Canadians are expected to buy about 1.6 million vehicles in 2010; more than half of those will be trucks, which by Transport Canada's definition includes not only pickups but SUVs, crossovers and minivans.
The minivan segment has fallen from 175,000 units five years ago to an expected 75,000 this year as buyers switched to SUVs and crossovers. Why then, did Honda develop a new minivan for 2011? Because it makes good business sense and Honda owners want them.
Minivans remain the most practical vehicle design on the market and Honda figures the decline in sales has levelled off. Some major players - GM, Ford, and Hyundai - have abandoned the segment, leaving a handful to battle it out. With the pie remaining the same size and fewer people taking a cut, there is an opportunity for bigger slices.
Toyota thinks inside the box
Chrysler/Dodge continue to dominate the segment, but the vast majority of those sales are at the "bargain" end of the market and to fleets. Honda sees Toyota as the main competition for sizable families of means who tend to shop at the high end of the market - 70 per cent of Odyssey buyers opt for the two highest trim levels. Many who had moved to luxury and near-luxury SUVs and crossovers are growing tired of the size, operating costs and negative environmental image.
Honda says Gen-X parents who grew up in minivans are the prime target for the new Odyssey. It says research shows they are more involved with their children, and spend more time parenting than their boomer predecessors. Honda says some will automatically consider a minivan; some will avoid them at all costs and some have yet to decide.
Those who look at the new Odyssey will find a relatively stylish big box with an amazing level of refinement in all areas. The suspension, brakes and steering are more car- than truck-like and Honda says the new Odyssey has best-in-class fuel economy, braking and acceleration. They were so sure of this they provided new Siennas for comparison.
Driven back-to-back over the same short route, the Odyssey did indeed appear to have the edge in driving dynamics, steering and brakes. However, we drove the top-end Touring version of the Honda and not the Sport version of the Toyota. A more comprehensive comparison will come in late October during the Canadian Car of The Year competition when members of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada test new 2011 models.
There is no question the Odyssey has been upgraded - significantly - with emphasis on "green, safe and fun."
It is 53 mm wider, 20 mm longer and 11 mm lower than the outgoing version, resulting in a more planted stance. The styling is unique in that the beltline dips sharply at the C-pillar in what is referred to as a lightning bolt. Inside, this provides third-row occupants with a larger piece of glass and better view.
The new Odyssey comfortably seats six big adults. Getting in and out of the rearmost seat is comparatively easy - a breeze compared to any SUV/CUV on the market. Back there, you'll find lots of head, knee and legroom.
As befits the whole concept of minivans, second- and third-row occupants are well looked after. Since built-in entertainment systems are popular in this category, Honda partnered with Sony for the system used on upper trim levels. It includes the control unit on the front centre stack, a big eight-inch screen for the front seats and a giant 16.2-inch, fold- down screen in the rear that can be split into two separate screens allowing one passenger to watch a movie while the other plays a game, each using wireless headphones. Available systems include up to 60 gigs of hard drive storage, a 650-watt, 12-speaker system and 115-volt outlet for the toys.
The middle section of the second-row seat is 10 cm wider and can be folded to make an armrest, removed or pulled forward almost 14 cm closer to mom. There are five child-seat LATCH positions, including three side by side in the middle row.
The members of the development team have young families and between them have owned 43 minivans. That experience shows in everything from a flip-down trash-bag holder and built-in beverage cooler to separate drink-holders and game or audio inputs at each location.
If carrying large items is on your to-do list, the split third-row seats fold into a deep well at the tug of a handle. The 22-kilogram, second-row seats don't fold into the floor like some competitors, but can be removed. Full 4x8 plywood sheets or 10-foot-long studs can then fit with the hatch closed.
The engine is the same 3.5-litre six used previously, tweaked for four additional horses and five lb-ft of torque with emphasis on mid-range performance. It can run on three, four or six cylinders depending on demand. The transition in and out of the various modes is all but impossible to notice. Combined with a 47-kg lighter vehicle, the result is a one-litre per 100-km reduction in fuel consumption. The base and mid-level trim levels come with the same five-speed automatic used previously while the Touring model gets a new six-speed unit.
The body is stiffer, slices through the air more efficiently and once again is designed around Honda's ACE (Advanced Compatibility Engineering) system, which ensures less damage to smaller vehicles in a collision. Honda expects the highest possible ratings when crash testing is conducted - five stars from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Administration and a Top Pick designation from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. It has also designed the hood and wipers to absorb more energy should a pedestrian be struck.
The 2011 Odyssey will go on sale Oct. 22. Pricing has not been determined, but Honda Canada says it plans to price it below the outgoing model.
2011 Honda Odyssey
Type: Five-door, eight-seat minivan
Engine: 3.5-litre, SOHC, V-6 with variable cylinder management
Horsepower/torque: 248 hp/250 lb-ft
Transmission: Five- or six-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/ 100 km):
- 10.9 city/7.1 highway (Touring model)
- 11.7 city/7.2 highway (LX-EX models);
- regular gas
Alternatives: Chrysler Town & Country/Dodge Grand Caravan, Kia Sedona, Toyota Sienna
Nice drive, shame about the look