The automotive business is as much about fashion as it is transportation. People care about what they re seen in and would rather show up wearing Calvin Klein than Kmart.

Style, design and fashion aren t the first words that come to mind when discussing family vans. Why certain vehicles develop stigmas is harder to explain than haute couture, but they do and attempts to make them sexy often fall flat (see the previous generation Nissan Quest). Fashion in a van does not always mean forward.

Nevertheless, Honda believes the new 2011 Odyssey will appeal to buyers who may not necessarily want a van, but in reality need one. They ve given it a bold design this time around and in my week with a Touring Elite model, reactions to it are very polarizing. Calvin Klein once said about his craft I get either very excited about something or very depressed . That could be applied toward Odyssey.

The Lightning Bolt

In profile, the beltline of the window jogs down about two thirds of the way towards the rear. Honda calls this styling cue the lightning bolt and it serves a couple purposes. First, by dropping the glass down in the back it gives people in the third row better visibility. Secondly, it helps Odyssey pass what Honda calls the 100 meter test . In other words, it appears completely different from any other minivan from 100 meters away. Mission accomplished.

Why not make the glass larger on the sliding doors and straiten out the kink? Besides failing the 100 meter test, Honda says the beltline had to move upward through the sliding door to accommodate door mechanics. In the same form-follows-function fashion, the door track is clearly visible on the rear flank. Hiding it along the window like Chrysler and Toyota would be difficult considering the window angle. Besides, its placement helps Honda to carve out a roomy third row. Think of the approach as more J Crew than Channel. To my eye Odyssey looks best in dark paint, which emphasizes the chrome outline of the windows and deemphasizes the wide door track.

Friends, neighbors, coworkers and complete strangers either love the distinctive lines or don t, it s pretty much black or white. I heard descriptions like cool, weird, sharp, spaceship, gem-like, prism, hearse, and it looks like the back end is falling off . In the end, the only opinion that matters to you is yours.

The Price of Fashion

Odyssey starts at $28,580 with destination. The Touring Elite parked in my driveway goes for $44,030. Touring models obviously have more content, they also get a laminated acoustical windshield and a six-speed transmission versus five-speed gear boxes in the rest of the line up. The six-speed offers up better drivability and fuel economy. Always fashionable.

The 3.5-liter 248 horsepower V6 engine that develops 250 lb-ft of torque at 4,800 RPMs is shared across the line up. With VCM (or Variable Cylinder Management), it can cruise along using only half of its cylinders to save gas. The EPA rates Touring Odysseys at 19 city, 28 highway, best in class.

The kids won t be late for play dates because of performance. This van has decent acceleration off the line, 0-60 happens in 8.7 seconds according to my gear. With Touring s acoustical windshield, Odyssey feels quieter now with less road noise coming from the tires this time around. While we re on the performance subject know that Quest s V6 puts out 260 horsepower, Sienna s delivers 266 and the Chrysler twins get XXX.

Odyssey has always been known for it s driving dynamics and that has not changed much for 2011. Keep in mind it s not a sports car, it s a van but this and Toyota s Sienna SE are as much fun in the curves as you can get from a family hauler. Ride quality is a good mix of firm and compliant, which makes navigating a large vehicle on urban streets and parking garages more pleasant.

Odyssey s structure uses 59 percent high strength steel and the sub frame attachment is 59 percent more rigid than the outgoing model. For those thinking that could translate into additional safety, Odyssey is the first vehicle to score five stars for the third row in the government crash test. All that and Odyssey is an average of 75 pounds lighter than the 2010 version.

You Were Expecting Versace?

I ve dwelled on exterior design more than usual since Honda is taking chances with it but vans are more about the inside and how they accommodate passengers and cargo Odyssey does its job well here. Not as edgy as the exterior, the cabin is more the expected sober Honda design. Eight standard people (not just runway models) will be comfortable in this space. Small triangular windows up front help visibility.

The expected power sliding doors and tailgate are here. There are so many storage cubbies you ll loose things. Of course there are loads of cupholders, the deep front console swallows a purse, and a chilled bin helps to keep drinks cold. The bulk of the dashboard is made from hard plastic though a piece right above the glovebox is soft to the touch.

