New York's Taxi and Limousine Commission expanded the list of vehicles approved for taxi duty to include the Odyssey (on the recommendation of the commissioner's 7-year-old grandson). I predicted that the mean streets and ornery taxi drivers would make quick work of these lightweight, independently suspended vanlets, but they proved immensely popular and astonishingly sturdy.

Laura's van has held up similarly, needing only one set of struts, new axles (CV joints), some oil leak repairs, and general maintenance. Wind and road noise are high by today's standards, but few if any rattles or squeaks can be heard over the din. The little four struggles on hills with five aboard, especially with the air-conditioning on, and the four-speed automatic shifts abruptly. But among today's three-row people-carriers, about the only thing that steers and brakes as nimbly as this is the Mazda5 (which measures 6.1 inches shorter, 1.6 inch narrower, and 0.4 inch lower, offering far less leg and shoulder room in the rear seats).

The 4x8 sheet goods have to ride on a big angle and hang way out the back (a fatal flaw that helped keep annual sales in the low 20,000s). Middle-row seats fold and slide forward to access the third row, or dump and fold up against the front seats with hydraulic assist for hauling cargo, but they don't come out. Twist one knob to fold the third-row seatback, twist another to release and fold it into the floor. Elegantly light and simple.

This probably ranks as my most successful car recommendation ever. The new one's a pretty safe bet, too.


2011 Honda Odyssey
Base price $28,000-$42,000 (est) REAL NUMBERS TK 9/8/10
Vehicle layout Front-engine, FWD, 7-8-pass, 4-door van
Engine 3.5L/248-hp/250-lb-ft SOHC 24-valve V-6
Transmissions 5- or 6-speed automatic
Curb weight 4350-4550 lb (mfr)
Wheelbase 118.1 in
Length x width x height 202.9 x 79.2 x 68.4 in
0-62 mph 7.8-8.2 sec (MT est)
EPA city/hwy fuel econ 18-19 / 27-28 mpg
CO2 emissions 0.87-0.92 lb/mile
On sale in U.S. September, 2010
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