These days, the minivan seems to be rising from our dread. Automakers are marketing the vehicle to reluctant parents who want the practicality of a van and the pizzazz of an SUV. To that end, we have quirky ad campaigns, new vans on the way (Ford, Nissan) and the redesign of the industry's standard-bearers such as Honda's Odyssey.
Appearance: The most striking feature of the updated exterior is the van's profile, where the window line ends with a dip that Honda says gives the Odyssey's side view a "lightning bolt" appearance. (Lyra thinks it looks "choppy and disjointed.") There's not a lot you can do to bring sexy back to a minivan, but Honda has tried with a lower, more aerodynamic profile, 18-inch aluminum wheels and a rear spoiler with integrated brake light.
Performance: To us, the Odyssey felt heavier — a little less nimble — than its main competition, Toyota's Sienna. Still, the steering is precise, and the 3.5-liter, 248-horsepower i-VTEC V-6 has Variable Cylinder Management, which shuts down cylinders depending on output needs and helps the Odyssey get a more-than-respectable 19 mpg in the city and 28 on the highway. The six-speed automatic shifts smoothly. We also liked the safety features in our optioned-out Touring Elite model, such as the blind-spot warning and multiview rear camera. It also has parking sensors, which we found to be useful in a large vehicle, especially when it's full of passengers or kids.
Interior: If the performance is less than swaggering, then the interior lets the Odyssey shine. Our tester was loaded with electronic gadgetry: Bluetooth, navigation with voice recognition, 16.2-inch DVD rear entertainment system screen which can show two separate programs (listen with wireless or plug-in headsets), USB and a "song by voice" system that lets you make requests. Moms and dads, there's a cool box at the bottom of the front console that holds six 12-ounce cans or four 20-ounce bottles. (There are 15 drink holders.) The seats, as we've come to expect in Hondas, are plush and comfortable, even the third row. The outside second-row seats have a wide mode where they can push out 1.5 inches for more space. The second-row center seat back folds down for drink holders, and the third-row seats fold down into the floor with the pull of a strap. With those seats folded, and with the second row removed, you can fit a 4- by 8-foot sheet of plywood into the rear. But taking advantage of this versatility brings up our major complaint with the interior: We both found that removing the heavy second-row seats can be a backbreaker.
Our 3 favorites
Cool box: Other automakers have introduced it; Honda runs with it.
Gadgetry: Honda has responded ably to the competition, so much so that the dash can be a bit confusing. (Where is that child safety door-lock release?)
Design: The "lightning bolt" may be a lightning rod for critics, but I like it.
MPG: The 19/28 is outstanding for a V-6 and a vehicle of this size.
Seats: The multiple configurations offer flexibility. Plus, they're comfortable.
Power doors: It's easy in, easy out. No more struggling with a lift gate.
The bottom line: With Nissan set to release its new minivan, the competition will only get more intense. We liked the redesigned Odyssey, with a few exceptions, for the reasons we buy minivans: comfort and family-friendly features.