The usual Honda electronics are installed. Odyssey plays well with phones and iPods though there s nothing like Ford s SYNC system or MyFord Touch to be found here. A 15 gig hard drive (2 gigs in lesser models) holds thousands of songs and the high-end sound system in the Touring Elite rocks. Among the features that pop up on the eight-inch display is a calendar that s handy for busy families so the worse you ll be is fashionably late.

Programming the navigation system is done with a knob that gets turned, pushed and nudged, it s not a touch screen. There s voice command too, but for some reason it doesn t respond to my commands very well. The same screen displays the three-mode rear view camera (normal, wide-angle and straight down to assist parallel parking).

Odyssey has small hardware bits that are welcome. A purse (or man bag) holder flips out from the instrument panel, a conversation mirror lets you keep an eye on the kids and a flip up ring on the back of the front console turns a plastic grocery bag into a trash receptacle. Getting the children to use it is another matter.

Row Number Two

There are three seating positions and a parent can slide each one of them fore and aft to bring infants closer or create more legroom. They recline too but don t fold into the floor. All three are removable but heavy. The two outboard seats can slide away from each other an inch and a half to keep quarrelling kids as separated as possible. Odyssey has built in sunshades that retract into the side. Separate climate zone controls for this space are just above the sliding door.

A wide-screen DVD entertainment system similar to Toyota Sienna s can display two videos side-by-side, that should help distract the rugrats. You ll need an additional video source to do that. AV inputs including an HDMI slot are located in the third row area. The 115v household outlet will power Wii systems, Honda says it doesn t quite have the amperage to handle a power hungry Playstation 3.

Row Number Three

There s a decent amount of space in the third row. Three average sized guys like myself will be perfectly comfortable here. The seats recline and even have a folding armrest.

Honda calls this split rear bench the Magic Seat and flipping it backward so the seatback becomes the cushion turns it into a great place to watch junior s soccer games on a rainy day. Folding it into the floor is a simple one-tug operation. The resulting space is cavernous. Take the mid row out and there s room enough for 4x8 sheets of plywood. The front console is easily removable for transporting long 2 x 4s for the kid s tree fort you promised to build.

With the third row useful, Odyssey can swallow more cargo than most family sedans, eight packs of Kirkland brand bath tissue to be exact. Here s where it gets impressive folks, drop the last row into the floor and it will easily swallow 26 bundles of the two-ply. That makes Odyssey the cargo new champ, I ve never tested a vehicle that can hold more than 23. I can now die happy.

Elite Should Mean ELITE

My main gripe with Odyssey is that it lacks features found on competitors. The most surprising omission is a keyless system that is becoming very popular with parents that often have their hands full. Keep the transponder key in pocket or purse, a touch of the door handle unlocks it and opens it. Standard on most Nissan Quest and Chrysler vans it s simply not available from Honda, even on the Elite.

There s no radar assisted cruise control, multi-panel roof glass, heated steering wheel or ventilated seats either. At least there s a blind spot warning system. Most of this isn t applicable to those looking for more basic rigs but Honda seems to be leaving the high-end van market to Chrysler, Nissan, and Toyota.

Finally, I m certainly not trying to change the way people describe these vehicles but these days it s tough calling this class MINIvan. The only one that deserves the label these days is the Mazda5. Call it the Kerstie Allen effect. Odyssey and it s competitors are all large, a far cry from the original compact Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager.

Van Wars

Who would have thought the van segment would heat up again? It s a tough choice these days since the powerful Grand Caravan and Town and Country have been significantly updated, Sienna was redesigned for 2010 and Nissan has finally gone mainstream with Quest (sort of). All of them have their own unique seating setup, it s worth checking them out to see what works for your particular needs.

Is the Odyssey worth a test drive? Absolutely. It s roomy, comfortable, dynamic and fuel efficient. Like the others, its distinctive lightning bolt sheetmetal will be a plus for some, a deterrent to others. Family vans are tools. They may not be as fashionable as a crossover but take it from a guy who drives a different vehicle every week, they are unbeatable when it comes to utility. For families who are active, Odyssey has the adventuresome design to match.

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