When Honda introduced its second-generation Odyssey minivan in 1999, it raised the bar for car makers. Here was a roomy, nimble, practical - and fast! - people-carrier that was actually fun to drive.
It could easily match many so-called sports sedans in terms of performance, and was in a class all its own when it came to highway driving.
When I drove this iteration of the Odyssey 10 years ago, I was pleasantly shocked with both its handling and power. This was a quick automobile and, at the time, could leave all its rivals in the dust, both on the highway and away from the stoplights. It's still one of my favourite long-distance vehicles.
After 1999, if you manufactured minivans and wanted to stay in the game, it was back to the drawing boards, and a whole new generation of similarly conceived vehicles - Kia Sedona, Hyundai Entourage - soon found their way into showrooms. You could even make the argument that the Odyssey sounded the death knell for domestically built minivans, as General Motors and Ford completely dropped out of this segment of the car market within a few years, and Chrysler is just hanging on by the skin of its teeth.
So successful has the Odyssey been that Honda hasn't really changed it much in the intervening years. Yes, it's more powerful than before, and carries a host of up-to-date convenience features and engineering goodies, but its basic dimensions are about the same and, from a distance, it even looks similar. Why mess with success?
These days, it comes in four trim levels and 2010 is a carryover year for the Odyssey (a new-generation 2011 model is scheduled to arrive this fall).
All 2010 models are powered by a powerful and silky smooth 3.5-litre V-6 that develops 244 horsepower. Transmission is a five-speed automatic only, with Honda's Grade Logic Control system. In a nutshell, this arrangement automatically finds the best gear combination based on driving conditions and engine speed, and Honda has been using it on various models for at least the past decade. It's most apparent during downhill deceleration, when it will subtly drop the gearbox down from fifth into fourth to aid in braking. A nice feature.
Honda has also tweaked this V-6 engine to within a millimetre of its life. As well as adding some 34 horsepower over the years, it now has Honda's Advanced Variable Cylinder management system, which shuts off up to half of the cylinders during certain conditions. A little "eco" light on the dash lets you know when this system is in play and it improves the Odyssey's fuel economy - from 8.5 L/100 km on the highway to 7.8 L/100 km, and from 13.3 in town to 12.3 in town. Unfortunately, it's only available on those models with leather interior (EX-L and Touring). This system is also found on the Pilot and in some Acura products.
The Odyssey will also seat up to eight people, but the small second-row centre jump seat seems to be an afterthought and is of minimal use. Still, the second-row seats are all fairly straightforward to remove and re-install, and tilt and slide for easy access to the back.
The rear windows also open, which is nice, and the recessed floor in the back luggage area will accommodate the third-row seats, which fold into the floor. With everything folded away or removed, there's a huge amount of room back there - some 4,173 litres in total and there's also an under-floor storage area behind the front seats. In short, if you can't fit everything into this rig, perhaps you should be thinking about a cube-van.
That said, the Odyssey may have the worst NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) of all the minivans on the market. Rivals, such as the Hyundai Entourage and Kia Sedona, for example, are flat-out quieter vehicles to drive. This is a pervasive problem with many Honda products and is something the company should be looking at.
I also think the Touring version is too expensive, and just has too much stuff. As well as the usual modcons - tri-zone climate control, leather interior, power-adjustable pedals, power rear lift-gate, heated front seats, rear DVD player, navigation system, etc. - the power sliding side doors can be controlled by dash-mounted buttons, interior switches or the key fob, and they are finicky and slow.
Not only do they take their own sweet time opening and closing, I've had problems with them simply not functioning properly in other testers in the past. The base DX version does not have power side doors, and were I in the market for this vehicle, that's something I'd keep in mind. Sometimes in the car business, more is less.
But the Odyssey is such a strong vehicle, with such good road manners and high drivability, its various little foibles can be overlooked. It has some serious rivals these days, but this is still the benchmark in the family transport market and proves that minivans can be practical and fun to drive at the same time.
Click here to view detailed specs for the 2010 Honda Odyssey
Click here for photos, detailed specs and options available for the 2010 Honda Odyssey
2010 HONDA ODYSSEY TOURING
Type: Full-size minivan
Base Price: $49,690; as tested: $49,690
Engine: 3.5-litre V-6
Horsepower/Torque: 244 hp/245 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed automatic
Fuel Economy (litres/100 km): 12.3 city/7.8 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Kia Sedona, Hyundai Entourage, Volkswagen Routan, Toyota Sienna, Dodge Grand Caravan, Nissan Quest
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