Cars for the rest of us.

Review: 2011 Honda Odyssey Touring Elite

Jan 7, 11 • by Craig Fitzgerald • New Cars5 CommentsRead More »

I was going to take my own picture, but they all look like this

I’ll put this right up front: I don’t get the modern minivan.

A little minivan history: when Chrysler first introduced the Dodge Caravan and its badge-engineered cousin, the Plymouth Voyager back in 1984, I got them just fine. I didn’t like them anymore than I like minivans now, but I understood the purpose they served.

You see, this was at the period in time that CAFE regulations essentially legislated the full-size station wagon out of business. Corporate Average Fuel Economy meant that a gas-guzzler like a Buick Electra Wagon was a massive drag on the rest of the cars in Buick’s stable, meaning you’d have to sell 25 of those god-awful Skyhawks for every Electra you sold. Plus, the Electra wagon was mighty expensive in its day. I had a 1986 Electra Wagon and when I ran the numbers based on the build sticker I found under the rear seat, it would’ve cost north of $18,000 in 1986 dollars to buy one.

Problem was, American families didn’t get smaller just because their cars did. A couple of six foot teenagers in the back of your Citation had you crying out for something that offered the size of your old Vista Cruiser, especially if your kids had more than their wallet with them for luggage.

The Chrysler minivan changed that. They were based on the Aries K platform, with the small, fuel-efficient four cylinders those cars were powered with. They featured unit body construction, meaning they were light (around 3,500 pounds). The Aries was sold in wagon form, but the original minivans offered tons more room than the wagons did, and met the needs of a lot of growing families.

Fast forward 25 years and the current minivan has taken up exactly were the 1985 Buick Electra Wagon left off. They’re ginormous, heavy, ponderous, expensive and have a fairly ravenous appetite for fuel (don’t let the EPA estimates fool you.) For all that, you get a vehicle that is pretty much worthless if it happens to snow where you live, making the full-size SUV a not-so-unappealing alternative.

I spent two weeks in the Odyssey around the holidays. Here’s what it did well:

  • It swallowed two kids, all their Christmas presents, including a gigantic riding dump truck and a train table, their mother, father and grandmother.
  • The “magic seat” configuration that allows for five LATCH positions is a welcome addition.
  • The kids loved the flat panel display and the remote control, which they commandeered for the entire two weeks.

Here’s what wasn’t so great:

  • I never saw 20 miles per gallon over two weeks.
  • In the 16 inches of snow we had, it was rendered completely immobile. The traction control system engages on a snow-covered (plowed, mind you) hill and will halt your forward progress.
  • It weighs 4,541 pounds. I have a 1968 Buick that weighs only 30 pounds more.
  • It costs $44,030.

Now, here’s my argument: for $190 more, I could buy a four-wheel drive Chevy Tahoe 1LT, as long as I stayed away from the option list.  The 1LT comes with leather seats, and a whole lot of nice features, with the exception of the movie theater my kids liked so much. With $500, I could buy them an iPad.

I could carry as many people. I could get within six miles per gallon of the Odyssey’s fuel economy estimate. And when it snowed, I’d laugh at the weather. I could tow twice as much, and if I really wanted to, I could affix a snowplow to the front end.

I’m not singling Honda out, by the way. The Sienna is priced just as high, and weighs just as much and drinks as much fuel, and when the Nissan Quest launches it will be more of the same. It’s gotten to the ridiculous point that Ford is making headway launching the C-Max, a “compact MPV” that is almost exactly the same size and scale as the original Chrysler minivans.

When environmentalists and other of life’s finger-waggers cast aspersions on the full-size SUV, remember this review. The minivan isn’t doing anybody any favors.

5 Responses to Review: 2011 Honda Odyssey Touring Elite

  1. michaelb1 says:

    It seems like you dont like the Odyssey but you go on to say you could pay more for a Chevy Tahoe that seats fewer, gets worse mileage, and has fewer features but has four wheel drive.
    Also, getting “within 6 mpg” of an Odyssey is not that great an achievement. That’s about 25% better efficiency for the Odyssey

    • yankeedriver says:

      Would I pay $190 more? Absolutely.

      The features the odyssey offers don’t add up to functionality. I’d be especially concerned about making a payment on a vehicle that I’d have to park on days when it snowed.

      Regarding fuel economy: I’d certainly take the hit to be able to get home when I needed to.

  2. Beagle says:

    Ironically, the engineer that generated the minivan for Chrysler, defected from Ford and had suggested it there, where it was summarily shot down.

    It might be argued – successfully I think – that the minivan was as important – if not more so – than the K-Car series to save/keep Chrysler alive.