With all the talk of fuel economy these days, you might be fooled into thinking that 25 mpg on the EPA's highway test is impressive for a mid-size car. I don't think it is. 25 mpg is, however, an impressive result for a 4700-lb vehicle that can carry eight passengers in quiet comfort. When it comes to hauling people and stuff, the minivan was a better alternative twenty years ago, it was a better alternative to all of those big, ungainly SUVs people insisted on driving, and it's still a better alternative today.
Among those minivans, the Honda Odyssey remains king. And if you think you're too cool to drive a minivan, go ahead and try to sell your ill-handling, 12-mpg SUV now. You won't look so cool crying on the dealership floor when the salesperson tells you it's worth 10% of what you paid for it - or worse, that he won't even consider taking it in on trade.
What makes the Odyssey so good?
Well, for starters, it drives more like a luxury sedan than a big van. It's quiet and rides as smoothly as a limo. After driving an SUV, you simply won't believe how much road feel the Odyssey has on-center. Because it's front-wheel drive, the van does suffer from a bit of torque steer, but less than the Pilot SUV that's based on the same chassis.
The smooth V-6
The Odyssey won't outaccelerate a sports car, but its 3.5-liter V-6 generates 244 horsepower and never any vibrations. Journalists endlessly praise Nissan's VQ-series V-6, but every time I get into a Honda, I'm reminded that it is, in fact, Honda that makes the world's best V-6 engines.
The top-of-the-line Limited and second-to-the-top EX-L models can run on either three or four cylinders in addition to all six. In three-cylinder mode, the V-6 runs on one bank of cylinders; in four-cylinder, it runs in an offset V-4 mode. Those modes create strange vibrations and sounds, so Honda uses active engine mounts and active noise cancellation (via a subwoofer in the passenger compartment) to eliminate them. The change boosts fuel economy from 16/23 mpg city/highway to 17/25 mpg, and both engines run on regular-grade gasoline. The base engine makes 240 lb-ft of torque; the Variable Cylinder Management engine makes 5 lb-ft more, thanks in part to a slightly higher compression ratio.
The price to pay
The Touring model's $41,075 base price surprised me at first - that's a lot of money for a vehicle whose interior will invariably be littered with kids' toys, gum, and puppy hair. The Touring, however, comes fully loaded with every conceivable modern amenity - including a navigation system, back-up camera, Bluetooth connectivity, heated front seats, leather, a DVD rear entertainment system, stability control, and three power doors (dual side sliders and a power rear hatch). That last door, which was previously available only on the Touring model, is now available on the EX-L model for 2009. The EX-L also comes well-equipped, and is priced at a much more palatable $33,725. Budget-conscious shoppers can find brand-new Odysseys for as little as $26,925.
And while that entry-level model seats only seven, it still offers the biggest benefits of a minivan - the carlike driving experience and cargo versatility. My Limited test car was able to transport all of the boxes from a friend's recent move to the recycling center - in one load. And when we were done, the leather seats flipped right back up, and the Odyssey turned back into a luxury cruiser that's great to drive. And so I'll keep asking: what about minivans makes them not cool? I just don't get it.