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2012 Honda Odyssey Test Drive

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First Impressions

Honda is the company that took down the first, and long reigning, champion of minivans. Debate the origin of the genus all you like; it was Chrysler Corporation that popularized the concept of a small, fuel-efficient, seven-passenger people mover, not Volkswagen. And for more than 15 years, the Chrysler Town & Country, Dodge Grand Caravan, and Plymouth Voyager ruled the class, smacking down competitors one by one with innovative design, roomy cargo spaces, and comfortable interiors. Then, in 1999, the first crack appeared in Chrysler’s armor.

That’s when Honda’s second crack at building a minivan arrived. The first Odyssey (1995-1998) did not have sliding side doors, and it did not have a V6 engine, and it wasn’t large enough for American buyers. So Honda did what it does best: it studied the target market, it studied the competitors, it added its own simple recipe for quality and reliability, and it hit a home run with the second-generation Odyssey (1999-2004). By the time the third-generation minivan (2005-2010) ceased production, the Honda Odyssey was clearly the favorite in the suburbs, while vans from Chrysler were being punted into rental fleets rather than sent to languish on showroom floors.

There’ve been some hiccups along the way. Examine the dependability record and its clear that transmissions have caused some problems, and there’ve been a few recalls along the way, making the Odyssey one of the more trouble-prone Hondas in recent years. But compare the Honda’s health chart history next to one from Chrysler, Ford, or General Motors, and suddenly the Odyssey looks bulletproof.

For 2012, the Odyssey (view photos) is redesigned for the fourth time since the model first arrived in the mid-1990s. Controversial new styling cues are wrapped around a familiar interior, and Honda has improved the Odyssey in almost every way. Loyal owners will love it, and Honda’s risk-taking with the styling might just bring new customers to the fold. We figured we’d better give the new Odyssey a try.

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About Our Test Car

Honda loaned us a top-of-the-line Odyssey Touring Elite wearing a window sticker with a $44,030 bottom line. During our week with the van, relatives visited from out of town, and with my family and our visitors aboard, each of the eight seating locations contained cheeks. The Odyssey spent a week schlepping our brood to Disneyland, to the beach, to the mountains, and around town.

It performed brilliantly. But more on that in a bit.

You don’t need to drop 44 grand on a minivan unless you want all the bells and whistles. In fact, given how most minivans are treated, we’d guess a base Odyssey LX ($28,580) is the perfect utility vehicle for today’s American family. It offers seating for seven, power windows and mirrors, remote keyless entry and power door locks, cruise control, an 8-way power driver’s seat, and a five-speaker stereo with a CD player and an auxiliary audio input jack. Dark tinted glass, floor mats, a tilt and telescopic steering wheel, and lit visor vanity mirrors are also included. The gray plastic wheel covers don’t look like they came from the automotive section at Kmart, the automatic-off headlights mean you don’t need to worry about a dead battery, and the miles-to-empty indicator gives you no excuse for running low on fuel.

If that’s not enough for you, or you want eight-passenger seating, the Odyssey EX ($31,730) is the next model on the list. It dresses the exterior with alloy wheels, includes power sliding side doors, and adds numerous upgrades such as triple-zone automatic climate control with a humidity sensor and air filter, a Homelink programmable remote control, an upgraded Library 2-gig hard disk drive audio system with improved speakers, and integrated sunshades for the second row of seats. Heated side mirrors, a security system, automatic-on headlights, a compass, and an outside temperature indicator are also part of the Odyssey EX trim level, along with added storage areas, power outlets, and cupholders.

If it’s a luxury minivan you seek, try the Odyssey EX-L ($35,230). It adds leather interior trim, heated front seats, a 4-way power front passenger’s seat, a power moonroof, a power tailgate, and an auto-dimming rearview mirror. Bluetooth hands-free communication is standard, along with XM satellite radio, a USB interface, and an air-conditioned Cool Box storage bin for keeping snacks or drinks cool. The EX-L is also available with a navigation system that includes a reversing camera and a 15GB hard disk drive audio system, and a rear seat entertainment system.

The Touring model ($41,535) receives a new six-speed automatic transmission, 18-inch alloy wheels, fog lights, integrated turn signal indicators in the side mirrors, front and rear parking sensors, an acoustic windshield, and unique tailgate trim. Inside, the navigation system, reversing camera, 15-gig hard disk audio system, and DVD entertainment system are standard, along with two-position memory for the seats and side mirrors, sunshades for the third-row seat, a corner and backup sensor distance indicator, and other upgrades.

And then there’s the Touring Elite ($44,030), the rock star of Odysseys. It is equipped with everything Honda can throw its way, including high-intensity discharge headlights, an exclusive Ultrawide rear entertainment system with HDMI technology, a blind-spot information system, and a premium 5.1 surround sound audio system with 12 speakers and 650 watts of power. It is, if you will, the Acura of minivans.

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 Safety Reliability and Value

Given that the 2012 Honda Odyssey (view photos) is equipped with the company’s Advanced Compatibility Engineering (ACE) body structure; dual front, front side, and three-row side curtain rollover airbags; traction and stability control; and four-wheel-disc antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist, you might wonder why we’re a bit disappointed in Honda for the way it parcels out safety features. Let us explain.

In a country in which 9 out 10 citizens carries a cell phone, individual states are increasingly outlawing the use of a hand-held device while driving, and young drivers are putting themselves at risk trying to talk with friends while driving, Bluetooth hands-free communication is critical for safety. The Odyssey, likely to be purchased by families that probably have a teen driver in the household, includes Bluetooth only in the EX-L, Touring, and Touring Elite models. It should be standard, Honda. A reversing camera is also reserved only for buyers willing to pay the tariff for the EX-L, Touring, and Touring Elite. Parking sensors are offered only on the most expensive Touring and Touring Elite, and a blind spot information system can be had only on the Touring Elite.

Perhaps product planners need to create a Safety Package that bundles this stuff up and offers it to people choosing the more popular LX and EX trims.

In any case, the Odyssey is proving itself incredibly crashworthy in government and industry crash tests. The National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) introduced far more stringent testing procedures for 2012, and the Odyssey aced every one of them:

5 Stars for the driver in a frontal impact

5 Stars for the front passenger in a frontal impact

5 Stars for the driver in a side impact

5 Stars for a second-row passenger in a side impact

5 Stars for in the side pole impact test

4 Stars for rollover resistance

And, while the Odyssey is not listed as a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) because the IIHS has not conducted a roof crush strength test on the van yet, it get the highest rating of Good in the offset frontal, side impact, a rear crashworthiness evaluations.

Clearly, the Odyssey is a safe vehicle, though we do think LX and EX buyers deserve to be even safer. What about reliability? Consumer Reports does not offer predictions for newly redesigned models, but historically the Odyssey has turned in average or better performance except for the 2007 model year. J.D. Power and Associates predicts that the new 2011 Odyssey’s reliability will prove to be better than most other vehicles.

Value is where the Honda is a bit challenged. Warranty coverage is pretty basic, and does not include free scheduled maintenance like the Toyota Sienna or free roadside assistance like many competitors. Perhaps as a result, both Consumer Reports and Automotive Lease Guide think the Odyssey will turn in an average performance in terms of its ability to hold its value over time.

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